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Berkeley Is Collapsing in on Itself

Financial and social costs that began 50 years ago are devouring this iconic university system.
Berkeley protests

In 1969, five years after the famous “Free Speech” movement that rocked the University of California at Berkeley and set off the 1960s student protest era, Berkeley officials hatched a plan to develop a piece of campus property, then languishing as a vacant space employed as a parking lot. Student dissidents rebelled at this outrageous effrontery of the bourgeois establishment. Riots erupted. Local officials sent in county sheriff’s deputies, known around campus as “Blue Meanies.’’ A dangerous escalation ensued, with officers assaulted and cops responding with birdshot. A student was killed; scores were wounded. California Governor Ronald Reagan dispatched the National Guard. Order finally was restored, but troops stayed for two weeks. The “People’s Park,” as students called it, remained under 24-hour guard indefinitely.

The students may have lost the battle, but they won the controversy. The site was converted into a community-maintained park, though still formally owned by the university. The development project died. The university lost control over this segment of its own property.

This article appears in the January/February 2018 issue of TAC.

And today? That patch of communal land still exists but as a decrepit and “forlorn urban park,’’ in the words of the People’s Park protest leader, Dan Siegal. The park now serves as a homeless camp littered with dirty needles and bottles, too dangerous for most students to enter.

The saga of that park mirrors the saga of the Berkeley campus since those heady protest days in the hotbed of 1960s turbulence. Once a bright, shining example of California optimism and civic pride, UC Berkeley today is in progressive decline—financially decrepit, organizationally dysfunctional, increasingly unaffordable to middle-class families, a place where speech can be curtailed on any given day by radicals wielding bats, steel rods, fireworks, and Molotov cocktails.

Those tools of violence sprouted on campus last spring when the radical leftist “Black Bloc” descended on the place, their faces masked, to suppress unpalatable speech. In a violent protest that can only be described as political terrorism, they shut down a scheduled address by the alt-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, then later prevented a campus appearance by the right’s outspoken Ann Coulter. The hapless campus couldn’t ensure the kind of vibrant discourse, not to mention campus order, that universities are supposed to stand for.

What happened? How did this prestigious university, known throughout the world as Cal-Berkeley or simply Berkeley, descend to such a state—its democratic governance subservient to student and faculty whims; its historic embrace of human freedom morphed into a libertine mantra for anyone who can portray “ze” self as aggrieved; its financial standing burdened by massive unfunded liabilities; and its annual budgets balanced on the backs of students?

Founded in 1868, the University of California quickly became a beacon of something new, hopeful, and fundamentally democratic. Its governance model—somewhat independent of the state, with its own Board of Regents and budgetary authority—set it apart as an institution guided by its own stakeholders, including faculty, students, and its appointed overseers, the Regents. The model worked, and the UC became a “system” of multiple campuses beginning in 1919 when UCLA was established. By 1923, the UC system enrolled some 14,000 students, making it the largest university system in the world. Today it boasts 10 campuses, seven of which rank in the top 100 universities nationally, with five occupying spots as top public universities.

The original 1868 charter set out the aim of free tuition for state residents, and university officials also established abundant channels of financial aid to cover fees and other non-tuition expenses. In 1887 California enacted a property tax specifically to cover most university expenses, and the state capped tuition levels to minimize educational costs to students. By 1921, student contributions to the university system’s operational budget constituted only 20 percent of overall revenue.

But by the mid-1960s, student fees and nonresident tuition contributed just 6 percent to the university system’s annual budget. Two developments contributed to this increased economic egalitarianism in California’s university system. One was a large inflow of federal research money beginning with World War II. At the war’s height, federal funds constituted more than 60 percent of the university system’s budget. The other development was the massive influx of new residents starting with the Great Depression, when down-and-outers from financially devastated U.S. regions flocked to California in search of a better future. Then, with the end of World War II, the influx burgeoned as California fostered an economic growth explosion reflecting the zesty 1950s, when America’s gross domestic product constituted some 50 percent of global output. California’s population, 1.5 million in 1900, exceeded 10 million by 1950. A decade later it was 16 million.

