Progress in Privatization at UC Berkeley

Progress in Privatization at UC Berkeley
by Charles Schwartz, UC Berkeley

When Robert J. Birgeneau first appeared as the new Chancellor before the Berkeley Academic Senate, in October 2004, he started out with a clear principled statement against privatization. Here is the official campus report on that event:

He has already heard, he said, from a number of people, including donors, who believe that the only strategy for the future “is one that takes us in the direction of privatizing the university. I want to state unambiguously and unequivocally that if Berkeley wants a chancellor who will lead in the privatization direction, it should find someone else and I’ll go back to the lab,” he said to much applause.
[Source: the Berkeleyan 10/28/04]

Obviously, things have changed a lot since then; and Chancellor Birgeneau has defined himself as a leading figure in the national move to privatize our greatest public universities. Here is his latest report to the campus (11/5/2012).
To all members of the UC Berkeley campus community:

Five years ago, I announced to you that UC Berkeley had received a historic gift of $113 million from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation to establish 100 new endowed chairs on our campus. This gift was set up as a challenge grant to inspire others to give by matching their support dollar-for-dollar until we raised the 100 chairs.

Today I am delighted to announce that the campus has successfully completed the Hewlett Challenge. We have exceeded our own expectations and reached our goal more than two years ahead of schedule.

This milestone recognizes the critical role that our world-class faculty and graduate students play in ensuring UC Berkeley’s global academic leadership. The support of so many donors in this five-year period is an extraordinary vote of confidence in the contributions that UC Berkeley makes to society as one of the world’s preeminent teaching and research universities.

The success of the Hewlett Challenge makes me very confident about the future of our great University. On behalf of the many faculty and students who will benefit from the extraordinary generosity of the Hewlett Foundation and the outpouring of support from our alumni and friends who stepped up to the challenge, I express my deepest and most sincere gratitude.

I encourage you to read more about this exciting news on the campus NewsCenter,

Yours sincerely,
Robert J. Birgeneau
Chancellor, UC Berkeley
This leads us to pose the question: What is it that distinguishes a great public university from a great private university? In other words, “Who’s afraid of privatization?”

You are invited to comment.


  1. Anant said,

    November 5, 2012 @ 10:55 pm

    I think what distinguishes a great public university from a great private university is the spirit on the campus, and the character of how it deals with students, faculty, and the larger community.

    A private university has a larger variety of choices that are still compatible with being “great” whereas the path to greatness for a public university is more narrow. To list a few examples:

    A private university can be great and still think of its students as being customers. That is unacceptable in a great public university — our students aren’t customers and should never be treated like them, no matter what they happen to be paying out of pocket. They are future citizens. We are primarily accountable to the citizenry and society at large, not to the students who might be paying fees.

    A private university can be great and think of its students as being a collection of students chosen to maximize the benefit to each other and to the institution. It can have legacy admissions, donor preferences, and other forms of preferences having nothing to do with academic potential and excellence. That is unacceptable at a public university — if slots are rationed, they must be rationed on the basis of academic potential and excellence. The best students *deserve* a place at a great public university in a way that they might not at some great private universities.

    A private university can be great even if its research portfolio has nothing to say about the near and medium-term issues facing the population or the economy of its state or nation. But at least some of the great research at a great public university must show some excellence in these applied matters.

    A private university can be great even if all or most of its graduates go on to engage in activities that don’t really help society. A great public university should have a large fraction of its alumni contributing positively to society at large through their activities.

    A private university can be great even if all or most of its teaching activities are aimed at students from the world as a whole. But a great public university has to have a majority of its teaching aimed at citizens or residents of the political jurisdiction that it proudly belongs to.

    I think that many private universities do aspire to the kind of greatness that great public universities aspire to (MIT comes to mind), but they don’t all do that.

    To me, the Hewlett challenge is not offensive to the spirit of a public university.

  2. Valeria said,

    December 11, 2012 @ 9:14 am

    Thank you for clarifying. I suoppse it’s a sad commentary on the news media that your story is not the version we’re getting on the East Coast.What struck me as extraordinary about the NYT interview is the shine is off comment. Are you kidding me? Middle-class people are going nuts trying to get their kids ahead through college education. Why is it so hard for universities to get more funding? This is something that has puzzled me for a long time.So far, I’ve only been able to come up with two answers. One is my sense that parents see universities as credentialing systems, not sources of education, and they view college rankings as fixed relative to each other. In other words, they believe the only salient fact about the UCs is that they are name universities, and they can’t fathom that they might fall in prestige just because of funding issues.The other is that the population is aging, and older people have decided that lower taxes are more likely to benefit them than better-educated taxpayers.Either way it’s dispiriting.

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