How to Build a Great Public University


Recently I had occasion to look a bit into the history of the University of California at Berkeley, where I earned my doctorate and in whose shadow I have lived most of my adult life.  In doing so, I encountered an interesting document, “Shared Governance at the University of California: An Historical Review,” prepared in 1998 by John Aubrey Douglass, then a research fellow at Berkeley’s Center for Research in Higher Education.  I was struck by Douglass’s account of how Berkeley rose from, in the words of a contemporary, “a weak institution with plenty of land, a college of broken-down buildings, [and] beggarly endowments” in the 1890s to what has often been called the greatest public research university in the world.  The paper attributes the change to two features that distinguished Berkeley from other major institutions:

The first is the university’s unusual status as a constitutionally designated public trust−a designation shared by only five other major public universities. The second is the University of California’s tradition of shared-governance: the concept that faculty should share in the responsibility for guiding the operation and management of the university, while preserving the authority of the university’s governing board, the Regents, to ultimately set policy.

Douglass’s account also credits strong presidential leadership, specifically that of President Benjamin Ide Wheeler in the early twentieth century.  Although UC achieved its constitutional autonomy in 1879, it was not until Wheeler arrived in 1899 that the institution took full advantage of that status.  Here is a bit of Douglass’s account:

Wheeler agreed to come to Berkeley only if the Regents provided him with direct powers to manage its affairs. The Regents agreed, and in so doing, set into motion a transformation of the University of California into one of the premier universities in the nation.

Wheeler faced dire financial problems upon his arrival: Growing enrollment demand among a quickly expanding California population, the decline of federal land-grant income, and meager state appropriations brought the first real consideration of establishing tuition. “The situation here at present is, I sometimes think, pathetic, and sometimes ludicrous,” Wheeler wrote to the governor. “There is nothing comparable to it in the United States today. The students have come down like an avalanche. We have no elasticity in our budget by which to provide for them.”

Wheeler proceeded to gain the financial support of much of San Francisco’s wealthy elite. But, perhaps more importantly, he succeeded in convincing lawmakers to provide the first major infusion of state funding for the university. In an agreement made with Governor Hiram Johnson’s administration and the state legislature, state funding to the University would no longer be based on a percentage of taxable property (at that time the state’s primary source of revenue), but on enrollment workload. Public investment in the university allowed for a dramatic expansion of enrollment, and the hiring of new and talented faculty. As a result, the University of California became the largest higher education institution the nation, surpassing the enrollment of the University of Michigan around 1910. . . .

Public investment and enrollment growth in the University during Wheeler’s tenure provided the context for major changes in the university’s internal organization. Reflecting his training in the German university system, President Wheeler elevated the role of research in the hiring, promotion and dismissal of faculty. He also integrated greater faculty involvement in managing university affairs. Previously, the Academic Senate and the faculty of the university had been limited primarily to routine matters, such as recommending degrees and acting on student discipline cases. In 1881, for example, a committee of the Regents drastically reorganized the curriculum of the university, and declared several professorships vacant.

Wheeler convinced the Regents that faculty were not simply employees of the state, but members of an academic community engaged in a free-market of teaching and research. They should, he argued and recalling the role of faculty at the University of Heidelberg, be primarily responsible for setting educational policy. Wheeler called on faculty, now growing in numbers, to make major changes in the administrative structure of the university.

Working with faculty and with the general approval of the Regents, Wheeler created some twenty new departments, reorganized the university’s curriculum into lower and upper division courses, created matriculation agreements with the state’s normal schools and with the emerging (and pioneering) system of junior colleges, and adopted a system of peer review for hiring and promotion of faculty. Wheeler also created a faculty committee for the allocation of research funds, and a faculty editorial board to oversee the university press to elevate the quality and quantity of its publications.

The faculty’s expanding role in university management was not, however, codified in university policy; it was conferred by Wheeler and it hinged, in turn, on his relationship with the Regents. The most important change in the nature of shared governance was still to come. It occurred under difficult circumstances at the end of Wheeler’s tenure and resulted in a historic statement regarding the organization and authority of the Academic Senate.

