Chancellor’s corner: Traditions of excellence worth maintaining

“You got your foreign students and you got your 4.0 folks. But just the kind of ordinary, normal students, you know, they got good grades but weren’t at the top of the heap there, they’re getting frozen out.” —California Gov. Jerry Brown on UC Berkeley’s students.

I must confess: Reading these words in late January between meetings at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, was an otherworldly experience. I was there to showcase some of our most brilliant faculty, while also meeting with alumni, partners, collaborators and supporters from around the world. In these meetings, I talked about our vision for the new Berkeley Global Campus, which will provide more international opportunities for our students and faculty and create a global hub for addressing some of the world’s most challenging issues, from global governance and ethics to climate change, the role of big data and technology in our future and global health. The response we received was overwhelmingly positive, especially to the proposal that at the intellectual epicenter of this new campus would be an effort to cultivate global citizenship through education, practice and research. To everyone I spoke with at Davos, it seemed only natural that UC Berkeley — the only public university from the United States formally represented there — would be leading the way in designing such an innovative new approach to meeting our most critical global challenges.

Our faculty captivated audiences in Davos, whether they were talking about the future of the economy, a newly discovered technology to allow the “editing” of genes with enormous implications for the treatment of genetically transmitted diseases or the relationship of artificial to human intelligence. If at Davos there was no need to make a case for sustaining UC Berkeley as simultaneously public and preeminent, the governor’s comments about UC Berkeley students suggested a decline at home in the perceived relevance of what we do — and indeed, who we are. Instead of celebrating both the talent and the extraordinary diversity of our campus, we hear about the need to cut our funding to compel us to reduce the cost structure of higher education. And yet there is no mention of the fact that we deliver the highest quality educational experience at a much lower cost than our private peers. We hear no acknowledgement that UC Berkeley, with nearly 40 percent of its undergraduates coming from low-income families, remains one of the state’s most powerful and successful engines of socioeconomic mobility. And we hear little about the groundbreaking research that goes on here every day, yielding discoveries that improve the quality of life for people around the world and that help power the California economy.

None of us wish to raise tuition for our students, whether in-state or out-of-state students. But even when we are compelled to do so as a result of state disinvestment, we always set aside a significant part of new tuition dollars to provide greater financial aid. And compared to the tuition charged by our private peers, we still offer an extraordinary bargain.

It was to prevent the harmful meddling of politicians in the university’s life that led Daniel Coit Gilman, the gifted second president of the University of California, to advocate for autonomy from the state. Although he soon left to lead a private university instead, the political process he started played a strong role in the granting of constitutional autonomy to the university in 1879. The indisputable fact is that this autonomy has, in turn, been crucial for the development of the world’s greatest public system of higher education in the country. The states that provided similar levels of autonomy, including Michigan and Virginia, also spawned great public universities. Alas, now, more than a century later, we are faced once again with the threat of political interference in academic affairs of the kind that led to Gilman’s frustration in the form of SCA 1, a bill before the state Legislature that seeks to strip away the university’s constitutional autonomy. In my view, such a move would strike at the heart of the university’s reputation, excellence and ability to serve the public.

We stand at a crossroads. At stake is not our existence, per se, but the idea that society as a whole benefits when access to a world-class education is based on merit, not privilege or financial circumstances; that the private sector must not be allowed to become the sole repository of excellence; that research conducted in the public’s interest is distinct from inquiry driven by the pursuit of profit; and that the deep commitment to making the world a better place that animates our campus is no accident.

California is known worldwide for its great universities, and yet here at home, we need to make an argument for our survival as a world-class university. It is time that we as a university community come together to mount a robust public campaign to articulate the place and value of the highest quality public higher education in a globalized economy and democratic society. In the months ahead, we will be explaining how what we do remains of fundamental importance and value to all the citizens of our state and why those who conspire to undercut UC Berkeley’s ability to maintain its excellence are betraying the aspirations of all those who have built or hope to attend a public university that is the equal of any private university. It seems almost tragic that this crisis coincides with a time when we have more low-income and traditionally underrepresented groups than ever before in our history. The administration will be taking the lead in this effort, but we hope to partner with faculty as well as students, staff and our friends across the state in developing and disseminating this crucial message.

As I take this message on the road to forums across the state and nation, foremost in my mind will be you, UC Berkeley’s students. Personally, I am not much interested in a campus filled with “normal” students. What I am interested in preserving is what we have: a place where the extraordinary is, well, ordinary. From the students of color who have battled against bias and prejudice on their way here and the undocumented undergraduates who must overcome an unbelievable array of obstacles to the military veterans who now seek to serve society in other ways, to all who are first in their families to attend a university and to the students who strive to be the best in the world in fields as diverse as math and literature, anthropology or engineering — or, for that matter, in pursuits artistic or athletic — these are the extraordinary characteristics we rightly take for granted in our student body. These are the threads from which the UC Berkeley campus community is woven. These are the students whom I am so proud to work alongside and to whom we owe so much given the extent to which they — you — define what UC Berkeley is and must remain: an institution animated by devotion to the greater good, built by the people and for the people of California, the nation and the world.

Chancellor’s Corner is a monthly opinion piece by UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks.

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