Public Comment

Commentary: The University of Oakland: An Impossible Dream?

By Joanne Kowalski
Tuesday August 29, 2006

“Oakland Unified School District trustees ... introduc(ed) a proposal to build a ‘new, permanent, state of the art education center’ on the 8.25-acre property ... (that) would house a kindergarten through high school program, the two early childhood development centers ... and the district administrative office.” 

—From “Oakland School District Trustees Release Counterproposal to Downtown Property Sale,” Berkeley Daily Planet, Aug. 18, 2006. 


When I read this, I wondered why not carry the proposal one step further and create a world class preschool through post-grad educational center that, in addition to the above facilities, would also house A.A., B.A. and graduate programs in urban education, bilingual education, child development and public administration? With such a center, educators and researchers could collaborate on building first class urban schools in Oakland, OUSD personnel could work and go to school at the same time and Oakland would be assured of having a future supply of well trained teachers and administrators. 

Oakland, after all, has been woefully short changed when it comes to higher education. It is one of the very few cities in the country to not have a publicly funded four-year college or university within its borders. Not only does it lack upper division and graduate programs, it has no public medical, dental or law schools. Only two of Peralta’s four community college campuses are in Oakland. One of these (Merritt) was originally built to replace an inner city school but is so high in the hills it is really suburban. This leaves Oakland with only Laney, three private colleges of any size (Mills, Holy Names and California College of the Arts) all of which serve special populations and a bare handful of small religious and technical schools. 

San Francisco, by comparison, is teeming with higher educational opportunities. There is San Francisco State, UC Medical and Dental, Hastings Law and the University of the Pacific Dental. City College, the San Francisco community college system, has nine campuses in the city of which at least four (Chinatown, Mission, Castro and Fort Mason) are located near downtown. San Francisco also has Golden Gate, the University of San Francisco and New College (all with graduate, professional and law programs), the San Francisco Art Institute and a virtual smorgasbord of specialized colleges ranging from psychology to business, design, culinary arts, digital arts and photography. 

It could be argued, I guess, that Oakland is served by both Cal State East Bay and UCB. But Cal State East Bay (really Cal State Hayward) was not designed as an urban school and sitting as it does at the top of the Hayward hills, it is far removed from Oakland’s city life. UCB, while closer, is much more akin to exurban schools that cater to the cream of students statewide such as the Universities of Michigan (Ann Arbor), Wisconsin (Madison), Texas (Austin) or Illinois (Champaign-Urbana) than it is to any free standing urban university like CUNY, the University of D.C., Wayne State (Detroit) or the University of Houston. And unlike other exurban schools, neither UC nor Cal State has campuses or schools located in Oakland expressly designed to serve students living there. 

I grew up in Midwestern cities where urban universities are a common part of city life. I know they do much more for their communities than simply train the local workforce or provide educational opportunities for students whose families cannot afford to send them away to school. Their professional schools provide needed services to low income communities through teaching hospitals, clinics and practicums. Their campuses serve as focal points for local intellectual leadership and can stimulate an urban area both culturally and economically through their programs, lectures, research, exhibits, performances and athletic events. 

Most importantly, urban universities share a mission and focus schools like UCB decidedly do not have, such as a commitment to reflect the ethnic and racial diversity of their metropolitan area in both their faculty and students. 

Urban universities also strive to provide education relevant to the well being of the urban environment. The University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee campus, for example, has schools of social welfare, urban studies, urban education, and architecture and urban planning and works with local schools in disadvantaged areas on pre-college programs from the fourth grade up. And the University of Michigan/Dearborn emphasizes education programs for a multicultural society and the teaching of science and math in inner city schools. 

UC Berkeley also lacks the typical urban university’s goal of strengthening the metropolitan area in which it is located. For instance, along with numerous urban programs, the University of Illinois/Chicago hosts both the Center for Urban Economic Development and the Center for Neighborhood and Community Improvement along with the Great Cities Institute and the Neighborhood Initiative—a partnership between UIC and organizations in the neighborhoods adjacent to it. Indiana University Northwest in Gary has both a Center for Sustainable Regional Vitality and one for Cultural Discovery and Learning which explores regional culture and history. Even the University of Nebraska has a ‘metropolitan campus’ in Omaha with a College of Public Affairs and Community Services. 

If I felt they could be trusted to do a righteous job, I would suggest that UCB partner with OUSD to create an urban educational campus in Oakland. After all, in an era of ever diminishing public moneys for education, the ever expanding UCB has shown itself to be a first class fund raiser for projects it gets behind. And as the OUSD is currently under state supervision and as UC is a state supported institution, the state superintendent of public instruction is in a perfect position to broker the deal. By creating such a school, UCB would be able to increase its diversity and relevance to the community, two things it sorely needs, while Oakland would get at least a downpayment on the kind of public education it deserves. 



Joanne Kowalski is a Berkeley resident who worked for many years in the higher education industry.