UC Story: Parting Reflections as I Transition Away From the University of California

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Posted in: Education

What can I say about a university system that I am leaving after twenty-three years as a professor? That it is extremely impressive. And overly bureaucratic. And that it is facing serious challenges because of a changing California landscape. And that I shall miss it dearly even as I look forward to new adventures and opportunities.

Today is literally my last day (for now, at least—I suppose one never knows what will happen down the road) as a professor and administrator at the University of California. I leave the UC Davis campus to begin the deanship at the University of Illinois College of Law this weekend. Having joined the UC system as a professor over two decades ago, and having taught not just at Davis but also at UC Hastings and (as a visiting professor) at UC Berkeley and UCLA, I’d like to use the space below to offer a few remarks about the remarkable UC system before I depart.

Still the Greatest Public University System in the World

When Californians created the “Master Plan” for higher education about 50 years ago, they had in mind not just maintaining one or two great university campuses, which UC Berkeley and UCSF (in health sciences) undeniably were, and UCLA was quickly becoming, but a great system of public university campuses. And in that ambition they clearly succeeded. It’s hard to believe that until the early to mid-1960s, the UC campuses at San Diego, Santa Barbara, Davis, and Irvine either didn’t exist, or were extremely small and limited in scope. Today all of these campuses are major, comprehensive, global research universities (and the campuses at Santa Cruz and Riverside have also earned acclaim in selected areas). Indeed, it is hard to argue that any other state (or nation) even comes close to the University of California, as a system (maybe the Indian IITs in STEM fields). To be sure, there are public flagship universities in other states (Michigan, Virginia, Illinois, Wisconsin, Texas, North Carolina, and Washington come to mind, and there are others) that are superb universities that rival even the best of the UCs, but in each of these states there is one—in some instances perhaps two—public university campuses that could compare with any of the top six or seven UCs.

Consider last year’s US News rankings of America’s top national research universities. If we look at where public universities placed in relation to each other, the UC system claimed the first, second (tie), eighth, ninth, tenth, and eleventh (tie) slots (with only Michigan, Virginia, North Carolina, William and Mary, Georgia Tech, and Illinois among schools from other states placing in the top dozen publics). Or consider the most recent British Times Higher Education World University Rankings (which uses a different methodology than US News and which rates universities not just in the United States but from around the world). Of the top 50 global universities overall, twelve are American public universities. They are, in order: UC Berkeley, UCLA, Michigan, Washington, Georgia Tech, Texas, Illinois, Wisconsin, UC Santa Barbara, UC San Diego, Minnesota, and North Carolina. Again, the list is dominated by UCs—4 of the 12 (indeed 4 of the top 10) are part of the UC system.

An Internal Challenge to the University of California: A(n excessive?) Zeal for Process

None of this is to say the UC campuses don’t have their challenges. One that I gleaned up close from my perspective as an associate dean at UC Davis is that the University of California is extremely bureaucratic. I fully understand that public universities are obligated to go through complex and often cumbersome processes from which private universities are freed. And I don’t delude myself into thinking that Illinois or other great public universities are vastly less burdened by paperwork than the UC system. And, finally, I think there is often tremendous upside to having internal campus processes that promote accountability and productivity; when I compare the processes at UC Davis to those at UC Hastings College of the Law (which is affiliated with the University but which is not part of a full-fledged UC campus and instead is free-standing), I think the fact that at Davis our law faculty must demonstrate their worth to physicists, economists, and historians on campus increases general productivity more than would be the case where a law school stands alone and needn’t prove itself to other units on campus.

But having said all that, I must also add that the level of detail and redundancy in the memos that need to be written, reincorporated, reconfigured, and reprocessed in the UC can be surprising. So too is the number of committees that often must approve simple matters and the time that elapses before important decisions on which people are anxiously waiting can be executed. Colleagues from other universities are also frequently surprised by the need to obtain extramural reviews before UC faculty members can be promoted to various steps along the academic personnel ladder, even when a candidacy is a no-brainer. And the relationship between the UC Office of the President in Oakland, California (which oversees the whole system) and the various campuses is complicated and opaque.

As someone who teaches and writes about procedures used by government, I appreciate that procedural systems are often designed with the hard cases, and not just the easy cases, in mind, and that it may be difficult for a variety of reasons to treat particular individuals or departments differently from others. But public universities are not just public – they are universities too. And as universities must become more efficient and streamlined in a globally competitive marketplace, I hope the University of California system can continue to take advantage of its vast networks both within and across campuses, but do so in a way that frees up professors to focus on what they do best—research and teaching.

