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Gearing up to gear down
In his valedictory interview, Chancellor Berdahl ponders the perils of Ďdecompression,í following seven active years at the top

21 April 2004

 



Chancellor Berdahl, when asked about the moment that made him proudest to be serving at Berkeley, recalled without hesitation the memorial service that filled Memorial Glade in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
ďIn moments such as these,Ē he said that day, ďwhen a sea change of attitude is upon us, we must remind ourselves of the enduring principles that form the foundation of a free and civilized society.Ē

Ben Miller photo / Daily Californian

Shortly before the festivities of Charter Day, many of which celebrated his accomplishments as chancellor, Robert Berdahl sat down with the Berkeleyan for a conversation about several topics of ongoing concern to him: the prospects for public higher education, the importance of the humanities, and the future of UC Berkeley. Though the conversation touched lightly on his personal plans for the future, his ruminations were primarily on issues of the moment.

Letís start with a big question: What are your hopes and fears for public higher education over the next decade?
My fears are twofold. One, that public education will be marked by an even more pronounced separation than currently exists between the high-quality private universities and the high-quality public ones, and that we in the public-education sphere wonít be able to compete as we have with the major private universities. Thatís the ultimate fear we should have for a place like Berkeley, which has always been competitive with Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and others of their quality. Weíve always recruited as fine a faculty as they have, if not finer, and the quality of our students is comparable as well. So the fear is that public support for a place like Berkeley will decline so that it becomes just another good public university. Or that it becomes so expensive that it really no longer serves a broad spectrum of the public. We know that weíre going to be more competitive for admission over the next few years, which means that fewer applicants will be admitted. We can tolerate that so long as the economics donít dictate who even applies. And thatís my big worry.

Second, over the last 20 years many states, understandably with other burdens imposed upon them, have reduced their contribution to public higher education. This is a nationwide phenomenon. And weíve seen a sea change in attitude as well ó the notion is gaining ground that support for a public university benefits only the individuals who attend it, rather than society as a whole. That attitude ó that only those who attend college benefit and therefore ought to pay ó is an entirely different attitude than prevailed when I entered public higher education in the 1960s. So just as the nation is witnessing a much more marked separation between upper income groups and the middle class, thatís showing up in educational opportunities as well. I donít think you can sustain a democratic society over the long run with this kind of tiering of institutions, whereby the wealthy have access to resources that no one else does.

Does history tell us something about this stratification?
Weíre a society with profound class differences, but weíve always had a lot of social mobility in this country, thanks in large part to investments in public education. We still have a growing middle class in this country, but itís one with less of an outlook for upward mobility than it had in the past. There are cycles in public investment in the United States, and we are currently in what I would call a phase of intense privatization: There is a widespread belief that the state as an institution is not only ineffective and inefficient, but that much of what it has done in the past should not be supported with tax dollars. I hope weíre coming to the end of this particular cycle.

Thereís been a lot of discussion about alternative funding models for public universities. Has progress been made toward getting us out of our dependence on the state budget cycle?
Weíll always be victims of the state budget cycle, because weíre a state institution. The only way to get out of that is if you reduce your dependence on state resources. For example, the University of Colorado and the University of Oregon have increased their out-of-state enrollment to more than 50 percent, and they keep the money generated by those higher fees. It means that a public university can get, say, only 15 percent of its budget from the state; the rest is non-state money. So if you only have 15 percent of your budget from the state, and youíre directed to prepare for a 5-percent cut, it doesnít affect you much. Weíre headed in that direction, and it isnít a good direction.

As for funding models, there are some good discussions going on now about what a new compact with the state might look like. In this process, itís important for the university to define what is necessary for it to remain the kind of institution it has been: to have competitive salaries, to have the kind of base of dollars per student to be competitive with those with whom weíre compared. So itís important to define that base, and to agree on what is necessary for the university to sustain excellence and then figure out how we meet that, through a mixture of state support, tuition and fee revenues, private support. But the state canít have it both ways: They canít limit our resources and then limit our options. Well, they can and they do, but itís not sustainable if the university is going to be what we want it to be.

I feel strongly that itís important for us to be able to generate more of our own resources through fees, and to retain those resources. Let me put it directly. We have seen very substantial increases in professional school fees, with none of that money staying in the professional schools. Itís all going [to offset] a budget reduction that the university is having to take. The professional schools can afford to have higher fees and remain competitive with their market, but they canít afford to have higher fees and then lose the money thatís generated by them. If they do, they wonít be competitive in terms of student/faculty ratios, the services they can provide for students, the quality of facilities, and all the rest.

If you had five more years in this job, and lots of energy, what issues would you dive into?
I would continue trying to renew the infrastructure of the campus; thatís still a major issue. And the budget crisis, of course, as weíve discussed. Beyond that, I certainly think that the consequences of S.B. 1 and Proposition 209 in terms of minority representation on campus, both among the faculty and the student body, will continue to be a vexing problem. I donít know how Iíd address that, but itís something that we have to deal with.

The newly released admissions figures for the class entering Berkeley in the fall show a sharp drop in the numbers of underrepresented students, African Americans in particular.

The fact of the matter is, weíve failed, pure and simple. You canít look at those numbers and not feel a sense of failure. I donít think itís just a failure of the campus by any means ó itís a failure of the public promise of the state of California to adequately prepare all of its citizens for higher education. Thereís going to have to be some kind of newly devised strategy. I heard [Harvard President Lawrence] Summers on NPR talking about the fact that Harvard is eliminating parental contributions for virtually all students with family incomes of up to $60,000. And itís ironic to me that a private university is, for its small group of students, serving the public need and interest more completely than a public university like Berkeley.

