Legacy of a witty populist

December 12, 2003

Alan Ryan remembers the prime mover behind the transformation of the US higher education landscape.

Clark Kerr, who died on December 1 aged 92, was the most important figure in the history of public higher education. He was also its wittiest bureaucrat. His reaction to the news that he had been fired from the presidency of the University of California by incoming governor Ronald Reagan was typical: "I left the presidency just as I had entered it - fired with enthusiasm."

He was born in Pennsylvania, got his undergraduate degree from Swarthmore University, collected an MA in economics from Stanford University, spent a year at the London School of Economics, then went back to get a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, and a professorship at the University of Washington. He gained a reputation as a skilled negotiator in labour relations, was employed on assorted presidential commissions of inquiry and played a leading role in resolving more than 500 labour disputes. In 1945, he went to Berkeley to head the new Institute of Industrial Relations, and he began an astonishing two decades.

In his own mind, what bulked as large as anything was the cold-war politics of the seven years before he became chancellor of Berkeley. Sacramento politicians imposed a loyalty oath on California faculty; Kerr signed but he protested the imposition, protected his faculty against witchhunts and, in the process, incurred the lasting enmity of J. Edgar Hoover and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, whose campaign against him lasted until his sacking in 1967.

Kerr was a natural Democrat, who had intended to become a lawyer but turned to industrial relations when he saw the impact of the Depression during a cross-country trip in the early 1930s. That trip was on a Quaker "Peace Caravan", trying to educate Americans about the need for a League of Nations. But he was also a natural American patriot who thought that card-carrying communists ought not to work in US universities.

In 1952, he became chancellor of Berkeley. This was a less powerful position than it looked because the autocratic president of the entire University of California system, Robert Gordon Sproul, lived on campus and assumed that he had a divine right to interfere wherever and whenever he chose. But Kerr was anyway working with the tide - enrolments were growing, there was no shortage of money, the political controversies of the early cold war had died down, and Kerr spent a lot of time imagining the university of the future.

In 1958, he got his chance to create it, and seized the moment. The California tertiary education system was chaotic. Berkeley was the flagship, UCLA a rather resentful younger sister; there were specialised campuses elsewhere, a clutch of up-and-coming state universities that resented being unable to award research degrees that lobbied their representatives in state government to introduce legislation to enhance their status - and the faculty's pay - and a swath of community colleges that offered vocational education of variable usefulness.

The detailed politics of the creation and implementation of the master plan are complex almost beyond describing - though very well outlined in John Douglass' The Californian Idea and American Higher Education - but the upshot was that once there was a Democratic governor and an overwhelmingly Democratic legislature in place in Sacramento, the master plan was a done deal. It did what any rational, publicly funded higher education system ought to do, and it was copied in various shapes and sizes all over the US.

It was, for all that, firmly rigged in favour of the elite group of serious research universities - Berkeley, UCLA and their peers, which were joined during Kerr's presidency by Santa Cruz, San Diego and Irvine. But the deal offered enough to everyone to secure general assent. A group of research universities was generously funded - and, in the cheerful economic climate of the day, raised a great deal of private money to go with the public funds; these institutions alone had medical, law and business schools, and they alone awarded PhDs. The top eighth of graduating high-school students had the right to go to one of them, though not necessarily their first choice, nor necessarily to study their first choice of subject. The next tier was the four-year state universities, whose students were drawn from the next 30 per cent of the graduating high-school class. And the system was underpinned by community colleges that were open to all.

In those happy days, there were no tuition fees - one regent kept up a campaign for tuition fees, but in vain - and a great surge in enrolment coincided with a great surge in academic standards. In 1962, Berkeley overtook Harvard University as the number-one graduate school in the US.

Kerr had linked populism and elitism behind a policy that at almost any other period would have seemed impossibly expensive. It duly became so in June 1978 when Californians voted for Proposition 13, which reduced property tax by about 57 per cent, leading to a distorted property market, absurdly inflated house prices and a massive reduction in funding for public education, all in one fell swoop. After that, tuition fees were inescapable.

Looked at from the UK in 2003, it all induces hopeless nostalgia. If the UK had gone down that track, we would not now be quarrelling about top-up fees - which, whatever else they may be, are not a fix for a system that is intrinsically unfit for purpose. We might, on the other hand, be looking at cuts of 10 per cent all round and a fee hike of 30 per cent as Californian higher education has been doing over the past two years. As for Kerr, the glory years were brief; no sooner had he published The Uses of the University - still an invigorating read - than radical students decided that one of the university's uses that Kerr hadn't thought of was as a revolutionary foco, and the balloon went up.

It wasn't Kerr's world. Negotiating with people whose rhetoric was full of non-negotiable demands did not come easily; and a man who wanted to allow as many people as possible to enjoy a productive life in the American middle classes had nothing to offer enthusiasts for polymorphous perversity and other Marcusian temptations. His political allies deserted him; when Reagan became governor, that was it - Reagan first cut $20 million from the UC budget, then offered to restore it if the regents sacked Kerr. "I wasn't sold all that cheaply," Kerr said. Deciding that sulking ill became him, he went on to run the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education, and only a few months before his death was looking forward to what he called Tidal Wave II and the next surge in higher education enrolments.

Alan Ryan is warden of New College, Oxford.

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