Access and excellence, locally and globally

In an era of disinvestment in the US’ public universities, the greatest of their number has improved its reputation through creativity, entrepreneurialism and innovation, says Robert Birgeneau

March 7, 2013

On the scale of some of the world’s great universities (such as Oxford and Cambridge) that date back to the Middle Ages, the University of California, Berkeley, chartered in 1868, is a relative newcomer. The flagship of the 10-campus University of California system, UC Berkeley has maintained its position as one of the world’s pre-eminent universities for decades. It is one of the few public universities in the US that ranks alongside the nation’s elite private institutions such as Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Created by the state of California as a public land-grant university, it serves the educational needs of local people while maintaining a global reputation.

In recent years, public disinvestment and escalating costs have threatened US public higher education. State support for the UC system has been drastically reduced, exacerbating the natural tension that exists between Berkeley’s domestic and global missions. To preserve its public character and remain a model of “access and excellence” for public higher education, it has been forced to be creative, entrepreneurial and innovative.

Berkeley’s academic excellence derives in good part from its system of “shared governance”. There is a strong partnership between the senior administration and the faculty leadership, with outstanding researchers and teachers involving themselves in the governance of the university. The academic administrators, from the deans to the provost and chancellor, are all themselves highly accomplished scholars and teachers. Berkeley’s hallmark is “comprehensive excellence” - and in spite of extreme state cuts, the campus leadership has not compromised its commitment to broad- based quality. It did not succumb to the temptation to eliminate entire disciplines, choosing instead to capitalise on the opportunities provided by Berkeley’s academic breadth and depth to address today’s especially challenging problems, such as discovering new energy resources, abating global poverty, mitigating life-threatening diseases and building fair and inclusive societies that support human solidarity and happiness.

In the past several years Berkeley has established the Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society, the Blum Center for Developing Economies, the Energy Biosciences Institute, the Li Ka Shing Center for Biomedical and Health Sciences, the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society, and, most recently, the Simons Institute for the Theory of Computing. All are broad interdisciplinary efforts with international reach, supported by public-private partnerships including collaborations with industry, foundations and philanthropic individuals. Berkeley’s ongoing close relationship with the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory has also facilitated impactful synergies: the campus and the lab are partnering to create the structures necessary to compete on a global basis in energy and climate research, bioscience and health technologies, plus materials science and manufacturing.

Berkeley has maintained its world-class faculty (three Nobel prizes in the past seven years) and continues to attract the best graduate students nationally (it is first choice for National Science Foundation graduate research fellowship holders and a top producer of Ford Foundation and Fulbright fellowships) and internationally (more than 20 per cent of its graduate student body hails from outside the US).

To offer competitive faculty salaries and graduate student support, Berkeley has focused on raising endowments and has developed a unique financial model to support staff and postgraduates. As part of a $3 billion (£1.9 billion) fundraising campaign announced in 2007 (due to be completed this year), Berkeley secured a $110 million matching grant from the Walter and Flora Hewlett Foundation and thereby raised in total $220 million to establish 100 endowed chairs, with the chair income going to support faculty salaries and research and graduate students. Berkeley’s roughly 100 graduate programmes are among the best in the world, and the institution remains the US’ leading producer of PhDs.

The university’s commitment to comprehensive excellence extends to its intercollegiate athletics programme. In the London 2012 Olympics, Berkeley student-athletes, past and present, won the same number of gold medals as France and Germany (11).

Normalised to the size of its 1,500 tenured and tenure-track faculty, Berkeley’s staff-to-postgraduate ratio (it has 10,000 graduate students) approximates that seen at the elite private universities with which it competes. However, at the undergraduate level, as a public university Berkeley differs significantly from its private competitors in the composition and size of its student body. It educates more than 25,000 undergraduates, the vast majority from California, who are admitted on the basis of merit in a highly competitive review process.

Until a few years ago, a tiny number, some 3 per cent of undergraduates, were international students and 5 per cent were from out of state. In the past several years, these numbers have been deliberately increased: next year, non-Californians (out-of-state and international students) will make up close to 20 per cent of the undergraduate student body at the university.

Berkeley has been very successful in providing financial aid to California students from low-income homes, with more than 35 per cent of its intake hailing from families with annual earnings under $45,000.

This academic year, the institution implemented a financial aid programme for middle-class families: it is the first US public university to guarantee a significant level of grant-based financial aid for students from qualifying families with incomes of up to $140,000.

On the international front, the MasterCard Foundation is funding an exciting initiative that provides scholarships and other support to large numbers of talented but financially disadvantaged students from sub- Saharan Africa at Berkeley and a number of other universities in the US and abroad.

Berkeley has been able to sustain access and excellence with a financial model that is quite complicated, relying on income from a variety of sources supported by improved business practices. Major failure in any of these components would cause serious difficulties, so the university is fortunate to have exceptionally strong financial management committed to supporting access and excellence.

Another bright note was the agreement by voters in the recent election to increase California state taxes to support public education.

Berkeley will undergo a change in leadership this year. In a rapidly evolving environment in which internationalisation and technologically assisted pedagogy will reshape higher education, the institution’s new chancellor will have a strong foundation on which to define for the campus the strategies by which Berkeley can continue to sustain and enhance its comprehensive excellence and global leadership in the 21st century.

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