By far the best thing about America is its universities. Not Harvard, Yale, e tutti quanti: though marvelous, they are not distinctively American — their roots reach across the ocean to Oxford, Heidelberg, and beyond. Nowhere else in the world, however, can boast such public universities.
The late Tony Judt — a distinguished British historian — was hardly alone in remarking that the best thing about America is its public universities. Each campus represents the enormous significance of scholarship, learning, and research, and the ubiquity of these campuses across the country makes real the promise of education, at the highest level, for all people — not just the elite.
In no other domain did the twin commitment to excellence and democracy seem so natural and critical for the new nation. And yet, the fate of our great public universities is increasingly under threat, hanging in the balance between diminished funding and the need to invent a new model that recaptures Abraham Lincoln’s belief that higher education should be seen as a public good, not merely the domain of the private sector.
Today we typically think of the public good as referring to those basic goods that should be available in equal measure to all citizens, from potable water to health care. As a society we have come to acknowledge the importance of education as a public good because we know that citizens will not become productive members of the economy without significant knowledge and that becoming a full citizen of a democracy requires more than a narrow skill set for a vocational goal.
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 the general belief that higher education might be considered public at all.
What we need, especially when debating how to support public institutions that combine research with education at the most advanced levels, is the mutual agreement and will to find new, and creative ways to support high-quality public goods precisely because of their importance to our society as a whole.
As early as the first decades of the 20th century an elite group of public universities emerged as among the nation’s best, while opening their doors to a larger cross section of the public than ever before. By the middle of the century, there was general agreement that the University of California at Berkeley, my institution, was not only the leading public university, it was as good as the best privates.
I use Berkeley not just as a beacon but also a bellwether for public higher education in the United States. As public funding crises have intensified, the worry increasingly has been whether we as a nation will come to see, and then accept, a new stratification of universities in which the top tier will be made up of private institutions, with public institutions serving the vocational needs of the masses.
By the recessions of the early 1990s and 2000s, funding cuts for higher education had become regular features in many states, including California. After multiple cycles of cuts, the recession of 2008 led to an unprecedented decline. Berkeley lost more than half its state funding, and even after the recovery of the state economy, today it receives only 12 percent of its budget from the state (down from 33 percent in 2004), receiving only a little more than half what it received before the recession.
While few at Berkeley would argue that the university should be cut off from political and public concerns, it is increasingly clear that there are significant differences between university communities and state governments when it comes to the interpretation of "public mission." And there is growing concern that the excellence Berkeley has achieved will be difficult to protect in the future.
The excellence of the country’s flagship public universities has been tied not just to the educational mission but also to the role of research. These institutions have played an especially important role in research activity across such diverse fields as theoretical physics, economics, and the arts and humanities. The value of such research may not always be obvious, but rudimentary calculations suggest that it is one of the best investments governments make.
In terms of lasting, measurable, and concrete contributions to the greater good, what consistently distinguishes the great publics from the great privates in America has to do with the commitment and capacity of public universities to provide an excellent education to the broadest possible swath of the public. Consider the enrollment of Pell Grant students at Berkeley and the University of California at Los Angeles, another top-tier public institution. In 2012-13, these two universities enrolled just over 20,000 Pell Grant students — as many as the top 16 private universities in the United States combined.
As states continue to disinvest in public higher education, most flagship universities are faced with the need to devise new models to survive as elite institutions. And they have to do so in a context of public skepticism about the value of higher education beyond job training.
Political realism suggests it is time to conceive of a drastically different model for public higher education. Instead of simply accepting that state disinvestment comes with an ever greater level of state control, it may be time to develop a new idea of public higher education that rescues the original sense of the public trust from the turmoil of state politics and generalized public uninterest.
For Berkeley, as for other public institutions, this will mean becoming ever more aggressive in developing new funding models, including innovative master’s programs and more executive education. It also means using our assets in more commercial ways. While we need to shore up and sustain traditional sources of support from state and federal governments, we must also turn to methods that have been successfully used by private universities, including modest though regular increases in tuition while raising the discount level for financial aid, and endowing need-based student aid through fund raising.
And rather than assuming state support for all new faculty positions, we will build our endowment for chairs that cover not just full salaries but support for research and graduate training as well.
Success will also demand advocacy and action well beyond the university’s borders. In line with a primary recommendation arising from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ Lincoln Project, we will join our peer institutions to engage business leaders in a dialogue about ways they can support and advocate for public higher education in a manner that is commensurate with the benefits they enjoy as a result of the research conducted and education provided at public universities across the country.
As Berkeley forges new institutional strategies to advance the public good in a changing world, we are also developing models for other public universities to follow. The greatness of our nation will continue to rely on the stature and vitality of these institutions.
Nicholas B. Dirks is chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley.