Alison Wolf

September 2, 2005

It was a ruthless pursuit of quality rather than enormous wealth that helped the University of California get to the top

Clark Kerr is the only vice-chancellor I can think of who was a global legend in his lifetime. Maybe the only one to be a legend, full stop. Everyone in higher education drools over the University of California - quality, access, backing from a legislature willing to spend whatever it takes to stay on top. And everyone agrees that Kerr, first as chancellor (we would say vice-chancellor) of Berkeley, then as president of the University of California, was critical to its success.

It does not hurt Kerr's reputation that Ronald Reagan drove him from office. In 1966, Reagan's successful campaign for governor of California was in large part based on "cleaning up the mess at Berkeley".

In the US, this was the period of student protests against the Vietnam War and flower children on the streets of San Francisco. Berkeley, home to the Free Speech Movement, was the most radical campus of all. Reagan declared that "beatniks, radical and filthy speech advocates" had brought "shame to a great university" and blamed Kerr. Three weeks after Reagan's victory, Kerr was gone.

Since academics overwhelmingly think of themselves as Left-of-centre and liberal, the manner of Kerr's sacking sealed his reputation. This summer I finally found time to read his autobiography. What struck me was not so much his commitment to freedom of speech and inquiry, to decentralising power or to consultation - genuine and crucial as all these were. It was instead that he was ruthless.

The Gold and the Blue was published in 2001, a couple of years before Kerr's death at the age of 92. Back in 1952, when he took over at Berkeley, it was already one of the country's leading universities. Many people doubted this could last. Berkeley, and the University of California generally, might manage to stay near the top among public (state-funded) universities, but beat the "privates"? Never.

Kerr was determined Berkeley would stay at the top of any and all league tables. To that end, he was content to sack anyone who did not meet his standards of academic quality. Plenty of people were sacked - and Berkeley triumphed. Technically, people were not sacked. They just did not get tenure. But the standards demanded for tenure or promotion were raised, were relentlessly high and were non-negotiable. "I took the firm position," Kerr recalls, "that no department had a right to choose mediocrity over excellence." No one stayed unless they could and did meet the level Kerr wanted. Tearful young wives (not, in the mid-1950s, any husbands) sometimes came to plead for their spouses. Kerr offered a clean handkerchief and was certainly soothing and kind. But pleas did not, ever, change his mind.

I have never sacked anyone and hope I never do. I once had someone to clean my house who was so awful that I pretended we were emigrating as a pretext for escape. This is one reason among many why I would make a dreadful vice-chancellor. More important, I can't think of any occasions, in British departments where I have worked, where lecturers who were "on probation" were not confirmed in post. I suspect this is common - and makes for a much cuddlier environment, even with the research assessment exercise. But Kerr was surely right about what it took (and takes) to make a truly great research university.

I know the chief executive of only one listed company at all well. His view is uncannily similar to Kerr's (whom he hasn't read and probably has never heard of). It isn't enough, he says, for a division just to be making money and not causing any trouble. What matters is whether it is helping to take you where you want to be. If it isn't, your resources are better used elsewhere.

Kerr's book is crammed with tables. They show Berkeley and the University of California's relative position, over time, on myriad indicators: federal grants, departments ranked as "distinguished", numbers of National Academy of Sciences members, destinations of top school-leavers. It is also brilliant on how to manage a huge institution successfully and how to see off opponents without messy and destructive public fights. But, for me, the dominant theme is that ruthless pursuit of quality.

Berkeley survived Reagan's budget cuts. I notice it is right up there, just behind Harvard and Stanford in this year's Shanghai list of "top 100 universities", and I guess it will survive the current budget crises. One look at California's vast State Capitol, built when the state had only about a million people, tells you that the whole place shares Kerr's vision. I just wonder how many admirers of California's public university system recognise the iron fist inside Kerr's velvet glove, and that it really is not just about money.

Alison Wolf is the Sir Roy Griffiths professor of public sector management, King's College London.

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