More Vexing External Challenges to the University: The Legislature and the Alumni

From my perspective, the biggest challenges to the UC over the last few decades arise not from within, but from the lessened support it has externally—in the legislature and, importantly for the future, among many alumni. It is no secret that since the 1990s, state funding for the University (in inflation-adjusted terms) has dropped precipitously. While such a decline may be seen in other states too, it is particularly stark to see it in California, where the Master Plan was a bold statement that California would be unique in its ambitions for and commitment to public higher education. It’s hard to know exactly what accounts for the drop in public funding in California. The money that has gone into prison operations and other aspects of the corrections budget is part of the explanation. So too is the related fact that public universities are one of the few components of the state budget whose yearly allocation is not predetermined by a formula adopted by voters in one of a number of statewide initiatives; as more and more of the California state budget is constrained by these voter-enacted measures (e.g., K-12 education, the biggest single item of state spending, is protected by Proposition 98), the few items that lack a voter-backed claim to a particular budgetary allotment are pitted against each other for the budget scraps.

As important as these technical fiscal barriers are, I sense as well that elected leaders in Sacramento don’t connect with the University the way they did when I was an undergraduate at UC Berkeley 30 years ago. I have not done empirical research, but I would be surprised if the percentage of state legislators who are themselves graduates of a UC campus has not declined since the 1980s. Why this might have occurred is not easy to say, but it does seem that being a legislator in California now is less attractive than it used to be—because of low pay, term limits, and intense partisanship—so that many successful UC alums who in earlier times would have considered public service might be less inclined to do so today. It also doesn’t help matters that current Governor Jerry Brown, himself a graduate of UC Berkeley, seems to think that the University spends too much money on lavish facilities, light teaching loads, and high executive pay. (And news accounts of retiring UC executives being paid lots of money as they retire don’t improve perceptions in Sacramento.)

On top of all this, my (admittedly very anecdotal) impression is that many well-heeled alums of the UC (especially alums of its strongest campuses), who once were very enthusiastic about their alma maters and all that they offered, have become less enamored of the system, especially as their own children and the children of friends and relatives are not being admitted to the campuses of their choice and instead are having to attend private universities or public universities in other states. I can tell you that where I currently live (five miles east and in the shadow of UC Berkeley) there are countless Cal alums who feel less fond for Berkeley upon seeing so many talented children in this area being rejected when they apply to Berkeley or other very competitive UC campuses. I don’t know whether, in reality, it is considerably harder to get into Cal now than it was a generation ago (and admission rates themselves say very little about that because many more non-competitive students apply today on account of the ease of application). But it may be harder for certain kinds of children—i.e., able, suburban, affluent children who test well but who may not rank at the top of their very talent-rich public high schools—to get in, as the University has focused very heavily on high school grades and also on socioeconomic diversity. And whether it is or isn’t harder for these children to get in, I do sense that parents believe it is harder for them to be admitted than it used to be. (Some of the things critics also often believe, such as the notion that out-of-state students are crowding out Californians, simply aren’t the case, as I explained in an earlier column). And these are often the parents who not only would be called on to make donations to the University, but also the parents who might have influence with various state legislators and other key players in this complex system.

So I see the biggest looming challenge for the UC (and perhaps other state systems too—I don’t know) to be the potential emotional disinvestment by large numbers of successful and influential alums because their children are often not being admitted.

Farewell, dear University of California. As the title and first paragraph of this essay (a play on Erich Segal’s Love Story) suggest, I have deep affection for this extraordinary institution. You will always be a part of me, and I hope that in some small way the converse is also true.

  • Ted Harvatin

    When I attended the University of Illinois College of Law, Dean (later Chancellor) Cribbett was a legend. Current Acting Dean Columbo was in my graduating class, first in the class.

    The College back then was ranked in the top 15 but has lost some of its luster. You have some big shoes to fill. I am sure you are up to it. Best of luck.

    PS-The weather sucks.

  • John W. Frain

    The professor is absolutely on point as to why alum support is not as strong as in past decades: “But it may be harder for certain kinds of children—i.e.,
    able, suburban, affluent children who test well but who may not rank at
    the top of their very talent-rich public high schools—to get in, as the
    University has focused very heavily on high school grades and also on
    socioeconomic diversity.” In other words, very academically capable students are being rejected because of discrimination in favor of racial minorities. To be blunt, many of these students are being passed over because they are white.