Mission shrinking

Original Reporting | By Diana Jean Schemo |


UC Berkeley Campus.jpg
Photo: Wikimedia user: Introvert. This photo is protected by an Attribution-Share-Alike 2.5 Generic Creative Commons license.
The campus of the University of California at Berkeley

December 7, 2010 — In the galaxy of public higher education, the University of California system once shined as a kind of North Star. In the 1960s and 1970s, the Golden State’s premier institutions, the University of California at Los Angeles and at Berkeley, boasted some of the strongest research and teaching faculties in the world. A UC education was virtually free to state residents.

That model is under assault. Over the last two years, with the state facing a $20 billion deficit, the University of California system lost 20 percent of its state funding — nearly 1 billion dollars. Recently, California’s outgoing Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger restored some of that money. But it is unclear that the university will entirely recover from the major cuts, and the consequences thus far have included steep increases in student tuition, totaling 57 percent over the last two years.

Indeed, budgetary strains are emboldening critics in the state legislature who would not only cut funding, but whose vision rejects the idea that the government should maintain world-class research and teaching universities with universal access.  Their proposals would dramatically shrink the function, size and identity of these institutions, and change significantly whom the schools would serve.


The Master Plan

The Higher Education Master Plan of 1960, which has been called one of the most influential documents in the history of American higher education, was California’s blueprint for its three-part public college and university system. Post-Sputnik, it came at a time the country feared losing ground in science and research to the Soviet Union, and looked to academia for answers. Closer to home the charge was also pressing: the state needed some rational plan to guide growth and avert turf battles between its various publicly funded institutions of higher education.

The master plan, under the leadership of Clark Kerr, then president of the University of California, organized the state’s seemingly helter-skelter array of public higher education options with an eye toward providing broad access to all “at a minimum cost to the taxpayer,” in the belief that citizens had the right to a college education that would be very nearly free.

Excellent education, no tuition?

The master plan did not envision charging tuition to students, but only minor “fees.” Tuition-free higher education was deeply rooted in California, and goes back to the statute creating the University of California in 1868. A college education was seen not so much as a private benefit but as a public good, in the belief that the state could only gain by having an educated citizenry.   

The master plan supported this view.  It quoted a 1958 speech by the then-president of the University of Minnesota, James L. Morrill, who had rejected a proposal to charge tuition at public universities as “a betrayal of the ‘American Dream’ of equal opportunity to which our colleges and universities … have been generously and far-sightedly committed.”  Morrill criticized those lawmakers who had been looking at tuition as a “panacea,” a way to avoid the “pocketbook burdens of the cherished American idea and tradition.”

Forcing students to pay tuition, he said, was an “incredible proposal to turn back from the world-envied American accomplishment of more than a century.”

For the vast majority of high school graduates, the plan provided open enrollment to a network of community colleges, with the possibility of transfer to public four-year institutions. Above that were four-year state colleges, which did not have a research mission at the time of the 1960 plan, and which were open to students in the top third of their high school graduating class.

And above them all were the teaching and research universities — the sole institutions eligible to receive most federal and state research grants. The master plan heightened their selectivity, narrowing the pool of candidates to the top 12.5 percent from the top 15 percent of high school graduates, but course offerings were left intact. There was an “implicit assumption” that the state’s public university system would offer a broad array of courses, and that knowledge for its own sake had value — both at the top tier universities and in higher education generally, said Neil J. Smelser, an emeritus professor of sociology at UC Berkeley, who wrote the foreword to Kerr’s memoirs.

Chris Newfield, a UC Santa Barbara professor and principal author of a 2006 Academic Senate report on the University of California’s future, said the Master Plan was emblematic of then-Governor Pat Brown’s “social compact with post-war California.”

“The combination of quality and broad access was key to the whole concept of the public university,” Newfield wrote in an e-mail. He quoted Brown’s declaration in his 1963 inaugural address that, “Through the turmoil of change, and sometimes chaos, Californians have pressed on toward the good society-not for the few, not for the many, but for all.” Brown’s inaugural continued, “We are here to prove that a civilization which can create a machine to fulfill a job can create a job to fulfill a man.”

Throughout the 1960s, the state’s newly affirmed commitment to public higher education, and its protection of the University of California’s research mission in particular, made the university a beacon among institutions of higher education. Enrollment at its campuses doubled in the course of ten years, and so did its full-time faculty. Along with the expansion, its reputation for cutting-edge research and innovation grew. The university faculty earned 11 Nobel Prizes between 1960 and 1970.

“The fact is, the University of California was the best system of public higher education the world has ever seen,” said Terry Hartle, senior vice president at the American Council on Education.

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