Several factors led to what is known by historians of American higher education as the “Berkeley Revolution.” Wheeler’s commanding presence during the first fifteen years of his tenure began to fade. For one, his sympathies with German institutions, and his open regret of America’s entrance into World War I, garnered considerable public criticism from Regents and faculty. A significant decline in Wheeler’s health also led to a decline in his prestige and leadership abilities. In this context, ambitious faculty, many of whom had engaged in the founding of the American Association of University Professors in 1915, sought an even greater role in university affairs.

Reacting to Wheeler’s decline and to a formal proposal offered by the leadership of the Academic Senate, the Regents then took an unusual path: during Wheeler’s last year in office (1918-19) the Regents placed the actual power of the Presidency in the hands of an “Administrative Board,” consisting of three faculty members who were all elevated to the title of dean.

The Administrative Board proved to be a disaster. The onset of a post-war recession, combined with a surge in enrollment by returning veterans and disarray among the board brought confusion regarding the future of the university. In reaction, the Academic Senate convened a special meeting, and by a vote of 132 to 13 passed a memorial for submittal to the Regents. It asked that the faculty be given direct authority to organize the Senate and choose its leaders; that the Senate then be given more formal powers regarding educational policy; and that the Senate be consulted in the selection of a university president.

James K. Moffitt, a graduate of Berkeley, lawyer and major university benefactor, chaired a Regent’s subcommittee that negotiated an agreement which was endorsed by the board as a whole, and placed in the Standing Orders of the Regents in June, 1920.

This agreement formalized the role of the president and his/her relationship with the Regents and the faculty. It also provided both direct and indirect powers of shared governance to the Academic Senate. Subject to the approval of the Regents, the Senate was to determine the conditions of admissions, for certificates, and degrees − aspects of the previous powers held by the faculty. But there were also new responsibilities vested in the Senate, and more specifically in the faculty, that are today the keys to our current system of shared governance. The Senate was to:

• Advise the president on all “appointments, promotions, demotions, and dismissals” of professors, and on the appointment of deans.
• Advise the president regarding “changes in the educational policy of the university.”
• Advise the President regarding budget issues.
• And to, perhaps most importantly, choose its own committees and organization “in such a manner as it may determine.”

The agreement was a watershed in the general development of American higher education, creating an organizational structure of governance that would serve as a model for other major public and private universities. California, however, was not only the first to formalize this structure in the United States, one that had antecedents in British universities, but took it the farthest.

The so-called “California Plan” created a “remarkable democratic system of academic government in which California faculty,” once explained historian Walton E. Bean, “acquired a greater influence in the educational aspects of university administration than any other faculty in the United States. Indeed, the faculty virtually became a part of the administration.”

I have bold-faced above some of the major policy moves that should strike contemporary readers as key to Berkeley’s past success and, sad to say, increasingly absent from higher education today, including at the University of California. These center around infusions of state funding and public investment as well as greater faculty involvement in managing university affairs, manifested in a formal system of shared governance centered around a powerful academic senate.  At Berkeley and throughout the U.S. these proved to be the most important ingredients in a potent recipe for creating high quality higher education for the common good. Today, however, trends are moving in the opposite direction and the results are not welcome. Where once state governments invested in education, today they rely — as Wheeler most notably did not — on tuition and private donations, what UC faculty member Christopher Newfield has called The Great Mistake.  Where Berkeley and other public institutions grew and prospered with a powerful faculty voice, today, as Larry Gerber has recounted, governing boards and administrators ignore, when they don’t openly undermine, shared governance.  Nevertheless, the recipe remains.   Will we have the will to follow it once more?

One thought on “How to Build a Great Public University

  1. Hank, with reference to and assailer blog of yours: my onetime friend Tom Riha published a biography of Paul Miliukov. I was surprised that you had never heard of it!

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