On Public Universities

As a proud alum of a similarly positioned public university, I was both heartened and saddened to read Bob Herbert’s “Cracks in the Future” Opinion piece in the New York Times.

The problem, now, is the bottom line.

Berkeley is caught in a full-blown budget crisis with nothing much in the way of upside in sight. The school is trying to cope with what the chancellor, Robert Birgeneau, described as a “severe and rapid loss in funding” from the state, which has shortchanged Berkeley’s budget nearly $150 million this year, and cut more than $800 million from the higher education system as a whole.

This is like waving goodbye to the futures of untold numbers of students. Chancellor Birgeneau denounced the state’s action as “a completely irresponsible disinvestment in the future of its public universities.”

Meanwhile, there are billions (trillions?) for banks, commercial lenders, auto manufacturers, and other arguably less-worthy industries who seem to be rolling in money – giving away extravagant bonuses and conducting opulent meetings in diverse and far-flung locales.

Herbert says, and I would agree, that UC Berkeley is undoubtedly one of the finest public institutions in the country and the world – and it’s no small feat for a Washington Husky to recognize this stance.  There are few other schools who would even begin to rival what these two institutions offer, but those, to me, would include:

  • University of Washington (author is slightly biased)
  • University of Michigan
  • University of Virginia
  • University of North Carolina (a stretch)
  • University of Texas at Austin
  • University of Wisconsin, Madison

But Berkeley makes a better example.

We should all care about this because Berkeley is an enormous and enormously unique national asset. As a public university it offers large numbers of outstanding students from economically difficult backgrounds the same exceptionally high-quality education that is available at the finest private universities.

The problems at Berkeley are particularly acute because of the state’s drastic reduction of support. But colleges and universities across the country — public and private — are struggling because of the prolonged economic crisis and the pressure on state budgets. It will say a great deal about what kind of nation we’ve become if we let these most valuable assets slip into a period of decline.

If the priorities of both the populace and the leadership, I fear that Herbert may be correct – we have sold our future out from under ourselves, and ultimately deserve what we have coming to us down the road.  It is not, as yet, too late – but will be very soon.  Without significant, marked, and dramatic changes, we may very well have witnessed the end of American dominance in higher-education.

Only time will tell.

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