When my son was trying to decide on a college a few years ago, his choices ultimately narrowed down to two: a fancy Ivy League institution or the University of California at Berkeley. After some soul-searching, he ended up opting for the Ivy League, and my wife and I certainly didn't object. But we did impose one condition: Whenever, in future years, the well-endowed university he would be attending hit him up for a contribution, he would cheerfully give one...to the University of California at Berkeley.
My affection for the place is only incidentally related to the fact that UCB is my alma mater. I have as much smoke - and mycological-fueled sentimentality about my '60s college years as the next baby boomer, and as much nostalgia for all the riots and strikes and protests in which I participated, but what I'm expressing here has nothing to do with any of that, or with rah-rah school spirit. Rather, it's that the creation of the university in 1868 embodied a genuinely noble democratic idea, one simultaneously embracing egalitarianism and excellence. The state of California determined to establish an elite public university that could rival any private institution on the East Coast, and one that, in addition, would be effectively tuition-free to any qualified California resident. There's something admirably American, and perhaps admirably western, about the whole notion. This would be an institution free of class and familial and financial restrictions; it would pursue excellence without regard to such feudal vestiges, and it would open up opportunity to those formerly excluded.
The revised state Constitution of 1879 guaranteed the University a substantial measure of independence from California's political organs. Significantly, its charter also guaranteed, contrary to the urgings of some in the state legislature, that the university need not restrict its curriculum to engineering and agriculture and mining and other areas of practical economic significance to the state, but could also be free to cultivate the liberal arts. For decades, legislatures and governors of both parties viewed the University of California as a special jewel in the state's crown, worthy of nurture and protection. This pride in what the state had wrought paid dividends: Cal has long been regarded as one of the greatest universities in the country, and in the world. A remarkable, and unique, achievement for a public institution.
But it now looks as if those days are over. It won't happen overnight, and it won't happen completely. But absent an unlikely, massive injection of private funding, the university is on an inexorable glide path downward.
The current budget crisis is wreaking havoc with all of the state's services, of course, and it's impossible not to find distasteful the special pleading for one budgetary victim over another. Police and fire-fighting funds are shrinking. Inmates of the state prisons are about to be released into the general population. State medical services are going to be cut. A variety of pre-school and elementary school programs are headed for the axe. Vital agricultural programs are in jeopardy. Programs to assist the elderly are being curtailed or canceled. Bad times are like that: Good programs, even necessary programs, suffer. People suffer. Intelligent public investment suffers as well; health and education may be vital to the state's future prosperity - most of the engineers in Silicon Valley were trained at Berkeley, for example; the state recouped on that investment in a big way - but it's not news that the poor are unable to invest. Each program has its own constituency, and often that constituency seems to feel more deserving of consideration than other constituencies who are also being injured. Lobbying for exceptional treatment can be an unseemly exercise.
But still, without intending any particular political agenda, and without adducing on UCB's behalf any hierarchy of injustice or worthiness, I still would like to acknowledge the tragedy of what's about to happen. It's not the only tragedy, nor even necessarily the worst tragedy, but it's a very great tragedy. The damage to the university is likely to be irreversible. It will be less able to compete with other institutions in the hiring of distinguished faculty. Funding for complex research will be less accessible. Tuition fees will inevitably rise, as they've already risen, putting the place out of reach for the underprivileged. Staff will be let go. Programs will be zeroed out. No doubt Berkeley will remain an estimable institution, and a significant player in the intellectual and economic life of the state. But its days as one of the very greatest universities in the country are clearly numbered.
It's a great loss. Not merely for the university itself, nor even solely for the state of California. It's a loss for everyone who cherishes a certain notion of how higher education, and society itself, ought to function.
(Photo: Flickr User Thomas Claveirole)