Not even the nation’s finest public university is immune. The University of California at Berkeley — birthplace of the free-speech movement, home to nine living Nobel laureates — subsists now in perpetual austerity. Star faculty take mandatory furloughs. Classes grow perceptibly larger each year. Roofs leak; e-mail crashes. One employee mows the entire campus. Wastebaskets are emptied once a week. Some professors lack telephones.
Behind these indignities lie deeper problems. The state share of Berkeley’s operating budget has slipped since 1991 from 47 percent to 11 percent. Tuition has doubled in six years, and the university is admitting more students from out of state willing to pay a premium for a Berkeley degree. This year, for the first time, the university collected more money from students than from California.
“The issue that’s being addressed at Berkeley, fundamentally, is the future of the high-quality public university in America,” said Robert Reich, the former labor secretary, now a public policy professor at Berkeley.
Supporters of public higher education fear that, should the cuts continue, Berkeley will lose some of its ability to compete with elite private universities and serve the public as a vehicle of opportunity.
In a bold play to regain public confidence, Berkeley leaders on Dec. 14 announced an unprecedented offer of need-based aid to families earning up to $140,000. The Middle Class Access Plan caps each family’s parent contribution at 15 percent of household earnings, a pledge that rivals those of Harvard and Yale.
The crisis facing Berkeley is part of a broader national retreat in state support for public higher education. States spent one-fifth less per public university student in 2010 than in 2000, in inflation-adjusted dollars.
Tuition costs surging
In academia, there is particular concern for the sector leaders known as “public Ivies.”
These top public universities (a group that includes Berkeley, UCLA and the universities of Michigan, North Carolina and Virginia) educate many more students than their Ivy League counterparts. Berkeley alone serves roughly the same number of low-income students — measured in federal Pell grant data — as the Ivies do together.
Nowhere are the stakes higher than Berkeley. Anchor of the nation’s most prestigious public university system, Berkeley boasts a constellation of graduate programs rivaled only by Harvard. The university consistently tops academic rankings of public institutions. Its campus has parking spaces reserved for Nobel laureates.
Berkeley’s 25,885 undergraduate and 10,257 graduate students are famously opinionated. It doesn’t take much to get them talking about the many ways their state and their school are letting them down.