Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Re-energizing UC Berkeley

By David Zilberman

For years, Berkeley has been ranked by the National Research Council number 1 in terms of elite graduate programs, but over the last few years, I feel that Berkeley is in malaise. Berkeley possesses a unique combination of breadth, depth, beauty and charm. Berkeley is a hub of nuclear power and the peace movement, biotechnology and agroecology, industry leaders and activists, scientists and poets. Unlike its competitors, it is much more accessible to the masses. Yet, all this is at risk.

We accumulated a chronic deficit due to California state politics and our own choices. We have four sources of income — support from the state, tuitions, public and private research grants and donations. Support to the system and in particular Berkeley has declined — and is not likely to come back. We are constrained by the number of students we can enroll — and in particular foreign students. I worry about public sector support for research — so the future looks bleak. In addition, we are going through a leadership crisis — and seem to be waiting for a new chancellor and the administration that he/she will assemble.

So today the immediate instinct is to cut and restructure. I am aware that there may be a lot of efficiencies that can be gained. But our objectives must be to reverse the crisis by finding a way to grow out of it. We cannot lose our stars and stop hiring and building towards the future. The Academic Senate, the administration, the faculty and alumni need to recognize that this is an emergency that requires daring and extra effort. All of us need to think how we can help campus ride these rough waters.

We have to recognize our assets and build from our strengths. In these days, where people who deny climate change may run our government, Berkeley can be a center for scientific and policy research and policy design that will acknowledges the reality of climate change. We need to develop specific, targeted initiatives to raise funds for such efforts and enact them. Berkeley is an international university like no other and can serve as a linkage between the US and the developing world. We should make the effort to obtain resources needed to be a center of global efforts, both training and research, in sustainable development. We must capitalize on some of the excitement from our new technologies, like gene editing, and our unique strengths in natural science, engineering, and the humanities. We can develop collaborative relationships with public and private groups that both will lead to new innovations and technologies and will create social and political thinking that allows for beneficial use of technologies. This is a time for decentralized initiatives (bottom up) that will spark movement forward in many areas. Each of us needs to think, what can I do to help? And I hope that the bureaucracy will allow us to move forward.

We should also emphasize smart, targeted growth. Continue to build muscle while we eliminate fat. In my view, the heart of the university is in top notch faculty and students. I cringe when I hear about a hiring freeze. Not many universities have the quality and number of alumni we do — and they can be our best allies. These allies can help us raise money for endowed chairs that will allow us to grow into new, exciting areas, as well as sponsorship of students. We may encourage alumni to "adopt a chair" or a group of students. I believe that it crucial to invest in people and to be more selective in investing in infrastructure. It is tempting to invest in new buildings, but we can more creatively utilize our existing space. In this computer age, faculty offices don’t need to accommodate large libraries and when people work at home, maybe shared space is the way to go. New equipment should be linked to new capacities— and when appropriate may be obtained with partners who share the cost.

One type of infrastructure that is probably needed is student housing. We need to think creatively how we can expand our educational offering with our constraints. In this regard, the Richmond campus could be a good initiative because if we can get students from all over the world, they will cover its costs. The big challenge is how to teach more students with more or less the same resources. This is a new area for creativity. In my master's of development practice, I realize that there are many options. For example, more use of practitioners and adjuncts, as well as more utilization of GSIs and introducing intensive classes that are two or three weekends that expose students to new ideas and techniques. Bringing visitors to campus to conduct research and be paid through teaching is another approach. Actually, the Richmond campus, in addition to housing students, can serve as a knowledge center for the Pacific Rim where Berkeley partners with other universities and companies to conduct activities of mutual benefits (that will be self-financing). Furthermore, with expanded capacity, we can enrich our educational activities by adopting the idea of lifelong learning. We can offer to alumni and others who qualify and can pay training on different areas throughout their life. Extension shouldn’t be an appendix, but rather part of our mainstream. People may have several careers, and there is no reason that Berkeley cannot help them with updated training and learning they need to succeed.

The final thing we need to start thinking about is reorganization. Everyone that I know recognizes that our existing structure is inefficient and that we can be organized better, but we are afraid to do it because of self-interest. This moment of crisis is a time for change. Some of the professional schools can be combined. We can have new schools on media and schools on sustainable development and the environment. The challenge is to maintain the excellence of the past and steer our existing structures to new directions.

The status quo of waiting for a new chancellor is quite frustrating — we need to provide input and direction to the president’s office and take more charge on our direction. We need to think and discuss what kind of university we want, what types of changes we can tolerate, and admit how the existing structures that serve us now may not be in the public good in the long run. We should communicate on what we want to change.