Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Time for Cal to double down

UC Berkeley's campanile.
You don’t have to be a psychic to see where UC Berkeley is headed. From the accessible public university of my youth, Cal is contemplating an effective privatization, turning itself into a bigger, somewhat more affordable Stanford. It shouldn’t. Moreover, this would be a failure of the imagination. It’s time for Cal to wake up and look around.

Silicon Valley and San Francisco are two good places to start. Just to take one example, HP—once a real-estate behemoth—has cut its property folio in half by embracing mobility and reorganizing work around it. Essentially, you don’t use HP’s formal work settings unless you’ve got really good reasons to do so. Otherwise, work elsewhere. Stanford, to its credit, has leveraged the same technology to make classroom lectures an option. Students can catch them later, in Tivo-like fashion, and that “later” is searchable. Stanford also leads the way in providing courses to its high-tech and biotech neighbors. 

San Francisco has seen a proliferation of spaces that are accessible to startups, even of the one-person variety. The long-term lease is giving way to a more curatorial approach that redefines “service” to throw in furniture, equipment, including tools for prototyping, advisors, and investors. Then there’s Academy of Art University, which—for all the grousing about its aggressive real-estate tactics—is emerging as one of the most interesting architecture and design schools in the region. The Academy isn’t cheap, but it’s uncannily well tailored to the students who flock to it from across the planet. With savvy recruiting of academic talent, it’s upped its game pedagogically in rapid order—using the web to serve a wider cohort.

What makes the Academy a model for Cal is its willingness to experiment and innovate. This is the spirit of Silicon Valley, which is mostly MIA at the big universities, Cal especially. Fixated on falling revenues, Cal is channeling Margaret Thatcher, attacking the unionized clerks and janitors (a drop in the pension bucket) and ratcheting up the fees. Where this points is the not-so-subtle evolution of Cal from the people’s university to an elite institution that grants waivers to a select group of the deserving. Out of the picture is everyone else that Cal traditionally served: the kids who worked their way through.

So here’s a modest proposal: double the enrollment. Make use of the same innovations that Silicon Valley companies, San Francisco startups, and the Academy are using to serve an expanded cohort. Rethink the four years, so students have options that they can afford. Rethink the way the campus is used, accepting mobility and making it much more of a 24/7 place. Rethink the faculty, taking advantage of the remarkable talent that resides here and the interest of foreigners to be part of it. If visas are a problem, invite that talent to teach remotely and visit as tourists for shorter stints. Or set up remote centers in logical places, the way other universities are doing.

The most important thing is to reverse-engineer from accessibility. What can average families in California afford to pay? If enrollment is two or even three times what it is today, affordability is feasible. While Cal won’t be what past graduates experienced, it can still provide a solid education—better, perhaps, because greater access should provide students with a wider range of courses.

That California, which even in its hobbled condition is the eighth largest economy in the world, is locked into a scarcity mindset is hard to fathom. Yes, we’re in a bind if we try to perpetuate our lax ways, but isn’t the real opportunity of this moment to change? Looked at this way, it’s clear that Cal is just one piece of a bigger challenge. “It’s broken, but the mission is crucial” is the dilemma that runs through the entire public sector.

Since World War II, the University of California has enabled thousands and thousands of Californians to make their way up in the world. To abandon that mission would be tragic and shortsighted. But to think we can keep Cal going as it’s been is misguided. Those expensive habits are unsustainable. The focus needs to shift from trying to shore them up to setting them aside and putting Cal and its sister campuses on a different footing. (Rationalizing and integrating the UC, CSU, and community college systems is equally pressing and long overdue.)

If California is to revive and prosper, Cal should lead the way. By doing whatever it takes to remain a great and affordable public university, it will set the bar for other community-facing institutions—schools and clinics, for example—that are grappling with the same issues. Scarcity is not the way forward. Leverage and imagination are the way forward.