Bill Oldham: On the Nature of a Public University
In anticipation of the upcoming inauguration April 24 of Robert M. Berdahl as the eighth chancellor at Berkeley, this is the first in a series of conversations on the topic Higher Education in the 21st Century, the inaugural theme.
by Julia Sommer, Public Affairs
Bill Oldham, professor of electrical engineering and computer science, is this years chair of the Berkeley Division of the Academic Senate. (The chair is appointed by the Senates Committee on Committees.)
He joined Berkeleys faculty in 1964 as an assistant professor, just in time for the Free Speech Movement.
Q: Can you speak for the faculty on how higher education will evolve in the next century?
A: Its hard to synthesize the opinions and feelings of a faculty as diverse as Berkeleys. Whats consuming a fair bit of our attention at the moment is the changing nature of the public university. Its particularly difficult for Berkeley because a lot of faculty here feel strongly about the fact that this is a public university thats why theyre here.
On the other hand, weve become a very selective and elite university. The top 12 l/2 percent of the states high school graduates are eligible for UC admission, but most of them dont have a chance of getting into Berkeley. So we already have a contradiction before we begin, which were attempting to address with our new admissions policy in a way we never have before. Thanks to three years of hard work by our admissions committee, we have a policy now where we read every file. This was accelerated by SP 1 and Prop. 209. This at least allows us to assess applicants in a way that wasnt possible before.
Which leads us back to the question, what is a public university? Well be looking at that question for the next 10 years because were evolving so fast from a largely state-supported institution to one that is largely not funded by the state. Ten or 15 years ago, private universities were complaining that they were being put out of business by excellent public universities. In post-Prop. 13 California, and in much of the country, that situation is totally reversed. Public universities are threatened and private universities, because of sound management of their endowments, are much more powerful.
Now were trying to fund UC from the same sources as private universities. Were trying to build endowments. What makes us distinct from Stanford? Are we going to remain distinct? If the state continues to buy back tuition increases, perhaps that alone will distinguish us.
A related concern is that attending a public or private university has become less and less affordable for the middle class, who dont qualify for financial aid.
Q: What is the Academic Senate focusing on this spring that will affect Berkeley into the next century?
A: A proposal by the Council of Vice Chancellors is before the Senate on ways to fund faculty salaries from non-state funds. This has not been done before, except in very special circumstances. Endowments for faculty chairs presently pay for everything except salary.
The Senate will discuss the proposal May 7, and President Atkinson will be there. I intend a first response this semester so Id like as many faculty members to attend as possible. Faculty at the other UC campuses are also looking at this.
The Senate is also fully engaged with the administration and the Office of the President in admissions and outreach. This got a tremendous kick with the passage of SP 1.
I think theres general agreement that theres a problem somewhere before students are ready to apply to the university that is hampering us from achieving the diversity we feel is appropriate for a great university. Outreach is how we deal with that. Its long-term and expensive. We have an amazing number of outreach activities on this campus. Clearly both faculty and students are dedicated to this.
Q: The library and technology are subjects that come up in every discussion of higher education in the 21st century. How are they related?
A: Expensive new media are supplementing but also competing with the library for budget. To what extent will the library continue to be physical, browsable? Can we afford to subscribe to so many increasingly expensive journals, especially in the sciences?
Faculty and students are increasingly communicating via computer, web and multimedia, which is changing the nature of teaching. The proposed virtual university will essentially change the nature of the professor. There are all kinds of implications to this: how will we protect intellectual property, and, more immediately, how on earth can we afford the new technology?
Should every student be required to own a computer? Should ethernet connections be provided in every dorm room? Some people say of course, others say we should balance computer access against buying books for the library.
Most people believe the nature of the university will evolve over the next 20 years. Were very poor at predicting these things nobody predicted the World Wide Web so we better be quick on our feet, ready to move. Being big can be an asset because you have the infrastructure, but it also makes us slower.
Q: What is the facultys take on undergraduate vs. graduate education?
A: Its a myth that Berkeley doesnt care about undergraduate education. You can get a very fine undergraduate education here. We have a lot of teachers who are extremely dedicated to undergraduates, including lower-division teaching. Student expectations drive you to be a better teacher, just as the expectations of your colleagues drive you to be a better researcher.
But the people of this state also need to understand the importance of graduate education that it makes this institution what it is, a great research university and an economic engine for the state. We wont attract faculty without an excellent graduate program. In turn, undergraduates receive a richer education in the presence of graduate education.
Our legislators dont even pay lip service to graduate education. Undergraduate education has been over-emphasized in the state. UC has not gotten the message out about how important graduate education is.
Over the next 10 or 15 years well need to address and rationalize what were doing in lower-division, upper-division and graduate education. To what extent are we working for the people of the state, and to what extent are we working for whoever else pays the bills?
Q: What about the hot-button issue of shared governance?
A: My personal feeling is that the administration and the regents believe in shared governance as much as we do.
Shared governance sort of broke down with SP 1, but I dont think more than 5 or 10 percent of the faculty want to make an issue of it now.
The trouble comes when politics is injected into regental matters. But in recent actions, such as the search for our chancellor and modifications to admissions policy, the regents have risen above political considerations and really shared the responsibilities and the work with the faculty.
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