In the last month of 2013 we were treated to two celebrations of the enduring public character of UC Berkeley. Not surprisingly Frederick Wiseman’s documentary ‘At Berkeley’, with its portrayal of Cal’s senior managers battling against the twin forces of a dis-investing state and a student movement resisting tuition hikes, got all the attention. Yet of arguably greater significance was an article by UC Berkeley’s Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost, George Breslauer, that outlined the new common sense and guiding philosophy of Berkeley’s senior management at that time and perhaps still now.
Wiseman and Breslauer are fiercely critical of a political culture that has enabled the state to disinvest from higher education. According to Breslauer, even after the passage of Proposition 30 state funds now account for just 14% of Berkeley’s total budget, down from 30% in 1999 and 70% in 1971. Although, if one includes ‘restricted’ monies from federal and local government about 40% of Berkeley’s revenue comes from public sources, the withdrawal of state funding has indeed been calamitous. Despite this Breslauer’s polemic is that Berkeley is now more of a public university than it used to be in the fabled Master Plan era.
Breslauer’s contention is that UC Berkeley serves California more effectively now: our student population is more representative of its population, while our graduates contribute more to public service and the state’s economic growth than ever before. He lacks historical data to substantiate any of these claims. It is not even clear what metrics could be used to establish that Cal graduates, or the research conducted at Berkeley, contribute more to the state’s economy and public service than Stanford.
Nonetheless, it certainly is true that the student body is more diverse now than it once was. Thanks to the state’s changing demographics, the achievements of the civil rights and feminist movements, affirmative action policies and much else besides there have been real advances: 53% of undergraduates are women, and 45% of Californian resident students are Asian-American. There is also still a good way to go to make Berkeley look like the public California. In 2012, African Americans who make up 7% of the state’s population represented just 3% of undergraduates (down from 5% in 1993), while those who identify as Chicano or Latino make up 35% of Californians accounted for just 13% of students at Berkeley (the same as1993). According to UCOP statistics, just 129 African Americans from California enrolled as freshmen at Berkeley in 2012.
If Berkeley’s undergraduates still fall short of reflecting the racial diversity of California at large, Breslauer paradoxically contends that the dramatic increases in student tuition (up 67% since 2007/8) has allowed it to become socio-economically more diverse. The Berkeley’s senior management embrace of the ‘high tuition/high aid’ model, he argues, has allowed them to redistribute 33% of resident tuition to low and middle income families: those earning under $80,000 pay no tuition while those with incomes between $80-140,000 receive financial assistance. There are those who take this argument further suggesting that the old flat and low tuition fee of the Master Plan era represented a subsidy for the 7% of the state who went to a UC from the 93% who did not – and the assumption is that this favored the white, male, middle class over the rest. In short, the contention is that Berkeley senior management are progressively redistributing wealth through tuition fees
There is a lot to contest here. Once again there is no historical data to suggest that the very low tuition charges of the Master Plan era (at today's prices tuition costs in the early 1960s were just $1,000 , a decade later they had doubled, and even by the early 1990s they had only reached $4,000) was what restricted admission to the middle classes. At the very least we would need to consider how a range of other demographic, social, economic and political factors made Berkeley’s students predominantly white, male and middle class half a century ago. The quest for equality of educational opportunity across social classes now is an important one but it can only be achieved by state and federal action not by local actors shifting the burden to a small and random percentage of Californian students who plunge deeper in to debt. In the meantime the high sticker price of a UC education may well actually deter many in low-income families from considering it as an option. UCOP’s own figures show that these families earning less than $50,000 still have to pay almost $12,000 a year even after all the scholarships and grants.
Though empirically unsubstantiated, Breslauer’s arguments nonetheless highlight the central doctrine that makes it possible for him to contend that Berkeley is more than ever a public university - namely that what matters is not where its funding comes from but how it is spent. For Breslauer it appears a dollar is a dollar is a dollar; as long as funds are used in appropriate ways it does not make any difference whether they come from the state, a private donor, a commercial contract or a student loan. According to this doctrine the diversification of Cal’s funding model does not represent a step towards privatization if those funds cement the excellence of Berkeley as a public institution.
This is sophistry. It makes a big difference where the money comes from and what power is ceded to those who contribute it. Here is why.
The student debt financing of Cal through rising tuition fees corrodes its public character by making higher education a speculative private investment. Why should 40% of the class of 2013 graduate with loans averaging 18k (and this before the full force of the tuition hikes of 2009-11 are apparent)? Their education is in fact a public good that will enrich California economically, politically and culturally.
Private donors and corporations have given generously and their names are increasingly prevalent across the campus in research programs, endowed Chairs, buildings, and even Departments. We are repeatedly assured that donors do not influence FTE allocation but they can and do influence the direction of research by providing funds and infrastructure in some areas and not others.
Commercial operations have changed the character of the campus. The persistent and continuing financial drain of Athletics—whose handling itself reflects the influence of a donor-driven outlook—has encouraged a good deal more commercial use of campus spaces as Fox Sports TV recent use of Kroeber Square revealed. Yet even academic units are now actively encouraged to embrace what Breslauer describes as ‘unit level entrepreneurialism’ to generate ‘new revenue streams’ through commercial use of their assets (namely space, academic programs and online technologies). (3) It makes a difference where the money comes from when academics are encouraged to think about revenue generation and campus spaces are commercialized.
And with privatization as diversification comes not just new sources of money but the consolidation of a corporate view of the university. It is not just the ‘restructuring’ of Bain’s Operation Excellence, or the centralization and removal of staff to remote sites through Shared Services, but the creep of corporate language (of service providers, end-users, markets, unit level entrepreneurialism and customers) that leave many faculty and staff feeling alienated and mystified by who creates the conditions of work.
The mystery is that Breslauer is rightly scathing about state disinvestment in public higher education and acknowledges the corporate creep on campus but he then minimizes the damage they cause (or the need for reversing them) by suggesting that the high tuition/high aid model has made Berkeley a better public university after all.
Keeping Berkeley’s reputation as the world’s best public university despite its growing dependence on private funds and corporate management models is clearly important for Breslauer. It turns out then that saving Berkeley’s brand depends upon claiming it is still a public university. Otherwise it becomes just a larger and poorer alternative to Stanford.
The elephant in the room here is that it is keeping Cal competitive not maintaining the quality of mass higher education across the University of California that concerns Breslauer. Instead of advocating for public reinvestment his energies are directed at convincing the state to loosen control of UC’s budget, and the Regents to delegate more to campuses, so tuition fees can continue to rise. Berkeley’s senior management are confident that they can continue to raise income from student tuition, capital campaigns, commercial contracts and research grants. This is Berkeley and if the UC system threatens its ‘excellence’ they would be prepared to go it alone.
Berkeley is not just a flagship campus. It is part of a system of higher education in California that extends across the ten campuses and through the state universities and community colleges. The ecology of that system is critical to the health of Cal, the quality of students we teach and the employment opportunities of our graduate students.
If we are really committed to keeping Berkeley a public university we should call for reinvestment by the state. Proposition 30 went some way to restore, but not make good, the cuts made to public higher education in California by Governor Brown in his first year in office. It would cost the median tax-payer in California just $50 to restorelevels of student funding to its level in 2000/2001. Now that is a way to keep Berkeley a public university.