Renowned UC Berkeley professor speaks on challenges to higher education

Neil Smelser, a UC Berkeley professor emeritus of sociology, outlined what he called “the perfect storm” that higher education faces in a speech Monday. Speaking at the Berkeley Art Museum as part of the Clark Kerr Lecture Series on the Role of Higher Education in Society — established in 2001 to honor former UC President Clark Kerr — Smelser said public universities face a multitude of problems, from global competition for students to reduced levels of state spending.

Smelser, who received his bachelor’s degree and PhD from Harvard University, published a book in 2010 entitled “Reflections on the University of California: From the Free Speech Movement to the Global University” and is one of the “accomplished leaders of American Higher Education,” according to the Center for Studies in Higher Education.

During the third lecture in a series on higher education, Smelser described several key problems that currently plague universities, including increasing tuition and dependence on student loans, a decrease in state spending and more computer-based learning.

The “proletarianization of academia” — referring to more reliance on adjunct and part-time professors — has led to “a disappearance of tenure by drift,” Smelser said, which has threatened academic integrity and freedom.

Public education, he said, is “inching towards being a private good,” in which only the wealthiest can afford tuition, and corporations provide much of the public funding for research.

Smelser emphasized that the entanglement of corporate and academic research has confused interests, where academic research is limited by the corporations that fund the research, and serves private instead of public interests.

Yet all these issues “are not unsolvable,” Smelser said. Once universities act collectively and with the public good in mind, instead of individually and for private corporations, the system of higher education will once again serve the public interest, knowledge and good, he said.


Staff writer Sam Buckland wrote this report.