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.

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.


19 thoughts on “The end of UC Berkeley as we know it

  1. It’s silly to compare pirate-ravaged anarchy with temporary rationing of one of the largest academic endowments in the world. And it’s questionable to call for tax hikes during a deep recession.

    But the attitude you displayed in this post is really disappointing. If you care so deeply about the AIDS victims who are dying _right now_, then explain why their insurance should be spent supporting research assistants whose work – valuable, important, and beautiful as it is – will not bear fruit for the rest of society until after the recession is over.

  2. It shouldn’t, which is the attitude I displayed in the post: that the damage that will come from the cuts to the UC system pales in comparison to the damage that will come from cuts to health services, which are themselves a small part of a huge withdrawal of the state from providing essential services, which, even in a recession, we could actually afford.

  3. Incidentally, research assistants are not paid by the University or the state, but by external grants. And, right now, external federal grants are up, because the federal government does think that it is a good idea, in a recession, to spend on research (among other things). Also, the U.C. system has a negligible endowment (especially on a per-student basis), compared to private universities, in part because our alumni don’t typically come from rich families.

  4. Great post. I didnt know about prop 13. As you say, as an external observant I could not comprehend why Californian is broke. I do love 2 word explanations and prop 13 seems to be such.
    I also liked the use of the non-existent Somali state. Very funny.

    But how does internet protocol TCP/IP relate to the way prop 13 works?

  5. In TCP, the rate at which packets are sent decreases exponentially fast if the network becomes congested and packets are lost, but it only increases linearly with time when more bandwidth is available. (additive increase, multiplicative decrease.) After Prop 13, property taxes can decrease arbitrarily fast if property values go down and one has the value of one’s property reassessed; they can, however, only go up very slowly, regardless of how much the real value of the property increases.

  6. Luca, you mention that UC Berkeley does not have a huge endowment because its students do not come from rich families. Many universities (besides the big, rich universities: Harvard, Yale, Princeton, etc) do not have a high percentage of students from rich families. It is interesting, then, to consider the “capitalist” effect that trying to build an endowment has on university education. It seems that one of the big reasons that universities are so encouraging of their students going into Wall Street/investment banking (and other potentially highly profitable professions, e.g. law) is that they get money for their endowment (from smart students who do not necessarily come from rich families). I do not think that nearly as many students from European (Italian?) universities with good educations go into banking as they do in the US. This is one reason why a state-supported university such as UC B that does not depend on a large endowment could be less biased in terms of promoting certain professions than a private institution. Anyway, the point I’m trying to make (which may not be related to the post) is that there is an inherent connection between the system of endowments of private US universities and the system that has lead us into a recession.

  7. I have a somewhat different view of what you describe. UCB could have amassed an endowment comparable to the major private universities if it had chosen to make an effort to do so, just as it is fully competitive with them in receiving research grants. While its alumni on average may be less affluent, they are far more numerous ( almost by an order of magnitude ) and may have a comparable number of the very wealthy. However this would have complicated their receipt of funds from the state.

    In any event, it would probably have made no difference as the Endowment Funds of the private universities have so far admitted to losing 25% to 40% of their value. In reality in most cases it is likely to be 50% or more. And if the markets resume their decline in the next two years, nearly all will lose the capacity to contribute to the university’s operating expenses, leaving them with the same choices you are contemplating.

  8. Luca, you certainly raise a lot of the correct issues, but I’m not sure how much your post is correct in the details. You say that Proposition 209 made black and “almost disappear” from UC, and “to a lesser extent” Latino students. But I just checked the data at the UCOP web site (using “Statfinder”, although they also have static tables). The freshman UC class was 3.8% black in 2008 and 4.3% in 1994. It was 18.3% Latino in 2008 and 15.2% in 1994. It’s true that black and Latino freshman enrollment dropped immediately after Prop 209, in 1997, but in the large, ethnic proportions have been fairly stable. I don’t think that it’s reasonable to use a phrase like “almost disappear” for this data, or to reduce the political story only to Prop 209. I agree that Proposition 209 has been unrealistic and troublesome for UC, but there is more to the story than that.

    Likewise Proposition 13 could be interpreted as a plurality of the bad consequences of the state proposition system, but certainly not a majority. And the property tax part of Prop 13 is not its worst effect. Proposition 1 from 1933 created the 2/3 majority rule to pass a budget. Proposition 13 added a separate 2/3 majority rule to raise state taxes of any kind. Proposition 98 is also very bad for UC. It requires minimum spending on education, but higher education is not included. The spending floor of Proposition 98 interacts badly with the revenue ceilings from other state propositions. There are also other spending floors from other state propositions and from federal mandates.

