Dear President Napolitano:

My colleague Michael O’Hare’s letter to you proves one proposition beyond any doubt: Your first act as President of the University of California should be to ask UCSF to start a crash program to clone O’Hares. We need at least one of him per campus.

As to the recommendations he actually makes: Mike’s analysis is always penetrating and provocative. His conclusions are, in many cases, correct. This, however, is one of the other cases. Yes, the basic functions of the University need fixing. No, yours is not the office in charge of fixing them.

The President of the University of California has three functions: (1) to choose the Chancellors who run the ten essentially independent teaching institutions that constitute the UC system; (2) to bring in money from the state government; and (3) to keep the Regents, the legislature, and the governor off the backs of the folks who do the actual work. It’s a brilliant system: as long as Regents and the rest of the politicians are talking with the President, the productive parts of the enterprise are insulated from ignorant meddling.

Your recent predecessors have grossly failed with respect to task #2. Their failure has put at risk an astoundingly successful machine for turning out new knowledge and educated people. Your central task is to reverse that failure. I would propose do so through a ballot initiative to be voted on in November of 2016 that would require the state to spend as much on its universities (UC plus CSU) as it does on its prisons.

Mike is right that lots of things about the contemporary research university need to change to adapt to new conditions. According to Susanne Lohmann’s long-anticipated book, that statement has remained true for the approximately 1000 years that research universities have existed. They have always adapted, and always far too slowly to please their internal and external critics.

No doubt the Office of the President can help that adaptation along, both by providing some resources (especially in the integration of information and communications technology into the teaching process) by choosing Chancellors committed to a reform agenda, and (perhaps) by taking action to curtail the proliferation of Deputy Assistant Vice-Chancellors for Nothing in Particular. But the OP has neither the expertise, the capacity, nor the standing to impose the sort of centralized management that Mike’s reform agenda seems to demand. There’s simply nothing productive to be done from Oakland about the problem that empirical labor economists, given a choice of colleagues, hire other empirical labor economists. And even Mike’s agenda omits improving the treatment of non-ladder faculty, a truly monstrous challenge that has been getting worse under budget pressure.

But here’s the central fact: American higher education is a remarkably successful sector. Within that sector, the University of California is a standout performer. Of our ten campuses, four are ranked among the top twenty research universities worldwide, and another three in the top fifty. And we do that while also maintaining an important avenue of social mobility; UCLA alone has more Pell Grant recipients than the entire Ivy League put together, and thirty percent of our graduates are the first in their families to attend college. That amazing accomplishment – most of it built over the last half-century – is what’s under threat, and the main threat to its maintenance is simply lack of money from the state.

When Al Carnesale got to UCLA as Chancellor in 1978 1997, the budget handwriting was already on the wall: UC had slipped from spending 70% of what Stanford spent to teach an undergraduate in 1970 to spending 30% as much a quarter-century later. (The ratio must be even lower now.) Al said that we would know that the battle was lost when people stopped stating our aspiration as being among the greatest universities in the world and started talking about remaining one of the leading public universities in the country.

Alas, that’s where we are now. And without radical political action, led by the Office of the President, there’s little hope for better to come.


Mark Kleiman

[Cross-posted at The Reality-based Community]

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Mark Kleiman is a professor of public policy at the New York University Marron Institute.