According to the Economist, the best public education in the world is to be found in California, and it is endangered. (HT: Mark Thoma) The Academic Ranking of World Universities, compiled by Shanghai Jiao Tong University in China, ranks UC Berkeley as the world’s top public university, just behind private Harvard and Stanford. Figuring out how much importance to attach to any rankings system is always tricky, of course, but many consider the SJTU ranking one of the more meaningful ranking systems of university research quality.
Some background on the SJTU ranking system, according to this paper, published in the Journal of Institutional Research 13(1), 83–96:
The SJTU ranking, first published in 2003, was developed in order to determine the gap between Chinese universities and world-class universities, particularly in aspects of academic or research performance (SJTU, 2006). The ranking of top 500 universities is predominantly based upon publication and citation (20% citation in leading Science and Social Science journals, 20% in articles in Science and Nature and 20% in the number of highly cited researchers). Another 30% is determined by alumni and staff with Nobel prizes and Field medals and the remaining 10% is determined by dividing the total derived from the above data by the number of faculty. Hence, according to SJTU, ‘quality’ in higher education is denoted by scientific research and Nobel Prizes. The measures do not attempt to cover aspects such as teaching, community building or internationalisation — it is about research excellence.
UCLA (13), UCSD (14), and UCSF (18) also rank in the top twenty under these measures. (UC fares similarly well under various U.S. News rankings, available here).
Regardless of how much importance one attaches to the SJTU, or any other, ranking, there’s no doubt that the California university system has been the envy of many other states. Now, this accomplishment may be in jeopardy, due to the California state economic crisis, discussed previously at the Lounge here and here.
From the Economist:
“We are in irreversible decline,” says Sandra Faber, a professor of astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz who has inadvertently become a mouthpiece for a fed-up faculty. University excellence, she says, “took decades to build. It takes a year to destroy it.”
According to the article, the California budget deal reached last month contained huge cuts, including $2 billion from higher education. The UC system has lost a cumulative $813m of state funding in the last fiscal year and faces a cut of 20% in the current fiscal year. The second-tier California State University (Cal State) – which, with 23 campuses, is the largest in the country -- and the third-tier community colleges have also faced cuts. (See here for more discussion on the three-tiered California public higher-education system).
What interests us here at the Lounge, of course, is what sort of in-fighting will result from the belt-tightening that will have to accompany these cuts, and whether it will take place in a public forum that we can observe (because, like TNT, we know drama). Specifically, there has been much debate over whether cuts should occur across-the-board, or be targeted toward certain “underperforming” campuses, units, or people. For example, in this letter (previously discussed by me, here, and Dan, here) twenty-one UC San Diego department heads argue that:
the world's finest public university should preserve its elite, world-class research campuses – namely UCSD, UC Berkeley, UCLA and UC San Francisco – and impose proportionately deeper budget cuts on the less-renowned campuses in Merced, Riverside and Santa Cruz or, if necessary, shut them down.
On July 16, Robert Cooter, Professor of Law, and Aaron Edlin, Professor of Law and of Economics, both at UC Berkeley, published an op-ed piece in the LA Times (previously discussed in the Lounge, here), urging the University to consider layoffs, rather than salary cuts, as a means to deal with the budget shortfall. Cooter and Edlin argue that bloat and bureaucracy have stifled creativity and productivity at the University of California, leading to unproductive workers and unproductive jobs.
Shortly thereafter, Kristin Luker, Professor of Law and Sociology at UC Berkeley, responded with an op-ed of her own, arguing that:
the “staff” lurking in the background of the Cooter and Edlin Op-Ed article are disproportionately women and people of color, and they work for wages even further below the prevailing market because they lack the bargaining power of professors and the ability to pull up stakes to move to better options.
Several Lounge commenters (for example, here and here) asked the obvious question – what does all of this mean for UC Irvine’s new law school? UCLA Law Professor Steve Bainbridge took up the charge here, urging the state to kill the UC Irvine law school:
In 2006, California did not need a fifth public law school. . . .
Today, with state revenues having plummeted faster and further than Regent Montoya might have expected, we simply can't afford Irvine's law school. Odds are, with the California economy doing even worse than the nation as a whole, we have even less need for extra lawyers than we did when the Commission rejected the Irvine proposal back in 2006. . . .
I see no reason for the state to spend a dime on Irvine. Kill it now and put the money to better use, such as helping reverse some of the cuts to undergraduate education.
So, back to last week’s Economist article, which argues that all of this threatens the three-tiered system created by Edmund “Pat” Brown, governor from 1959 to 1967, and Clark Kerr, who was in charge of the UC during those years. Kerr wanted California’s public universities to be “bait to be dangled in front of industry, with drawing power greater than low taxes or cheap labour.” Kerr’s ambition was:
First, to educate as many young Californians as affordably as possible. The best students would go to the UC, the next lot to Cal State and the rest to community colleges with the possibility of trading up. Second, to attract academic superstars. Kerr went about this like a talent scout, and his successors have continued the practice. The UC campuses have collectively produced more Nobel laureates than any other university.
But that ambition was under stress even before the state’s current crisis, and now it appears about to crack. According to news reports, state spending per student in the UC system, adjusted for inflation, has fallen by 40% since 1990; California’s economy is projected to face a severe shortfall of college graduates by 2025, depressing the prosperity of the entire state; both the UC and Cal State systems are putting professors and staff on leave, increasing the numbers of students in each classroom, and offering fewer courses. Meanwhile, attracting and retaining top faculty, and the research dollars that follow them in many departments, is expected to become more difficult.
Who knows what will happen with the California higher education system? (Mark seems determined to launch a Lounge-sponsored prediction market, so this may be his chance.) But, hopefully, some lessons will emerge from all of this that will benefit other public and private universities. The UC system is not the only one suffering from bloat, bureaucracy, and lack of productivity. All universities – and all law schools – may shortly be faced with some belt-tightening choices. Will they take the easy, “we all contribute in our own ways” approach, cutting across the board, or use economic crisis as an opportunity to make the hard choices that administrators often seek to avoid about how and where to focus scarce resources? My money’s on option one, but my hopes are on option two.
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