And the state’s economic growth outpaced this population boom. By 1960, more than 60 percent of California residents ranked in the middle class, an impressive statistic for the time. Thus did California loom large as a “golden” state, a description that captured equality of opportunity and a place where people could build lives of prosperity and purpose. The state spent big in those years, not just for education but for numerous infrastructure projects designed to maintain California’s standing as a beacon for the nation. Bill Watkins, an economics professor at Cal Lutheran University, once noted that throughout the 1950s and ’60s, California Governors Goodwin Knight and Pat Brown “presided over a fabulous investment boom in universities, highways, water projects and the like.”

This population surge, while a burden on the university system, also filled public coffers with monies needed to meet the challenge. By the time the first postwar Baby Boomers (born in 1946) arrived on campus in the fall of 1964, California’s university system generally—and Berkeley in particular—had become one of the nation’s truly great symbols of educational egalitarianism. Its most prestigious campuses, notably Berkeley and UCLA in Los Angeles, weren’t merely for the children of elites, as were the Ivy League schools and other touted institutions of that time, but rather attracted thousands of middle class or even lower class students, including descendants of those Depression-era migrants and later postwar working class arrivals seeking opportunities in California’s expanding industrial sector. By 1960, Berkeley enrollment had hit 21,860.

Here was something truly new in America: a chance to educate young people on a massive scale based on a democratic model. That 6 percent figure—the proportion of student fees and nonresident tuition in the state’s university system budget—stood out as a symbol of this much touted egalitarianism. This exhilarating experiment inevitably drew large numbers of liberal planners into the system’s upper management.

The leading managerial mandarin was Clark Kerr, a Berkeley economics professor with a specialty in industrial relations and a penchant for big thinking. He rose to prominence during the McCarthy era of the 1950s, when the Regents imposed a faculty loyalty oath. Kerr signed it but then defended non-signing colleagues, who won out in court. But Kerr was not an ideologue or even much of a politician. He was a planner and visionary. He became Berkeley’s first chancellor in 1952 and six years later was named president of the entire UC system.

His rise corresponded with a growing perception within the state that the baby boom would soon severely test the state’s educational commitment. Kerr, appointed to a high-level committee to address that challenge, emerged as the man who brought coherence out of tensions between what he called the “competing demands of fostering excellence and guaranteeing educational access for all.” He was a leading figure in the promulgation of a “Master Plan for Higher Education in California, 1960-1975,” codified in state legislation and a constitutional amendment designed to foster excellence, affordability, and achievement.

The plan envisioned a “ladder” of higher education, tiering the state’s three educational systems and unifying their purpose. The UC system would sit atop the pyramid as research institutions able to grant doctorates and professional degrees in major fields. The aim here was to maintain quality instruction and the high prestige of the UC universities, particularly Berkeley. Admission would be limited to the top 12.5 percent of high school graduates. Next would be the Cal State institutions, less rigorous but still quality universities with broader admissions criteria (encompassing the top third of high school students) and instruction focused on undergraduate and master’s degrees. Below both would be the large number of community colleges, serving the vocations and potential transfer students. The state would now have serious jurisdiction over these community institutions, previously administered by local governments. The plan’s broad concept was to eliminate overlapping functions and bring coherence to the state’s higher education.

Throughout this planning the state’s commitment to egalitarian education never wavered. The Master Plan reaffirmed “the long established principle that state colleges and the University of California shall be tuition free to all residents of the state.”

As head of California’s UC system, Kerr received much credit for this system-wide vision and his commitment to educational excellence. He gained added recognition by establishing new UC campuses at San Diego, Irvine, and Santa Cruz. But his pride and joy remained Berkeley. As he noted in his memoir, “Berkeley began to compete academically with the best private universities instead of only the best public universities.” Kerr added, “Berkeley became more Ivy League, less Big Ten.”

