Don't Destroy Our Universities in Order to Save Them

By Becky O'Malley
Tuesday July 20, 2010 - 10:01:00 AM

A while back we dropped in on a softball panel discussion about what the economic future might hold. The panelists were UC Berkeley academic economists. They glanced at a variety of topics, among them how their institution could weather the current storm, with the larger economy tanking and state support for education effectively collapsing.


            If this were a news article, I could go out over the internet to cite chapter and verse about how bad things are at this point, but since we’re among friends let’s not bother with that, because we all know it’s true and getting worse.   There are real problems with California’s ability and willingness to support education at all levels, including at the university level. 


            The panelists offered two silver bullets which would make it all go away. At this remove I can’t remember exactly who said what, but at the time both fixes, regardless of who proposed them, struck me as fraught with peril.  And now both are on the road to being implemented.


            Fix #1 was bringing in lots and lots of foreign students, who would presumably come with fists full of cash.  But also, with problems.


            I yield to no one in my appreciation of UC Berkeley’s traditional international flavor. (Being old school, when I say Berkeley, I mean the city. If I mean the local university, I now say UC Berkeley, though I used to say Cal.)


            I vividly remember the first time I approached Sather Gate. A woman wearing a sari was coming out as I went in, and I thought to myself that I was—finally—a true citizen of the world, privy to all its delights and entertainment. Among the international friends I made as an undergraduate were a Kurd, (from an ethnic group I’d only encountered in books) a Chilean Socialist (two firsts there), an Israeli woman who though I was an Indian because of the sound of my name, and my whole rooming-house full of women physics students from Taiwan, who taught me how to cut up a chicken with a few swift strokes of a cleaver without removing any fingers by mistake. And they were all amazing people, brilliant high-achievers, admitted because of their outstanding abilities—not, however, including their ability to pay big bucks for tuition. 


            There’s a real danger that today’s international students will become nothing more than cash cows. There’s the possibility that the student body will be overloaded with the privileged offspring of the ruling classes who couldn’t cut the mustard back home, and that merit will go out the window.


            It doesn’t have to happen that way, but the risk is there. The same caveat applies to out-of-state American students, who will also be paying those lucrative higher tuition fees. 


            Overall, the percentage of these special categories is jumping from 6% to 8% of the student body in the whole UC system, with UC Berkeley getting the biggest increase. Berkeley continues to be a very saleable brand in brand-conscious Asia, with much more cachet than Los Angeles or Riverside. 


            A major difficulty with embarking on the mission of educating the world, even if we get nothing but the cream of the crop, is that these students are not nearly as likely as they used to be to stick around after they graduate. India and China in particular are developing their own industries which will employ their own top graduates. This might leave California, high-tech California in particular, short of top talent, having educated too few Californians and too many people who just go home after they graduate.


            Fix #2 is offering some classes as online-only, with no human face-to-face contact at all. The godfather of this program is UC Berkeley Law School Dean Christopher Edley, reportedly jealous of the number of community college transfer students who choose the phone-it-in for-profit University of Phoenix over UC Berkeley.


            Now, it’s not hard to understand why some of Edley’s students might prefer to take their civil procedure course online so they don’t have to look at the creepy face of the disgusting John Yoo, still teaching at Berkeley Law despite his record of condoning torture. But many of the other professors are well worth chatting with from time to time. 


            Law schools in particular can easily slip into being not much more than trade schools without the leavening provided by the varying personalities and backgrounds of faculty members as revealed in the classroom back-and-forth. If that happens, it soon might be possible to do away with law school altogether. 


            Bar Review courses, run efficiently by real businessmen, do an excellent job of teaching in six weeks just exactly what you need to pass the Bar exam, if that’s the only goal. And all those classroom discussions of ethics and values which law students enjoy so much wouldn’t be needed any more, especially if (see preceding paragraph) people like John Yoo are now considered role models for attorneys-in-training.


            Online-only might not work so well for that old chestnut, liberal arts education. Since the traditional liberal arts curriculum is anything but preparation to take up a lucrative profession, it wouldn’t be such a good fit into the one-size-fits-all mold that might work for engineering or law. (Defensive note: one engineer, one lawyer in this household.) 


            Some experiences aren’t transferable to the Internet. Before I saw the light and learned a trade, I majored in comparative literature, and one of my fondest memories is of the elderly Russian professor who invited us to her house for Russian conversation and cookies which she swore were prepared by the domovoi, or household spirit. I suppose cookies can be mailed, but it wouldn’t be the same, would it?


            The universities which make up the California State University system are already experimenting with extreme ways to save money. A friend who teaches at Cal State San Jose tells me that student enrollment there has been cut, with little publicity, from 30,000 to 20,000 in the last few years. 


            She says that the school is instead offering more and more mini-courses on technical subjects taught within Silicon Valley companies, which carry no degree credit but command big price tags. This poses a terrible problem for cost-conscious local students who count on living at home with their parents, but are forced to go farther away, to CSU Monterey or beyond, to get the classes they need to graduate. 


            California universities of all kinds are now dominated by corporate shills. The recent revelations in these pages and elsewhere of Regent Richard Blum’s financial interest in a pair of schools which could only be called diploma mills are just the tip of the iceberg—it’s no wonder the UC regents swallowed the Edley proposal so enthusiastically. 


            Chto delat? What Is To Be Done? That’s the title of a famous Russian novel by Nikolai Chernyshevsky, a Russian philosopher who proposed reform of much that was wrong in Russia in the mid-nineteenth century—in fact, I read the book when I was at Cal. It turned out to take a revolution to change much in Russia, and then it wasn’t all good.  But it’s still a good question, and it has still no obvious answer.


            There are two promising proposals for ending the crisis in California higher education: Professor George Lakoff’s campaign for a ballot measure which would let the California legislature pass taxes for education with a simple majority instead of the currently required two-thirds, and the recurrent calls for popular election of university regents, which Michigan and many other states have done for years. And San Francisco State Senator Leland Yee is doing his darndest to get the universities under some sort of control in a variety of ways, though with mixed results so far.


            But it seems clear that the strategy of seeking out more big spenders, whether from the U.S. or abroad, won’t do anything to improve the quality of higher education which California has always promised its young people. And the plan to cheapen the “product” which Edley touts is another bad idea. 


            Both of these ill-considered ideas amount to tossing out the baby with the bathwater. Anything that’s done to save our institutions of higher education must be consistent with the high standards which have always characterized our universities in the past—we must accept no less.