The end of UC Berkeley as we know it

There are two qualities that together make UC Berkeley unique among worldwide institutions of higher education.

One is that our several academic departments cover nearly all fields of scholarship, and that nearly every department is at the very top of its field. Very few places have this phenomenal combination of breadth and depth, although, admittedly, there are some.

The other is the diversity of the student body. Not ethnic diversity, because the passage of Proposition 209 made black and (to a lesser extent) Latino students almost disappear from campus. But, at least, UC Berkeley has been an engine of upward social mobility for a lot (and, being a big campus, it is really a lot) of white and Asian Californians from middle and working class families. To be sure, the top East Coast private universities do admit several students who are not from privileged families, and they do provide generous financial aid, but one has to be off-the-charts brilliant to get in based on raw talent alone. The merely very smart students can get in only if they have the kind of expensive resume-padding extracurricular activities that are out of reach for most students. At Berkeley, the merely very smart student has a good chance to get in by simply doing well in high school. And then, tuition is low for everybody who is from California, and the state used to give additional grants (80% of tuition) to everybody with a 3.0 GPA; plus the UC system has its own financial aid program.

Two days ago, the Chancellor announced that because of the cuts expected as a consequence of the state-wide budget crisis, UC Berkeley needs to cut about $100 millions. Next year, we should expect a complete freeze on hiring, layoffs of administrative staff, strong cuts to student aid, increased tuition, and salary cuts of 8%. For 2010-2011, rumors are that the sun will go dark, it will rain blood from the sky, and then the locusts will come and eat us alive. Unfortunately, 2011-2012 will be much worse. Continue reading

So this is what “FOCS” stands for

At the STOC 2009 business meeting, Silvio Micali announced a new conference, Innovations in Computer Science (ICS), whose first edition will be in Beijing in January, 2010.

This is a conference that aims to be the venue for the first papers in new areas. This prompted people to ask me afterward if we shouldn’t start a new conference devoted to second papers. I thought this was an appealing ideas, and perhaps the conference could be called Follows-up in Computer Science; a snarky colleague, however, suggested that we already have two such conferences and they are called STOC and FOCS.

ICS has a steering committee entirely composed of past and future Turing Award winners, so surely they know what they are doing. A common complaint I heard, however, was that it isn’t clear exactly what the motivations and the goals of this conference are, what papers are being sought (surely you cannot fill up a 30-paper conference with first papers, each opening up a new area), and so on.

Helpfully, Oded Goldreich, one of the promoters of ICS, has written a statement about the goals ICS, as well as a longer essay on What is wrong with STOC and FOCS. The arguments made in the essay are Oded’s motivations for the new conference.

As I have said before, I agree with the importance of conceptual innovations, and of simplicity, but I disagree with the claim that our current review system undervalues such points. Hence, I think that initiatives such as the “letter on conceptual contributions” and now ICS will not correct an imbalance, but rather will create an imbalance, penalizing the necessary, hard, and unglamorous technical work by which we understand new ideas, exploit and simplify their applications, and create the conditions such that the next new ideas are “in the air” and the right person at the right time can get them, and so on.