Kerr developed a vision of what he called the “multiversity”—an institution as part of society, hence something different from the traditional view of academic institutions as being apart from society. This multiversity would house multiple “communities,” as Kerr called them in his influential book, The Uses of The University, with “fuzzy” edges.

Kerr wrote that the multiversity “serves society almost slavishly—a society it also criticizes, sometimes unmercifully. Devoted to equality of opportunity, it is itself a class society. A community like the medieval communities of masters and students should have common interests; in the multiversity, they are quite varied, even conflicting.”

Thus do we see a utilitarian principle of the greatest good for the greatest number superimposed upon a tradition—higher education—that predated industrialism and valued intimacy, exclusion, and excellence. Kerr’s model was centralized planning on behalf of industrial democracy, the goal of seeing as many people as possible excel in academic achievement regardless of means and without imposing limits on their “right” to join communities at odds with the university’s purposes.


There was a paradox here. The Kerr vision required freedom, both personal and academic. A devotee of John Stuart Mill’s liberal utilitarianism, Kerr believed in the promotion of happiness through freedom of thought and action. But at a multiversity, there was also a persistent need to balance personal freedom against the need for orderliness and for ensuring that no one’s freedom would impede the free expression or activity of others.

Kerr crystallized this need for balance in 1961 when a controversy arose over an invitation for a communist to speak on campus. Kerr stated, “The University is not engaged in making ideas safe for students. It is engaged in making students safe for ideas. Thus it permits the freest expression of views before students, trusting to their good sense in passing judgment on these views.”

Kerr’s multiversity assumed some boundaries would be respected by students and faculty to allow others’ freedom to thrive. After all, the structure of the school allowed student and faculty input in decision making at every turn as well as freedom of action and thought. Officials only asked that their benign paternalism be rewarded with the power of deciding what freedoms were legitimate and on what terms maximum utility would be attained.

This delicate social contract collapsed in fall 1964 with the emergence of the so-called Free Speech Movement. The precipitating issue was a campus policy forbidding students from open advocacy of “non-University political or social or religious causes.” That led to a “United Front” of civil rights activists, socialists, and campus supporters of GOP presidential nominee Barry Goldwater. They came together to protest the arrest of a student for campaigning in the campus’s venerated Sproul Plaza. The resulting student fury was entirely unanticipated. Protesters blocked the police from entering the plaza. When a counter-mob composed of fraternity men and other traditionalists confronted the protesters, they sought protection from the police they had been interfering with. The student unrest continued for weeks.

Kerr caved. He ceded the plaza to the student-run government, declined to pursue disciplinary action against most agitators, and created more “managed input” mechanisms such as student advisory committees. It didn’t work. The student activists brushed aside the concessions, threatened further “direct action,” then occupied the plaza once again in December.

By this time Kerr had lost control of his campus. Alameda County District Attorney Ed Meese (later U.S. attorney general) initiated a mass arrest of hundreds gathered in front of the plaza’s administration complex. The resulting charges for the ringleaders brought another wave of protest. By January 1965, the university’s surrender was complete—permitting on-campus activism on a scale never before seen. Kerr’s policy of proscribing campus advocacy of non-campus causes had been foolish. But the student backlash went far beyond a mere corrective and forever changed Berkeley’s balance of power. The university ceased to operate for students; now to a far greater extent it was operated by them. Democratic education had landed its first blow against the university and reset the bounds within which freedom of academic and social pursuit were acceptable. And Kerr’s wispy compromises and failure to maintain campus order contributed to that result.

By the late 1960s, Berkeley’s various protest movements had escalated to the point that a political backlash ensued. In 1966 Ronald Reagan ran for governor on a platform that included “cleaning up” the Berkeley “mess.” He railed against the “small minority of beatniks, radicals and filthy speech advocates” who were scaring off applicants and shaming Berkeley. He blamed UC and Berkeley leaders as much as the agitators for the disrespect for law and order and general misconduct. A legislative report suggested Berkeley had become a hotbed of subversive communist activity, an allegation quickly embraced by the anticommunist FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover.

