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.
It is unclear how this will affect breadth and depth of research at Berkeley. The idea of closing academic departments seems to be completely off-limits. (It is not even mentioned for the sake of ruling it out.) The hiring freeze, however, will inevitably affect changing areas and new interdisciplinary activities.
I am, however, very pessimistic on how the cuts will affect the diversity of the student body, and the Harvard/Princeton/Yale quality of their education. The tuition increase and reduced financial aid, together with the state cutting its own student grants, will make it harder for many students to come to Berkeley. And for those who come, fewer TAs, larger classes, and overworked administrative staff will make for a much less rewarding experience.
Of course, deep cuts are being made to all state activities, and the Berkeley students won’t have it as badly as the 930,000 children who are going to lose health coverage or the 35,000 AIDS patients who are going to lose access to their life-saving medications. There are also plans to close prisons, cut costs in law enforcement, close firefighter stations, reduce road maintenance work, and so on.
To external observers, it may seem incomprehensible that California, which remains a very rich state, cannot afford to take care of its students, its sick, its roads, its burning homes, and so on. The culprit is Proposition 13, which I see as a reduction ad absurdum showing that direct democracy does not work. Proposition 13 made property taxes work like TCP/IP: they can be reduced arbitrarily when property values go down, but can only go up very slowly when property values go up; in addition, it makes it all but impossible to raise income taxes. To be sure, nobody likes to pay taxes, but the only way to not pay taxes is to not have a state, and, as Somalis can tell you, not having a state is a bad thing. Perhaps, when we’ll have pirates off the coast of California, there will be a movement to overturn Prop 13.