The art of the long view: seeing UC futures

Deanne Chen/Staff

This week marks the fortieth anniversary of Chez Panisse, the legendary Berkeley restaurant that pioneered the Slow Food movement that has now prompted Americans to desire seasonal, local, organic, whole foods. The “mother” of Chez Panisse, Alice Waters, credits her student experiences at UC Berkeley as inspiration. She was among a group of countercultural activists who found their vision for sustainable agriculture on Sproul Plaza in the heady days of the Free Speech Movement.

What might have seemed at the time an idealistic, impractical pipe dream became four decades later a popular, widespread, economically viable movement. The rise of farmers’ markets, community gardens and Edible Schoolyards in public schools can be traced, in part, to UC Berkeley and its students’ capacity for invention. There is much to learn by revisiting this history, not just as a nostalgic walk down memory lane. This history is a reminder that paradigm shifts happen through creativity and collective invention, with protest and rejection of a status quo only part of a much larger process.

We begin the 2011-12 academic year with the inauspicious news that for the first time in the University of California’s history, students are contributing more than the public to the cost of their education. With the specter of continuing budgetary shortfalls and tuition hikes looming, students are likely to be paying even more by year’s end. UC Berkeley and UCLA are admitting unprecedented numbers of out-of-state students, their full tuition payments backfilling the state’s fiscal withdrawal. What exactly is it that makes the University of California “public?” And how is our university “of” California when campuses now receive so little of their overall operating expenses from the state — at Berkeley as low as 12 percent?

These are big, fundamental, long-range questions. We ask them in a climate of instability and duress. It appears that higher education — not just in California, but also nationally and globally — is undergoing a profound paradigm shift the likes of which we have not seen for at least 50 years. The simultaneous emergence of higher education’s first great technological change in five centuries — the digital revolution — only compounds our instability, for this is yet one more mobile tectonic plate.

The 2011-12 year is likely to see many political flashpoints: tuition increases, layoffs, organizational restructuring, a rise of “permatemp” lecturers, challenges to shared governance, a further erosion of the ties that once bound UC’s world renowned system. Students may have difficulty getting classes; the wheels of Operational Excellence will roll along to a destination widely proclaimed yet remarkably ill-defined (i.e. how will we know when we are “excellent?”). Protest actions, with their attendant Twitter feeds, will inevitably pull us into a myopic fixation on the present. The battlegrounds will be multiple and dynamic.

Yet protests won’t make a future. Neither will managerial exercises in efficiency. Our needs far transcend what either the flash mob or organizational restructuring can produce. We need a big rethink about the future of higher education. The last great paradigm shift in higher education happened half a century ago with the University of California its epicenter. Can we once again be a leader?

The scale of our current challenges is formidable, its contours complex, its inner workings opaque. Unlike the last great period of innovation in higher education, the signs are not auspicious. The present has neither unprecedented prosperity nor the expansive vision that marked former UC President Clark Kerr’s era and the 1960 California Master Plan for Higher Education.

Today a new design for higher education is unlikely to come from on high, and it’s unlikely to come from one man. The future of higher education — if it is to be bright — may well require collective invention. It may require the very sort of collaborative ingenuity and original thinking that gave rise to the Slow Food movement, a product of Berkeley’s soil.

If you have walked by the Berkeley Art Museum this week, you may have noticed corn growing outside. Yes, corn. This is a sign that the artists’ collective OPENrestaurant has taken up residence with their new project “OPENed: Education as Experience.” On Saturday, Aug. 27 from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., they will transform the museum into an open classroom and living kitchen, tracing the history of Chez Panisse and pointing to alternative strategies, new and historical, for the future of education. They invite us to inaugurate the new academic year by looking into our past in order to envision our future. They invite us to cultivate, not just corn, but also the art of the long view.

Catherine Cole is a professor in the Department of Theater, Dance and Performance Studies at UC Berkeley.