Reagan embraced the legislative report and, upon assuming office, targeted Kerr even more with verbal attacks and budget threats, though he didn’t have the power to fire the UC president. But the Regents did, and they forced out Kerr in 1967, three weeks after Reagan became governor.

By this time the university system had embarked on some policy changes that would eventually lead to a system-wide fiscal crisis. In 1961 the Regents and Kerr instituted expensive pensions for all full-time UC employees. Some 18 years later, those employees also got collective bargaining rights. The system now had mounting personnel obligations it could not afford. The state itself also faced a wave of budgetary crises in the 1970s, and the UC system was hit hard by Sacramento’s penny-pinching. In 1990, the UC got creative with its accounting. Increasingly beholden to its faculty and mounting numbers of administrators, UC system officials seized on a favorable report that its defined-benefit pension system was overflowing with cash, and thus the system did not need to continue getting employee pension contributions. Other state agencies did likewise. The pension holiday saved the UC, the state, and its contributing employees billions.

But a later UC budget report said the cessation of contributions “has created a serious problem.” For nearly two decades, it adds, faculty and staff earned added benefits as they accumulated credit for time of service, and “yet no funds were collected from the various fund sources that were supporting member salaries and investing in [the pension] to offset the annual increase in liabilities.” The result: although pension funding resumed in 2010 with a sizeable infusion of state cash, the UC system today has a net unfunded liability of $15 billion, according to the UC system’s most recent valuation (as reported in the Los Angeles Times). That’s on top of the $21.2 billion in unfunded health benefits.

Further, the pension system became more and more rich over time, with retirees getting big pension payouts. The LA Times reports that last year some 5,400 UC system retirees received pensions over $100,000. A Times analysis revealed that the number of UC retirees getting six-figure pensions increased by 60 percent between 2012 and 2016. Some 36 retirees received retirement income last year exceeding $300,000. One of these was former UC president Mark Yudof, who was in the job for only seven years, one of those on sabbatical.

Then there is Berkeley’s questionable personnel policies. Between 2005 and 2015, Berkeley saw a 56 percent jump in the number of administrators, many of them pricey do-nothing functionaries. Half of UC’s institutional support spending in 2015-2016 went into two categories: “executive management” and “community relations.” There are now more “administrators” than faculty on most UC campuses, including Berkeley.

Contrast this with the CSU system, which educates almost twice as many students while employing 60 percent fewer administrators. Unlike the UC system, its little brother system seems to be keeping its student-to-bureaucrat ratio in check.

Today, the UC system has become a cushy jobs bank that expects its students, disproportionately low-income and first-generation college attendees, to foot the bill for educational fare of declining quality. The Times quotes Lawrence McQuillan, author of California Dreaming: Lessons on How to Resolve America’s Public Pension Crisis, as saying, “I think this year’s higher tuition is just the beginning of bailouts by students and their parents. The students had nothing to do with creating this, but they are going to be the piggy bank to solve the problem in the long term.”

That practice formally began when an educational fee of $150 was imposed in 1970 and tuition and fees rose precipitously in the ensuing decade. Student costs increased from $630 in 1975 to $1,300 by 1985 and $4,350 by 1995. But those costs were paltry compared to what was in store for UC students in more recent years.

Indeed, while general inflation has increased by about 50 percent over the past two decades, Berkeley resident tuition has tripled in that time. True, college cost increases generally have exceeded inflation, but Berkeley’s increases outpaced nearly all other institutions and exceed the national average by a wide margin. All four-year institutions (public and private combined) saw their price tags grow by 122 percent between 1998 and 2015, while four-year publics grew by 165 percent. But Berkeley posted a 271 percent increase in student charges (excluding living expenses).

And Uncle Sam is fueling much of this increase. More and more undergraduate students at Berkeley and UC campuses generally rely on the Pell Grant program of federal aid for low-income students and also on public and private loans. Thirty-two percent of undergraduates at Berkeley received Pell Grants while 64 percent overall accepted a mix of loans and grants. Meanwhile, out-of-state and international students are hit with enrollment charges reaching some $45,000 a year in tuition and fees alone.

