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Clark Kerr's legacy: 1960 Master Plan transformed higher education

– Like so many things Californian, the state's 1960 Master Plan for Higher Education produced an influential model for America and the rest of the world.

Clark Kerr was president of the University of California when he became a member of the liaison committee assigned to come up with a plan. He turned into its chief architect, engineer and skillful shepherd in a role that earned this modest scholar national media attention.

The plan, created under the tenure of Gov. Edmund "Pat" Brown, developed new guidelines for the University of California system, what became the California State University system and the state's community colleges.

Its reorganization resolved much of the competition between schools and led to expanded educational resources in a public higher education system known for excellence, accessibility and relative affordability.

"This postsecondary system - designed for both broad access and excellence in research and teaching - not only transformed educational opportunity in California for several generations, but also transformed public higher education nationally as it was emulated and copied by other states," said David Ward, president of the American Council on Education.

At Stanford University in Palo Alto, President John L. Hennessy called Kerr "instrumental in building an educational system that is the envy of the rest of the world."

Neil Smelser, an emeritus professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of the forward to Kerr's memoirs, said the Master Plan ranks "among the two or three most important and influential innovations in higher education in the 20th century."

At UC Berkeley's Center for Studies in Higher Education, senior research fellow John Douglass said of profound importance "is not what the plan invented, but what it prevented."

California already had an open door admissions policy that developed with the advent of community colleges and dated back to 1907, enrollment agreements going back to 1930, and a three-part system of higher education, Douglass said.

But California in the late 1950s and early '60s faced economic decline, huge projected growth in higher education enrollment, and a new governor weary of educators bickering over academic program turf and resources, he said.

There are similarities between the period leading up to the1960 Master Plan and today, said Douglass, in terms of significant state budget problems, an inadequate tax system, and large-scale growth in higher education enrollment demand.

There also was a sense of political instability: one related to the Cold War, the other to a general lack of faith in government to solve major social and economic problems, Douglass said.

A big difference, he said, is that in the late 1950s, lawmakers first looked to the higher education community for answers about how to grow the state's higher education system. Now, state government tends to think that only outside pressure and legislative committees can solve higher education problems.

Douglass said that, indeed, the 1960 Master Plan "represented a political compromise at a critical historical moment that sustained a tremendously successful network" of public colleges and universities.

"Kerr's great contribution was his willingness to negotiate a deal and hold the line on mission differentiation between the community colleges, the state university system and the University of California," Douglass said, noting that Kerr's experience as a labor economist and mediator served him well.

In his new book, "Shakespeare, Einstein, and the Bottom Line: The Marketing of Higher Education," UC Berkeley Professor David Kirp described Kerr as a university leader willing to speak truth to power.

Kerr once said that a key component of the Master Plan was resolving "how much should be controlled by higher education itself and how much by the state."

Although California Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg, D-Los Angeles, butted heads with Kerr in the 1960s when he was UC Berkeley's chancellor and she was a student active in the Free Speech Movement, she now expresses appreciation for his contributions to California higher education and a concern about its future.

"We are currently gutting his legacy," said Goldberg, chair of the Assembly Education Committee, making reference to continuing budget cuts for higher education.

"We need the leadership of someone like Clark Kerr right now to argue from the bully pulpit that higher education is important."