  9. UC Berkeley Chancellor Birgeneau has posted a reply to the article in The Atlantic linked above. Like I say in my post, he says that Berkeley is likely to retain its research excellence, but it’s its mission as a public school (to educate bright underprivileged Californian students) that is at risk

  10. Prop. 13, is indeed the culprit. It probably has had some hand in the housing bubble and inflated property values in California, also. I was shocked at the difference from the previous states I lived in, that my property tax would essentially never go up.

    It sounds great, In Theory, that once you own a property your taxes won’t go up, but the consequences are disastrous and lead to much higher income tax and sales tax and other terrible effects.

  11. Prop 13 applies to private companies too; the old people losing their home has always been a straw man argument. But I think it’s the 2/3 majority to pass the budget which is a bigger problem than the property tax cap, because it has instituted a tyranny of the minority and made California essentially impossible to govern.

  12. Berkeley alumni are notoriously cheap. Cal alum according to Pay Scale have early and mid career salaries that are very close to the privates…..and thats for a school with 400,000 students. Both early and mid year salaries are within the top 25 in the country…..thats including privates and schools as small as Dartmouth. It’s time for alum to step up, if not admit more OOS and become more similar to UM and Virginia, who have much larger OOS students and much larger endowments. From the OOS I have met they appreciate Berkeley more because they are giving more to come to Berkeley…..and most of them are middle upper class, not rich, and have multiple jobs too.

  13. Pingback: Save UC « in theory

  14. Wow, stumbled in here, are you sure prop 209 kept the blacks and to a lesser extent latinos out. Or could it have been their grades? Or their parents lack of caring?

    Its everyones fault but the govts. The aids patients are going to lose coverage because of the govt, the children wont have insurance because of the govt. This shows 2 things…. dont trust the govt for healthcare duh. And, dont depend on others for what you should provide yourself. I bet the parents of the children are working 15 hours a day…nope. I bet the 35000 aids patients didnt think before getting the disease. Responsibilty has left the state.

    Tax less, govt revenues go up, amazing.

    Businesses and public universities are into a phase of creative disassembly where reinvention and adjustments are constant. Even solid world class institutions like the University of California Berkeley under the leadership of Chancellor Birgeneau & Provost Breslauer are firing staff, faculty and part-time lecturers through “Operation Excellence (OE)”. Yet many employees, professionals and faculty cling to old assumptions about one of the most critical relationship of all: the implied, unwritten contract between employer and employee.
    Until recently, loyalty was the cornerstone of that relationship. Employers promised work security and a steady progress up the hierarchy in return for employees fitting in, accepting lower wages, performing in prescribed ways and sticking around. Longevity was a sign of employer-employee relations; turnover was a sign of dysfunction. None of these assumptions apply today. Organizations can no longer guarantee employment and lifetime careers, even if they want to. UC Berkeley senior management paralyzed themselves with an attachment to “success brings success’ rather than “success brings failure’ and are now forced to break the implied contract with employees – a contract nurtured by management that the future can be controlled.
    Jettisoned Cal employees are finding that the hard won knowledge, skills and capabilities earned while being loyal are no longer valuable in the employment market place.
    What kind of a contract can employers and employees make with each other? The central idea is both simple and powerful: the job or position is a shared situation. Employers and employees face market and financial conditions together, and the longevity of the partnership depends on how well the for-profit or not-for-profit continues to meet the needs of customers and constituencies. Neither employer nor employee has a future obligation to the other. Organizations train people. Employees develop the kind of security they really need – skills, knowledge and capabilities that enhance future employability.
    The partnership can be dissolved without either party considering the other a traitor

  16. Sorry Tale of UC Berkeley Chancellor’s Office: easily grasped by the public, lost on University of California’s President Yudoff. The UC Berkley budget gap has grown to $150 million, & still the Chancellor is spending money that isn’t there on $3,000,000 consultants. His reasons range from the need for impartiality to requiring the consultants “thinking, expertise, & new knowledge”.
    Does this mean that the faculty & management of UC Berkeley – flagship campus of the greatest public system of higher education in the world – lack the knowledge, integrity, impartiality, innovation, skills to come up with solutions? Have they been fudging their research for years? The consultants will glean their recommendations from faculty interviews & the senior management that hired them; yet $ 150 million of inefficiencies and solutions could be found internally if the Chancellor & Provost Breslauer were doing the work of their jobs (This simple point is lost on UC’s leadership).
    The victims of this folly are Faculty and Students. $ 3 million consultant fees would be far better spent on students & faculty.
    There can be only one conclusion as to why inefficiencies & solutions have not been forthcoming from faculty & staff: Chancellor Birgeneau has lost credibility & the trust of the faculty & Academic Senate leadership (C. Kutz, F. Doyle). Even if the faculty agrees with the consultants’ recommendations – disagreeing might put their jobs in jeopardy – the underlying problem of lost credibility & trust will remain. (Context: greatest recession in modern times)
    Contact your representatives in Sacramento: tell them of the hefty self-serving $’s being spent by UC Berkeley Chancellor Birgeneau & Provost Breslauer.

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