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UC Commission on the Future gets feedback from the system's flagship campus

| 07 December 2009

In the ninth of 10 campus forums around the state this fall, members of the University of California Commission on the Future, charged with fundamentally rethinking the institution in a time of financial crisis, came to Berkeley Thursday for an exchange with members of the campus community. Turnout was thin — drawing about 125 students, faculty, and staff — but many of those who could and did attend the 9-to-noon session communicated, via their comments and questions, their appreciation for the consequential nature of the commission's mission.

Associate Professor Kristie Boering raises questions about online education at UCAssociate Professor Kristie Boering raises questions about online education at UC. (Cathy Cockrell/NewsCenter)

"This country is awash with mediocre public universities. We could become that," warned Chris Kutz, chair of the Berkeley Division of the Academic Senate.

Launched by UC President Mark Yudof and Russell Gould, chair of the Board of Regents, the commission is charged with developing "a vision for the future of the University that will reaffirm our role in sustaining California's economy and cultural life." Members of the commission and its five working groups — focusing respectively on UC's size and shape, education and curriculum, access and affordability, funding strategies, and research strategies — have been asked to develop recommendations for presentation to the regents.

Two commissioners and three working-group members spoke briefly at the forum about UC's current challenges. Keith Williams, co-chair of the education and curriculum working group and a senior lecturer at UC Davis, said that financial support from the state has so deteriorated that "we really need to do something" to re-envision how to serve the state. Some research universities, faced with similar financial challenges, have experimented with online education options, with mixed results, he observed. His working group is developing metrics to evaluate the success of whatever pedagogical solutions, online or otherwise, that UC chooses to adopt.

Commission on the Future member Chris Edley, dean of Berkeley Law, has advocated the creation of an 11th UC "campus," dedicated to offering online degrees. That proposal drew a significant amount of fire from faculty and students at the forum. Associate Professor Kristie Boering, chair of the Courses of Instruction committee of the Berkeley Division of the Academic Senate, observed that fully online courses require a greater investment of time and money than traditional face-to-face classes. She and many of her colleagues, she said, "are of the opinion that 'online but equal' will go the way of 'separate but equal' in terms of being an educational failure."

Shane Mason, a junior majoring in business, echoed the sentiment — calling online courses "a poor substitute for the real thing." Connecting with faculty members and classmates has been crucial to his academic survival at Berkeley as a transfer student, he said.

Cautionary notes

The commission has been asked to presents its recommendations to the regents in mid-2010. Professor Kutz questioned whether it could accomplish such a "contentious and difficult task" so quickly. He is "quite concerned," he said, whether there is sufficient time for "broad-based community reflection and deliberation." At the same time, said Kutz, what "makes UC remarkable is incredibly fragile. There's very little time to save it."

One strength at stake is the ability to attract top grad students, warned former Graduate Dean Mary Ann Mason, now a member of the Divisional Council. The recent 15-percent rise in graduate-student fees has a potential ripple effect, she said: "We won't be able to recruit and retain great faculty unless we have great graduate students."

Others expressed frustration at how difficult it is to understand UC's complex budget. "What are the student fees going to? Where is the money coming from for construction?" asked Oliver O'Reilly, professor of mechanical engineering and a member of the Divisional Council. At a time of "huge budget cuts, staff layoffs, and student-fee increases," he said, "it's difficult to see what decisions are wise and correct…. It would be most welcomed to have a budget we could all understand."

Peter Taylor, chief financial officer in UC Office of the President, said that UC recently compiled financial information on the UC Office of the President website to help clarify the budget.

"The state budget that was passed in July seized from us $715 million we had already spent,…" noted Taylor, an ex-officio member of the funding strategies working group. "They're hard dollars and they're very, very real." The university must deal with the current financial crisis, he said — but it also needs to figure out whether this problem is cyclical or structural in nature. Will UC see stronger state support when the state and national economies rebound? Or is the current level of state funding the new norm?

At the forum, several students questioned whether the commission was sincere about considering campus members' feedback. (If it was sincere, some asked, why had it scheduled the event at a time when most students were in class?). In his closing remarks, Williams responded to this challenge: "We're not here just for show," he insisted.

One thing that everyone seemed able to agree on was that advocating for UC in Sacramento is imperative. "We need to make it clear to the state of California that UC is a good investment," stressed staffer Marco Lindsey, a member of the Chancellor's Staff Advisory Committee. "For every dollar the state invests in UC, we return five dollars to the state," he said.

UC is "vital to a vibrant economy for the state," said ASUC President Will Smelko. "We haven't succeeded in conveying that message to the voters and legislators."

Panelists at the forum included two members of the commission — UCSF Professor Mary Croughan, former president of the systemwide Academic Senate, and UC Santa Barbara Chancellor Henry Yang — and UC Berkeley Professor of Physics Bob Jacobsen, a member of the access and affordability working group, in addition to Williams and Taylor.

The UC Commission on the Future will hold its final campus meeting at 1 p.m., Monday, Dec. 7, at UCLA. A public forum will held from 1:30 to 4:30 p.m., Tuesday, Dec. 8, at UCSF Mission Community Center, 1675 Owens St., San Francisco.