Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The University that Was

The University of California at Berkeley has long claimed, with reasonable justification, to be the world's top public University. The University of Massachusetts has some very good campuses, but they have never been any challenge to Harvard. The University of Connecticut is no Yale. But Berkeley and Stanford have often been considered on equal footing (or rather people at Berkeley thought Berkeley was clearly better and people at Stanford held the opposite opinion). In terms of prestige of faculty, Nobel Prizes won, National Academy members, number of important scientific publications, number of top-ranked programs and so on, Berkeley has long been among the US's top universities and far and away the best among the public institutions. California, historically a big wealthy state with a high standard of living and strong emphasis on education, made Berkeley the jewel of its enormous system of public education.

Berkeley now has this wonderful global reputation, amazing arsenal of high-powered faculty, several former faculty in high positions in the Obama administration and world-class facilities. It also has a crushing budget shortfall coming on top of several years of budget cuts, pay for grad students and many staff that is well below what the university considers a living wage, the expectation of massive staff layoffs in the near future, vanishing budgets for maintenance, supplies and support and deep sense that things are going to get a lot worse before they get any better.

The voters of California, in their wisdom, have used the state's mechanisms for direct democracy to require spending increases, but forbid tax increases. They have amended the state constitution to dictate budget items and make it enormously difficult to pass a budget. They have elected politicians based on looks and swagger and reacted with petulance when those politicians had more looks than brains. The state government has deteriorated to the point that most state spending not mandated by ballot initiatives will need to be completely cut. The budget for higher education is expected to be cut by about $1 Billion for the next school year. Similar shortfalls are expected until the global economy has rebounded, or the state constitution has been scraped and more workable one written.

Berkeley, I think it is safe to say, will not retain its reputation for excellence if this goes on for long. For some years now, as the budget has worsened, Berkeley has had a tougher time attracting the most competitive faculty. Many faculty searches have been canceled, and those which weren't often ended up offering positions to researchers who went for much better deals at private institutions. Berkeley has also been having trouble recruiting grad students. My department this year had six first year grad students enter and 17 PhDs graduate. Administrative departments are being eliminated or combined. Journal subscribtions are being scalled back. Phone lines are being turned off. Scholarships are being eliminated. It's ugly, and likely to get uglier fast.

I suspect that given a few years the economy will improve, and the budgetting process in California will be reformed, and Berkeley's budget will start to improve. I fear that by the time that happens Berkeley will have lost its global reputation, many of its most famous faculty, and its culture of intellectual greatness. UC Berkeley may from now on be just a very good public university.

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