In the forest of daily news, it is easy to lose sight of today’s overarching and fundamental challenge to public higher education, as governmental financial support has receded. Simply put, how can California and the United States structure and fund higher education so that it can sustain and further hone what has been its essential mission? How can we sustain the essential public education missions of providing broad and deep education of the highest quality that is available to all? How can we fully realize the potential of our most promising talent, regardless of family income? How can we continue to provide the research that enables innovation and economic and societal growth?
Nowhere are these issues more apparent and important than in California, where we have an economy founded on knowledge and innovation, as well as the most diverse population in the nation.
The announcement by Robert Birgeneau that he has chosen to step down as chancellor at UC Berkeley presents an appropriate occasion to underscore the importance of these fundamental challenges, both because Birgeneau has done much to address them in constructive ways and because his successor will have both the key position and the limelight for moving further forward.
The challenge in some ways asks for a modern day and sustainable definition of the “multiversity,” a term that Clark Kerr coined in 1963, as president of the University of California, to describe the synergistic combination of missions, constituents and funding streams of the research universities that blossomed following World War II. But in finding the new sustainable model, we also need for our universities to preserve access and quality by securing resources, promoting interactions and controlling expenses in ways that best enable the goals of quality, access and research that serve the needs of society, the economy and the state.
Birgeneau has recognized and addressed the fundamental challenge vigorously and effectively. He has strongly emphasized ways of enabling opportunity for the underserved. Students with Pell Grants, whose families usually have incomes under $45,000, now constitute 35 percent of the undergraduate student body. Beyond that, he has also instituted the first policy for a major public university in this country providing guaranteed need-based financial aid to middle-class students ($80,000 to $140,000 family income). Academically, he has fostered bringing the disciplines together to address major and multifaceted societal issues. Examples include the Energy Biosciences Institute and the Richard C. Blum Center for Developing Economies. With a $113 million gift from the Hewlett Foundation, the campus received matching funds to enable 100 new endowed chairs, which will serve to keep and draw the best and the brightest faculty to UC Berkeley. Pursuing effectiveness and efficiencies in budget and administration, he has brought in persons from the business and finance sectors to help directly by instituting best practices. He has also established a massive ongoing Operational Excellence effort, with the goal of saving at least $75 million per year in administrative expenses. Finally, he has exercised leadership on the national level to seek enhanced federal support for public research universities.
The opportunities for his successor are equally large. UC Berkeley has been, is and will be the center of action watched by everyone with regard to the future of the major public research universities. What Berkeley does will be intensely scrutinized and emulated. Furthermore, the University of California and UC Berkeley have the standing, the respect and the intellectual resources and capability to devise and institute the new paradigm for public research universities. The best university leaders rise to major challenges and seek opportunities to have wide impact. This is a rare opportunity of that sort.
C. Judson King is director of the Center for Studies in Higher Education at UC Berkeley. He is also provost and senior vice president emeritus of the University of California.