Berkeley’s forecast: sunshine after the storm

UC’s finest has emerged from the financial crisis stronger than ever, argues Nicholas B. Dirks

October 1, 2014
Berkeley’s forecast: sunshine after the storm

The University of California, Berkeley is routinely ranked as one of the top global universities, a position it has occupied for more than a century. Thanks to a history of public support most generously expressed in California’s 1960 Master Plan for higher education, the UC system produced an extraordinary record of achievement. On the one hand, it gave an elite but low-cost education to a large group of students from California’s public high schools. On the other, the research work of its top universities in basic and applied arenas laid the foundations for many of the industries that have made the California Dream a reality, from aerospace to Silicon Valley.

High-quality research and undergraduate education, plus broad, merit-based access: for generations, these three interlinked elements together defined UC’s commitment and contribution to the public good. The system’s original, flagship campus at Berkeley exemplified this achievement, ranking alongside Harvard University as one of the top research institutions across multiple fields, while affording access to low-income students on a scale unimaginable in the Ivy League.

In recent years, however, the fact that Berkeley is a public university – always the top-ranked public in the US – has led some to assume, given the extent of most states’ disinvestment in higher education, that it will not be able to maintain its traditional excellence. The environment for public higher education has indeed shifted dramatically: in an age of governmental crises around taxation and funding, cuts in the past decade have slashed our level of state support from 34 per cent to 12 per cent of our overall budget. It is clear that we can no longer rely on a renewed embrace of public higher education spending as a means of facilitating social mobility and for the public good.

In an age of privatisation, there is growing distrust of public institutions in the context of increased reliance on a broader economy that is neither exclusively local nor even national. The twin trajectories of privatisation and globalisation are redefining a sense of public responsibility, all the while exacerbating concerns about employment and economic viability still palpable after the most recent major economic crisis. Yet the stakeholders of the Berkeley campus community remain passionately committed to the university’s public mission: our challenge now is to extend that ethos and ensure it permeates all that we do.

Despite these seemingly conflicting trends, Berkeley has emerged from its recent round of financial challenges stronger than ever. Regardless of how we rank academic quality and value, the university continues to be at the vanguard of developments in research – basic as well as applied, humanistic as well as scientific – while still affording extraordinary access to an increasingly diverse population. It performs so well in part because it has never compromised its core academic and social missions, but also because it used the crisis to rethink and reorganise some of its administrative protocols and structures. In the process, it increased its capacity to build substantial philanthropic support, engage in private partnerships and establish a new kind of relationship to the global environment.

Although all these efforts – and the structural changes of recent years – could be seen as part of an inexorable trend to emulate “private” models, Berkeley is charting its own path. As its new chancellor, I have re-emphasised the centrality of our undergraduate programmes, sought to build on our past record of innovation, discovery and entrepreneurship, and begun to establish an ambitious global footprint. We seek to develop a new model for higher education while maintaining a clear focus on our mission’s public character. As we enter into private or global partnerships we face a unique challenge, one demanding that we relate our aspirations both to Berkeley’s historical obligations to its locality and within the larger context of our commitment to the public good.

In my view, our public ethos positions us to lead in the global domain, too. We will find new ways to bring our research collaborations and educational partnerships back home, in part by connecting better with the global marketplace for education and research, and in part by bringing these connections to bear on our immediate locality through the development of a global “branch” campus in Richmond Bay, just north of Berkeley’s main campus.

Other models for global engagement have ranged from the ambitious establishment of foreign campuses to the development of small consular-style offices in a variety of world centres. So far, neither model has helped us to devise concrete ways in which the global can be woven back into the fabric of the home institution. We must seek to develop new kinds of study-abroad experiences and student exchanges, different forms of research collaboration and partnership, and revise the ways we think about accreditation, student trajectories, faculty appointments and departmental structures, to mention just the most obvious. In the US context, this means that globalisation cannot be the “Americanisation” of world universities, but the global transformation of the US university itself.

As Berkeley charts new models for globalisation, it also has unique advantages for academic and private-sector collaborators, not just abroad but also at home. Northern California has been a centre for technological innovation and entrepreneurship in part because of the informal networks that grew out of Silicon Valley, but also through the porous and interactive roles of the region’s two great research universities, one private (Stanford University) and one public (us).

Despite cries of gloom and doom, the role of the major public university has been acknowledged not just for its basic research, but also for its capacity to leverage its scale, diversity and mission. Berkeley is not just a leader in fields such as physics and mathematics, but (to give just one example) data science, too. As we confront new levels of challenge and opportunity with our exponentially explosive datasets – and the equivalent demands made by privacy and security concerns on the one hand and marketing and public service opportunities on the other – we envision a different way of inhabiting our local ecosystem.

From the perspective of a pre-eminent public university, the future is daunting not just because of growing uncertainty about appropriate models (and support) for education across the social spectrum, but also because all of our local problems are now global, too.

However much we continue to preserve many of our traditional forms and commitments – and to this end the university has always correctly been slow to change – we must also use all of our intellectual and scientific resources to reimagine the world and our role in making it a better place.

Nicholas B. Dirks is chancellor, University of California, Berkeley

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