Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Demographic Decline

There are no national rankings for departments of Demography in the US. If there were, UC Berkeley would certainly be near the top, and would likely rank first. Four of the five core faculty members have been elected to the National Academy of Sciences, and the last is relatively young. (The entire Academy has about 2100 members, out of perhaps a million PhDs who could potentially have qualified). I had the good luck to stumble into association with this department, benefited greatly, and was tremendously impressed.

This department contributes tremendously not only to Berkeley, and the field of Demography, but to our civilization's progress in understanding how populations function, how populations are likely to change in the future, and what effects these changes have on our economy, society and environment. Methods developed at Berkeley are at the core of the United Nations' understanding of population trends and their importance. Alumnae of Berkeley's rather small program in Demography can be found in almost every important institution making use of demographics, from the US Census Bureau to every major branch of the UN, to departments of Economics, Sociology, Anthropology and Epidemiology at most major universities, to think tanks, research organizations, and major corporations. The people that come out of this program are predictably smart, creative, quantitatively talented and know how to ask important questions and answer them convincingly. It is everything that graduate education should be. There are not many rooms full of people in which I feel slow, but discussing research with a bunch of Berkeley demographers required me to manufacture a fair bit of bravado. Among Berkeley's graduate programs, so many of which are at the top of their field, Demography stood out to me as a bastions of professionalism and brilliance.

Unfortunately, like so many of Berkeley's programs, Demography is in clear and present danger from the current fiscal crisis, and several of its students have hinted to me that it could easily cease to exist in a relatively few years. This happened once before. The following is an excerpt from a 1991 interview with Albert H. Bowker, Berkeley's sixth chancellor (1971-1980):

Q: I don't want to skip over some of your other activities with various departments, if you'd care to pick up on that again. Let's see, we had Department of Demography.

Bowker: Demography was a small group, and it had a lot of trouble recruiting faculty, largely because it was dominated by Judith Blake. I just decided to abolish it, largely because it was just one person, really, on permanent position. It's just something you can have or have not, not an important subject. There are some subjects that every university must have-- mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, history, English, philosophy, some of the languages, and others. Demography is not one of them, and criminology is not one of them. If you have it, it ought to be good and large. They kept bringing it back, and apparently that was not so much on intellectual grounds. It's a silly subject and the group there couldn't be very effective. Then Judith left, and somebody revived it, not in my day.

Q: Do you remember the Department of Design?

Bowker: Vaguely. Yes, we abolished that for the same reason, I guess. I've forgotten now what design was.

Demography was brought back by a group of faculty who are themselves now of an age where even many dedicated academics retire. The Demography department is, as a professor in another department put it "highly age structured." Beyond this older group, they brought in a few younger faculty, shared with the Department of Sociology. One of these recently left for a better offer in Texas. The department is unable to replace her because of the budget crisis. Another scheduled faculty search was cancelled. If recruitment remains frozen for longer than the faculty's more senior members care to continue teaching, (which is quite possible) the department could easily be back to one or two professors. One of these has already said that if this were to happen he could simply join another department. The current administration, may or may not remember what Demography is, or care whether it is important, and is unlikely to make any particular effort to save the department from attrition.

This department is of course just one casualty of the budget cuts to the University, which is in turn only one portion of the destitution of California's public education system, which is in turn only one piece of the general collapse of governance in California. To me, of course it means more than that. I wasn't actually a student in the department, but I spent enough time there to know I was surrounded by the best humanity can produce finding out things that humanity desperately needs to understand. This department is one of the best pieces of the best school in what was once the most ambitious public education system in the world, and it hurts to see it left to atrophy. This abandonment of greatness symbolizes for me what ails California, and America.

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