About

by Charlie Schwartz, Professor Emeritus of Physics
University of California (UC), Berkeley

For years I have posted “Critiques of the University” on my academic web page,  http://socrates.berkeley.edu/~schwrtz ( or http://conium.org/~schwrtz) Those writings are mainly concerned with finance, secrecy and governance in the research university; they are meant to inform and to provoke.

This new blog is intended to provide a forum for open discussion and debate on those topics, and perhaps other topics concerning research universities, and not limited to my own UC. The purpose here is to encourage active dialog where the former site was static.

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BACKGROUND on ISSUES

Does the United States of America have the world’s greatest system of higher education?  I believe this is true … for now.  But many prominent academic officials warn that this leadership position is being challenged by other nations and argue that we must respond by greatly enlarging the pump of public monies into our universities and colleges in order to maintain our academic prominence, for economic, cultural, and geo-political (i.e., military) reasons.

I want to give a different message: We need to take a critical look at how our universities handle the money they now take in. In particular, I want to focus on what are called the top tier of Research Universities. These are my own University of California, along with other great public state universities in Michigan, Illinois, Virginia, etc., as well as the famous private research universities: Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Princeton, M.I.T. etc.  (For a self defined list of the elite Research Universities, see the membership roster of the Association of American Universities, at http://aau.edu )

The majority of our colleges and universities are dedicated to the sole mission of undergraduate education, in various forms.  That is not what I am focused on. What distinguishes the research universities is that they have a bundle of primary missions: this is typically stated as “teaching, research and public service.”  I believe all of those missions are of great value to all of society (here and elsewhere); my concern is to follow and account in detail for the moneys that pay for those components. This should be simply a matter of honest accounting; but it is something that has been made opaque over a long period of time, for reasons that are not always perfectly honest, but used to be acceptable. However, we are now at a turning point in the history of these institutions and some new clarity on their financial arrangements is called for.

Here is a major case in point. Everyone laments the recent steep rise in fees (tuition) charged undergraduate students at the public universities in order to compensate for the shortfall in state appropriations. The official pronouncements are that undergraduate education is still highly subsidized by public funds. (See, for example, the recent report issued by the National Association of State Universities and Land Grant Colleges.) In fact, that is not true; and a major focus of this site will be explaining that situation and getting people to debate what it means.  This is scary stuff for most of my faculty colleagues. (See the 12/2007 post, Old and New Thinking.)

A second area of study gets at the administrative bureaucracies that have grown in cancerous fashion around our academic bodies.  A third topic is the ridiculous arrangements of Boards of Trustees or Regents or Governors that are the fiduciary custodians of our public and not-for-profit private institutions.

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BACKGROUND on ME

I was an undergraduate and then a graduate student in physics at MIT. Then, after two years as a postdoc there, I went to Stanford, first as a postdoc and then an Assistant Professor of Physics. In 1960 I got a tenure track position with the Physics Department at Berkeley; and until late in that decade I was a pretty conventional, research-first, academic striver. Then, shortly after reaching the rank of Full Professor I started to mature. First it was into political activism, and then into a broader appreciation of teaching; and all these merged into a habit of open and persistent criticism of my own surroundings: the scientific profession and the university itself. (For many years I was a leading critic and opponent of the Los Alamos and Livermore nuclear weapons laboratories, which are managed by my own University of California; I also started something that became ”Science for the People.”) In 1993 I took early retirement and, while continuing some research activity in theoretical physics, committed myself to learn about the mysteries of university finance. This has proved to be a rich field of study, especially for someone with a critical attitude (those attitudes having been well developed in physics and in political activism). Thus, while I am not quite your average member of the academic community, I am definitely on the inside.

December 2008