Berkeley does subsidize its tuition and other costs, though, gifting $6,000 on a per capita basis directly through various scholarship funds managed by Berkeley while students on average receive another $4,000 in local, state, and federal grants. Further, the average student debt accumulated by Berkeley students is more than $18,000, excluding private loans that students and parents take out. Almost 40 percent of 2015 graduates accumulated debt.

Although the percentage of students who take out debt has declined slightly, the amount borrowed by those who need loans has risen over the past 15 years in all income categories and especially for California’s working and middle classes. Today, more than 50 percent of Berkeley students must work to support themselves, with 60 percent of those working at least 10 hours a week to defray campus costs.

Moreover, unlike the Ivy League which prides itself on meeting 100 percent of “financial need,” Berkeley meets 100 percent of the need of only 23 percent of undergraduates. While most students get some aid, the poorest students receive the bulk of that aid. The California middle class is hit the hardest—too rich to get much aid and too poor to afford to pay full freight.


All this belies Berkeley’s grand concept during its early decades and those heady years of the Master Plan: a campus for the masses in a merit-based society of upward mobility and little class distinction; a place of hearty intellectual inquiry where rights and privileges and freedoms were in equilibrium within an atmosphere of comity.

Now administrative overhead and pension costs are devouring the UC system’s budgets. Student-to-faculty ratios have climbed while high-demand courses are difficult to get into. Faculty salaries are becoming uncompetitive with peer institutions as pension costs crowd out salaries. Thus has the egalitarian principle been severely attenuated, with tuition and fee costs likely to exceed per-student expenditures in the next school year and with no direct state general fund subsidy for in-state students at all. Middle class attainability is slipping away as tuition and fees rise while the campuses cut their services and core course offerings.

In fact, Berkeley no longer holds the place envisioned by Clark Kerr. A recent joint college ranking initiative by the Wall Street Journal and Times Higher Education, based on 15 performance indicators, placed Berkeley fourth among public universities, below UCLA, the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Overall, Berkeley was ranked at 40, tied with Boston University. This was a drop of five slots since an earlier survey.

Meanwhile, Berkeley administrators have lost control of the campus to the most aggressive and determined students and outsiders bent on determining who can speak and who can’t. Violence and the threat of violence have narrowed the scope of discourse, with prospects of further narrowing in the face of administrative haplessness.

And the campus is beset by scandal, including the payment to a departing chancellor of $434,000 in “paid time off” and revelations that the UC system nurtured a $175 million “slush fund” while pleading financial distress and begging Sacramento for cash—all the while aggressively hiking tuition levels.

What to do? University officials seem to know they are in trouble and need big fixes. Former chancellor Nicholas Dirks announced in February 2016 a “comprehensive strategic planning process, the aim of which is to reimagine the fundamental structures and processes of our university….What we are engaged in here is a fundamental defense of the concept of the public university, a concept that we must reinvent in order to preserve.” Such hollow language hardly generates confidence.

But whatever the reality of Dirks’s proposals, his efforts were cut short by his resignation as chancellor in the spring of 2017. His successor, Carol Christ, announced the $150 million annual structural deficit at Berkeley had been halved for 2018, through “increasing revenue streams” (fee and tuition hikes).

But Christ’s plan is nibbling at the edges of the problems that cry out for drastic actions. Campus officials must face up to painful choices, including termination of the defined-benefit pension system for staff and faculty. By enacting a “pension freeze”—terminating further contributions by employees and the accrual of future benefits, while protecting current pension commitments—the UC system can reduce the red-ink of unfunded liabilities and save billions of dollars over the long term. The same goes for retiree health benefits, which can be reduced by shifting retirees to Medicare while increasing the age eligibility for collecting benefits. This will take the politically unpalatable action of breaking collective bargaining agreements and curtailing the right of employees to bargain collectively, as was done in Wisconsin and other states.

