Berkeley needs ‘serious debate’ on public-private future – Dirks

Iconic Californian institution’s viability as a state university called into question by fall in public support and growing political intrusion, says ex-chancellor

September 6, 2017
Nicholas Dirks speaks at the World Academic Summit, hosted by King's College London

The University of California, Berkeley must have a “serious debate” about whether it should leave the state’s world-famous higher education system and become a private institution, its former chancellor has said.

Nicholas Dirks, who stepped down as chancellor of the elite university in July 2017 after four tumultuous years in office, said that the option of Berkeley becoming a private university as a way of ensuring that it could retain and fulfil its public mission needed to be discussed in light of the steep decline in the amount of state funding it received.

Speaking at Times Higher Education’s World Academic Summit, Professor Dirks explained that Berkeley was receiving roughly one-third of its funding from state sources when his predecessor, Robert Birgeneau, took the reins in 2004. Yet that proportion had fallen to 12 per cent when he assumed the post in 2013. It now stands at 11 per cent, at about $350 million (£268 million) – down from $500 million a decade earlier, he said.

Asked about whether Berkeley – 18th in the THE World University Rankings 2018, down from joint 10th last year – might seek to escape the political pressure and red tape that it faced as a public institution by becoming a private university, Professor Dirks said that such a potential move should be discussed “in a serious way”.

“It would cause a huge political kerfuffle, but increasingly, in the US context, there needs to be a debate that should be conducted in a serious way,” he said.

Going private would allow the university – long regarded as the jewel in the crown of California’s famous state university system – to raise more money through private philanthropy, as potential donors were worried about the university using their funds to plug budget shortfalls, Professor Dirks said.

“In my last year, I raised half a billion dollars [in philanthropic giving] – we could have raised more money if people thought we were not going to take that money and use it substitutionally,” said the emeritus chancellor, who announced his resignation in August 2016.

Becoming a private university in the manner of institutions such as Harvard or Yale might seem like a unlikely radical step, but it should not be ruled out, Professor Dirks added.

“We can no longer assume that change will only happen incrementally,” he said, because there will be other factors beyond finance that will “force great institutions like Berkeley to say we need to change something”.

As a state university, Berkeley was subject to a welter of laws that did not apply to elite private institutions, such as nearby Stanford University. One of these is the requirement to disclose staff salary levels, which makes it difficult to offer competitive salaries to world-leading research staff, said Professor Dirks.

Although recruiting outstanding junior faculty was not a problem, it was “much more difficult to recruit senior and mid-level faculty than it was even 10 years ago, he added.

“A lot of good people do not make themselves available [when posts arise],” he said, explaining that they would “say I cannot go to California and make that money” and instead “they go to places where they earn twice as much”.

Other state bureaucratic interventions, such as limits on the number of out-of-state and international students, who pay much higher tuition fees, and new laws purportedly to uphold freedom of speech on campus, might also pose problems, Professor Dirks said. Some 14 US states had either passed or were discussing, as California is doing now, laws that would introduce a “two strikes and you’re out” disciplinary rule for students found to be obstructing free speech, he explained.

“It is taking over a university’s right to establish how to deal with student concerns and issues – at first reading it seems reasonable, but there are a number of things [about these rules] that are deeply disturbing,” he said.

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Print headline: Would going private allow Berkeley to  thrive again?

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