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Public universities championed at Times Higher Education summit

By Christopher Merchant


Some 300 higher education experts and administrators from around the world converged at UC Berkeley for the annual Times Higher Education World Academic Summit this week.

The summit was the first THE global conference to be hosted in North America and bore the theme, “World-Class Universities and the Public Good.” Over sessions from Monday to Wednesday, speakers and delegates shared strategies universities can use to benefit both their immediate communities and the global population.

“It is easy enough, I think, to recognize how much a college degree benefits the individual who obtains it. It has become a truism that ‘the more you learn, the more you earn,’ ” said Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks, during his welcome Monday night. Dirks went on to add that, on average, people in the United States who have a university education go on to make about $1 million more over the course of their lifetime than peers with only a high school diploma.

Mary Sue Coleman

AAU President Mary Sue Coleman told the conference, “Public universities are the workhorses of American research and education.” (UC Berkeley photo by Brittany Hosea-Small)

“In recent years, however, the inclusion of higher education as a public good has been increasingly contested, even as the shifting of the responsibility for funding higher education from taxpayers to consumers has further compromised this general belief,” Dirks continued.

This theme was echoed during the opening keynote delivered by Robert Reich, the Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at Berkeley who served as U.S. secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton from 1993 to 1997. Reich said that public education is “dying” in the U.S. because of skyrocketing tuition costs and dwindling of state funding for public institutions.

The value of publics

Mary Sue Coleman, president of the Association of American Universities, made the case for continuing to support public schools during a Tuesday keynote speech.

“Public universities are the workhorses of American research and education,” Coleman said, adding that there are far more benefits for college graduates than a bigger expected salary — graduates are more likely to vote, exercise and volunteer than their peers.

Additionally, public universities are responsible for countless innovations that benefit the greater public.

“We are not the newest smartphone or self-driving vehicle,” Coleman said, “though we probably created the technologies behind them.”

However, public funds for schools like Berkeley continue to plummet; 46 states continue to offer less support to their universities than they did before the economic crisis in 2008, Coleman said.

“As society goes, so goes the university,” said Coleman, quoting Berkeley’s first chancellor, Clark Kerr, who took the office when it was created in 1952. “But also as the university goes, so goes society.”

Saul Perlmutter

Berkeley Nobel-winning physicist Saul Perlmutter talked about research and teaching in a top-level university. (UC Berkeley photo by Brittany Hosea-Small)

Global impact

Though public universities are threatened, they are vital for advancement around the globe, said University of Cambridge Vice Chancellor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz during the closing keynote Tuesday.

“Universities create jobs and support livelihoods far beyond their own walls,” Borysiewicz said, adding that it is the academy’s responsibility to help improve the lives of the approximately 1 billion people who do not have enough to eat every day and the billions more who live on a few dollars a day.

“The society we serve is no longer limited to our community… but rather to this small planet that we all live on,” Borysiewicz said.

For many parents and potential students in developed nations, though, the bottom line is still return on investment, said Anthony Monaco, president of Tufts University, during a panel discussion moderated by Berkeley College of Letters and Science Dean Carla Hesse Wednesday.

However, more and more undergraduates are flocking to liberal arts degrees to obtain a broad and comprehensive skill set for jobs “that haven’t even been invented yet,” Monaco said.

In his closing comments Wednesday, Chancellor Dirks called on that spirit of idealism and innovation to drive higher education forward in the future.

“As I reflect on so much of I what heard and learned, I leave this summit with great hope and optimism for the future,” Dirks said. “I suspect that you, like me, come away from this gathering reinvigorated and better prepared to advance our cause and shared interests.

“And, among the primary reason for that confidence is another one of this summit’s powerful takeaways: We are not alone. We are all in this together. We are, each of us, a part of something larger — a global community of educators, scholars and administrators.”