Next, overhead must be slashed as the university returns to its core functions—research and instruction. Ancillary feel-good programs must be phased out, with staff laid off. Where university priorities require the maintenance of administrator-run programming, the faculty must step up. For decades, the university relied on faculty to fill part-time administrative roles in addition to their instructional obligations. It should be done again.

Further, core course offerings must be expanded by asking more instruction of the faculty. Current loads are inadequate and make it more difficult for students to graduate on time and on budget. The faculty might rebel, but they are professionals, paid a fair wage for their value to the institution.

Further, Berkeley officials must regain control of their campus by facing down student dissidents bent on determining who may or may not appear on campus, what can be said, what issues may be pursued, what may and may not be taught, and how professors must express themselves in the classroom. Trigger warnings should be brushed aside, and “safe spaces” for aggrieved parties should be seen as a betrayal of the school’s commitment to the free expression of ideas. Today, conservative dissenters are drummed out of courses while white students have been actively blocked from entering campus due to their race by other students. That must end.

Finally, Berkeley should turn to the private sector for the cash injection it desperately needs. UC Berkeley actually has a sizeable private endowment ($1.6 billion in 2016) and another $2.4 billion held by the Regents for Berkeley. Unfortunately, Berkeley manages its money poorly, routinely missing conservative investment targets even in boom years. Though a paltry sum compared to other major public research universities, that capital sum could fully offset the tuition and fee revenue for all Berkeley students for almost five years, if properly managed.

In the meantime, perhaps Berkeley should explore a kind of public-private partnership with the state of California.

It’s an entirely unconventional idea, but Berkeley’s situation calls for more than conventional thinking. One element of the concept is for Berkeley to petition for greater independence from California and ask the state to assume its unfunded liabilities and debts. With a clean fiscal slate, Berkeley could then enter into a radical new arrangement with the state. In exchange for guaranteed independence and an infusion of cash and debt assumption, Berkeley would grant the state a 51 percent share in a newly governed institution. Freed from oversight by the appointed Regents, Berkeley would reorganize as a nonprofit with a public mission and public and private ownership like a public stock company.

It would build on the pioneering moves by Purdue’s president, former Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, at that school. Purdue is exploring dramatic governance and financial reforms to reduce costs through public-private partnerships.

A finance and governance model—similar perhaps to that of the Green Bay Packers—would allow private citizens, nonprofits, and corporations to purchase “shares” in Berkeley stock and hold them as voting rights over Berkeley’s direction and decision-making. The shareholders would elect the new Board of Trustees. And intellectual property and physical assets owned by Berkeley would provide collateral for necessary capital borrowing—Golden Bear Bonds, as it were.

An IPO would draw on the hundreds of thousands of living Cal alumni, their families, and interested California residents who want a say in how their university operates. With just the 300 or so highest net worth Berkeley alumni controlling $125 billion in wealth, there are vast reserves of cash available for rebuilding the endowment while paring back costs. With a permanent veto in the hands of state lawmakers, the institution could not be sold off or drastic decisions made without the indirect consent of California voters. That should be enshrined in a state constitution provision stipulating no sale of state shares is permitted without the explicit assent of voters.

This model would improve accountability and help rein in some of the most horrendous abuses of political correctness on campus. If equality of opportunity is the primary aim of Berkeley, let the people decide on how Berkeley upholds that commitment. The alternative is more of the same: a “public” institution that is more expensive than the most prestigious private ones, where only a few wealthy elite or the extremely “needy” can afford to attend, while those who do attend end up suffering a diminished quality of education and mounting debt loads.

This may be radical. But when did fiscal restraint, respect for intellectual diversity, and the courage to live up to an intended purpose become radical? At Berkeley, though, these ideas may be the only truly “radical” ideas left. But expecting radical action from bureaucrats and politicians, even in the face of the crisis facing Berkeley, may turn out to be just another refrain of California Dreamin’.

Sean Kennedy is a 2006 graduate of UC Berkeley. He is a writer and researcher based in Washington, D.C.



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