‘Bonfire of the publics?’ Clark Kerr and California’s Master Plan

Simon Marginson, a professor of international higher education at the Institute of Education in London, will be presenting this year’s Clark Kerr Lecture Series, beginning Tuesday, Sept. 30. Marginson will speak on “The Present and Future of California’s Higher Education Model in a Globalized World,” giving three lectures at Berkeley’s David Brower Center through Oct. 7 and a fourth at UC San Diego.

A longtime faculty member at the University of Melbourne’s Center for the Study of Higher Education, Marginson is the author or co-author of dozens of books, articles, reports and scholarly studies, and one of the world’s most frequently cited researchers in the area of international higher education. He spoke with the NewsCenter from London.

Simon Marginson

Simon Marginson (Photo courtesy of Center for Studies in Higher Education)

NewsCenter: You were born and raised in Australia. Can you recall when you were first introduced to Clark Kerr and the California Master Plan for Higher Education?

Simon Marginson: Oh yes, quite well. I was a young faculty in 1993, my first year of appointment — when I say young, I was actually 40 — and one of the books I read quite early was The Uses of the University, which was recommended to me by my colleagues. It struck me as a very good book, and it’s always been for me, since then, the best book on the modern university.

The Master Plan I absorbed more slowly. My knowledge of it began with my encounter with Kerr’s Godkin lectures, but really accumulated over time. The other major work that influenced me quite early was [UC Berkeley’s] Martin Trow’s essay on the transition from elite to mass to universal education, which is another University of California seminal work. I’m going to discuss that in my lectures as well.

You’ve written and spoken about the dual need for elite universities coexisting with a widely accessible system.

That’s the classic California model, isn’t it? In the classic Californian formula, the one that’s been immensely influential across the whole world, really, and certainly in the United States, is the notion of a system in which you have a layer of strong research universities, and you have most of your growth in participation occurring at a lower level, with some passage up into the echelons by students who achieve well at the lower levels.

In different ways, that formula has been pursued by a lot of systems as they’ve grown in many countries. It’s starting to break down because you don’t have the fiscal capacity to carry that mass access sector. That’s now happening in California, which is a great concern, I think, for all of us.

Does that suggest a flaw in the model?

On the whole it’s a good formula, but I think it has some limits as well. One of the limits is that you get a large number of students who tend to get trapped in a fairly attenuated form of participation — short programs, low-cost courses, not much opportunity to shine in the more complex or difficult areas. Students that maybe should have been in four-year programs or doctoral universities, in systems where you’ve got a very large bottom-tier sector, can get trapped in that sector. So I think on the whole the model, which was brilliant in 1960, probably needed to evolve more than it did in the successive 50 years.

You’re coming to Berkeley during the 50th-anniversary celebration of the Free Speech Movement. And of course not only was Kerr a target of the FSM, but so was his vision of the “multiversity,” which Mario Savio famously described as a “knowledge factory” meant to produce a generation of conformists.

Kerr got caricatured by Mario and the Free Speech Movement. He was a bit unlucky, I think, to be a liberal president with great sympathy for the students, and genuine commitment to their broader education, rather than a factory-like education. He was basically a liberal educator, as well as a political liberal. And there he was in the thick of things at the wrong time. In some ways you couldn’t win. I don’t think any strategy by any president at that point in time could have successfully accommodated the Free Speech Movement and left everyone happy at the end of the day.

If he’d been an authoritarian president he would have done no better, and of course that’s what Reagan and others in the state wanted him to be. He was in a no-win position.

So we shouldn’t judge his legacy solely by his role as a foil for the FSM.

He was able to go on and play this major national and state role, and retire as a giant of the field. There’s no more important university leader in American history, probably, than Kerr, despite the fact that he lost the presidency and the Free Speech Movement tripped him up.

You’ve written a good deal about a “compact between self-realization and the common good,” holding that up as an optimal balance for a university system.

I think in a lot of ways, California is the origin of contemporary individualism. It’s where a lot of our ideas about the good life and individual fulfillment have been generated. At the same time, in higher education California was the home of this remarkable, very large, visionary social compact which involved a recognition by the universities that they were interdependent with the state universities and community colleges, and a sense of responsibility and restraint toward the other sectors. That’s marked the University of California’s approach to higher education.

So there is a kind of larger public-spiritedness, a capacity in the state to rise above the struggle for individual fulfillment and to look at the larger good. But to do that on a voluntary basis, not coerced by the state.

I think the Master Plan basically was that. It was a very public-spirited and large vision, and it was generally supported and successful for a long time, despite the rampant individualism of the culture.

Was, past tense?

That public-spiritedness has run its course to some extent, undermined by the fiscal position of the state as much as anything else.

The single most important thing that happened, historically, was Proposition 13 in 1978. Proposition 13 basically said, “We don’t want to pay taxes for the common good.”

I think you could say, though, it was the recession from 2008 onward which really made it impossible to sustain the model under its old assumptions — basically, that the state can provide public higher education for all citizens who want it and are able to do it. Once the community colleges can’t enroll everyone, and state universities and UC have to turn away qualified people, then the model has lost its core rationale, and it’s harder to make the case to mobilize taxation to fund it properly. So it’s on a downward spiral.

The title of your third lecture is a question: “Bonfire of the Publics?”

I don’t know where it goes from here. This is one of the things I’m puzzling about now. I’ve actually written the first two lectures, but I’m not sure yet what I’m going to say in the third. I’ve planned it, and I’ve sketched it, and I’ve written bits of it. But I’m going to take a lot of soundings in the first week while I’m at Berkeley about where people think things might go from here.

I’m pitching my argument in a larger sense in relation to the international and national level. But I think there’s a core question about this great system which has led the world, which is far ahead of its time in terms of thinking about higher education, and is now in trouble, at least in terms of its old assumptions: Can it remake itself around a new and modernized set of assumptions that are appropriate for this period, and enable it to do the sort of things it was doing before, but better?

That’s the sort of question, as an outsider offering gratuitous advice, that I’ve got in mind. And I’m not sure I’m going to come up with the answer. But if I can at least explore the options in front of people, that might help them explore the options for themselves.

Marginson’s three Berkeley lectures are free and open to the public. For more information, visit the Center for Studies in Higher Education.