Previously Published in the Orange County Register on May 20.
The headline read, “USC steals 2 star brain researchers from UCLA.” But there is much more to the story than what was in the article, which presented the event as a coup in a simple cross-town rivalry between two great universities. The real story is the decline of California’s greatest asset, the University of California system.
I earned my Master’s and Ph.D. from the University of California, Santa Barbara. My wife earned her BA at UCSB. Each of us worked for almost a decade at UCSB. Those years at UC were among the best in my life.
The University of California system has been fantastic to me. It’s been fantastic for California. From agricultural products, to cancer treatments and nanotechnology, University of California research touches each of us every day. The UC system has trained leaders in every field, people who have changed the world. It has been the kernel of a great economic engine.
It is with great sadness I contemplate the decline of the University of California.
Part of the UC system’s problem is financial. While universities in more rapidly growing states are seeing increased funding, California’s continuing economic and fiscal challenges have meant less money to the University of California.
How the University of California responds to financial cuts is a bigger part of the problem. A business would respond strategically, most likely by reviewing everything it does, consolidating and eliminating those with the least return. Not so the University of California.
For instance, UCLA has three arts departments – art, art history, arts and architecture. It seems to me that some efficiency could be gained by consolidation here. Similarly, why does UC need economics Ph.D. programs at nine campuses?
A major reason that the UC system doesn’t act strategically is that faculty is so powerful. That’s not to say that private nonprofit university faculty are powerless. Private non-profit university faculty has lots of power, enough that I expect these universities will struggle to adapt to fast-changing technologies and markets.
However, with more administrative power, the balance between faculty and administration enables private non-profit universities to respond to changes in their environments more rapidly and creatively than their public competitors.
Because the University of California’s problems are more than just a lack of money, more money won’t solve their problems.
There will be more revenues though, not as much as the UC system would like, but more. That money should be accompanied by a thorough review of the UC system and its many programs.