What sorts of things about yourself have you learned on this job?
Berkeley requires a lot of patience. When I first arrived here seven years ago, and I would ask why something was done a certain way or why it took so long. The most common response was, ďItís the Berkeley way.Ē And I got so frustrated with that response that nobody says that to me anymore, even though the ďwayĒ itself hasnít probably changed that much. I was determined back then that we were going to become more efficient, drive things, get things done Ö that this kind of slow-moving bureaucracy would get more responsive. So I canít tell whether Iíve adjusted to the Berkeley way or made changes in how things get done; it may be a little of both.

Looking ahead ó letís say 25 years ó what do you think Berkeley will look like?
I hope it looks much like it does now, in many respects, such as the quality of the faculty and everything relating to the history and legacy of excellence. I think it will be much more intensely interdisciplinary than it has been. Just as the Health Sciences Initiative and all of the new investments weíre making in bioinformatics, and quantitative biology, and nanotechnology, and metropolitan studies, and environment, and media and the arts Ö just as those are interdisciplinary, I think weíll see more new majors, new concentrations of study emerging that will cross disciplinary lines.

The other thing I hope will exist 25 years from now is our strength in the humanities. Someone has said that you can judge the quality of a university by how well the humanities do in it Ö particularly a comprehensive university. With the possible exception of Virginia, which isnít so much a public university, Berkeley is the one public university that has maintained its strength in the humanities disciplines. And I think that is always very difficult for public universities, which are marketing themselves to their legislatures in terms of their contribution to economic development, new inventions spawned by university laboratories, and so forth. Weíve got very strong humanities departments here at Berkeley, and we canít let that falter.

What kind of commitment will that require from the faculty and administration?
The structure of shared governance here is what accounts for our current excellence in these areas Ö a determination to apply the same standards of academic excellence across the board. So thatís going to be part of it. It will also require an administration that recognizes the importance of the humanities, and their centrality to the kind of deliberative mission that a university has. We are called upon to be one the few places that really thinks seriously about issues relating to the human condition.

What intellectual benefits have you realized during your tenure here?
The nice thing about this job is that itís a liberal-arts education in itself. Itís very broadening: You get outside your own department and your own discipline, as you become an administrator with broader responsibilities. I canít say that I know very much about any of these other disciplines, but I do now understand how people in them think. How people think is shaped heavily by their disciplinary orientation: engineers approach problems differently than humanists do. Learning how people think differently and approach problems with that different perspective is a very educational process. When youíre deeply in a discipline you assume that everybody in the world thinks the way you do. Breaking out of that is a very illuminating experience.

Youíve got a busy schedule on campus right through the end of the semester. But what are your plans for the period after you step down?
Peg and I will be doing a bit of traveling, starting with a trip to Asia in August. Iíve been invited to China to speak at a conference of university presidents there. And I hope to be able to do a little more traveling in Asia than Iíve been able to do up until now. Then, in late September, weíre leading an alumni association BearTrek to Poland, for almost two weeks.

There will be some limited work on my summer schedule. I think Iíll be serving on a committee of the Association of American Universities that is dealing with issues related to the future of public higher education in America. But mostly what Iíll be doing, when Iím not just relaxing and spending time with my kids and grandkids, is getting ready to teach the following year. Iíve got a lot of work to do in figuring out how to go back to being a professor.

What will it be like to resume teaching?
Iíve taught everyplace Iíve been. I team-taught a couple of courses at Illinois and Texas and have taught freshman seminars here. Iíll probably teach some lower division survey courses in history and some courses in the School of Public Policy relating to the issue of the privatization of public goods, whether itís universities, or resources, or even armies. Iíve always loved teaching Ö though whether I can do it again is a scary prospect in some ways. Itís gotten highly technical: Youíve got to do PowerPoint and all that stuff now, so Iíve got a lot of technical skills to develop to be a modern classroom teacher.

Will you continue to live in Berkeley?
When we ultimately retire it will be to Portland, but weíre going to have a place here as well, and Iíll be back frequently. Weíve bought a condo in Berkeley ó in fact, weíre closing on it today.

What are you looking forward to doing in the future that you havenít been able to do as chancellor?
One is to explore things in the Bay Area we havenít had time to explore. There are a lot of hiking trails we havenít hiked, museums we havenít been to. Just taking advantage of the cultural things. We have gotten to some concerts and plays, some Cal Performances, but thatís been sporadic. Being able to have free time to do those kinds of things will be great.

Being a chancellor must have its perks, too. What will you miss the most?
Oh, having somebody do everything for you! Having someone who sorts my mail and makes my plane reservations; someone who reminds me of where Iím supposed to be when and is always there to help. The kind of support that you have for whatever needs doing in this job is really the thing youíll miss the most.

Iíll also miss the adrenaline that you have with this kind of job ó from one day to the next you never know quite what will be on the agenda. Most of the problems that reach my desk are insoluble Ö because if they were soluble, theyíd have been solved before they get there. You get used to that kind of challenge and adrenaline surge, and I think there will be kind of a decompression period for the first month.

My pattern has always been that when I go away for three weeks on vacation, which I try to do every year, the first week Iím still very wrapped up in whatís going on here, so Iím on the phone, reading my e-mail, and that sort of thing. The next week Iím more relaxed and in vacation mode. By the third week Iím not paying any attention to whatís going on here Ö and by the end of that third week Iím bored. So whatís really a bit terrifying is that unless I really plan out what Iím going to be doing next year, that fourth-week syndrome will perpetuate through the year. The decompression after a month or so is what kind of worries me Ö and I think it worries my wife, too!