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In 2014, the University of California, Berkeley, proposed establishing a 10,000-person, 5.4-million-square-foot global campus on university-owned land in nearby Richmond at the edge of San Francisco Bay. This satellite campus would serve an international coalition of academic institutions, where a number of Europe and Asia’s leading universities would “work side-by-side in a campus setting … advancing knowledge in bioscience, health, energy development and data studies.”

I found this vision extraordinarily inspiring.

The proposal also offered Richmond, “a majority—83 percent—community of color … excluded from the wealth generated by the tech boom in the Bay area,” a host of community benefits, including guarantees about affordable housing, hundreds of new local jobs and local procurement of services. The planning group included the “city of Richmond, local business, two labor councils, faith-based and community organizations.”

Berkeley was not the only major university eager to expand its footprint early in the 21st century. Beginning in 2000, Harvard bought up land in Allston, across from its Cambridge campus, to expand its footprint in the life sciences and such fields as bioengineering, imaging and robotics. In 2003, Columbia announced its intention to construct a new arts center, business school and science center less than a mile north of its main campus. In 2007, Yale purchased the 136-acre Bayer Healthcare’s science laboratory complex in nearby West Haven and Orange to expand its profile in biomedical research. Those institutions succeeded in realizing their ambitious plans. Berkeley did not.

After extensive planning and community engagement, Berkeley obtained approvals for the development and spent $25 million on environmental cleanup. But within two years, “after much hoopla, but little tangible progress,” Berkeley pulled the plug on the “multi-billion dollar research campus in the inner East Bay.”

News reports said the project’s cancellation left Richmond’s residents stunned. Campus leadership blamed “significant budgetary challenges.” One big snag occurred when the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory lost a $1.5 billion federal contract to Stanford.

Around the same time, Nicholas Dirks, the chancellor who championed the global campus idea as a way to expand his space-cramped campus and generate new revenue, resigned in the face of “a host of financial and management miscues, including an embarrassing parade of sexual harassment scandals involving high-ranking administrators and faculty.” Among the controversies: construction of a security fence around the chancellor’s residence at university expense.

Now Dirks, Berkeley’s former chancellor who also served as a Columbia vice president when I was there and who is currently president of the New York Academy of Sciences, has written a remarkably candid insider’s account of his turbulent four-year term at the UC campus, which also offers his nuanced—and timely—reflections on the challenges university leadership faces.

The book, part memoir, part probing and fair-minded analysis of public higher education’s challenges, politics and future, “traces his evolution from a starry-eyed missionary” who envisions the university as a city of the intellect into a more seasoned, if chastened, administrator who wants to share what he has learned about the barriers to the innovations that even the best-resourced institutions need to implement.

The book is “a passionate cri de coeur for structural changes in higher education” that will allow it to thrive in a contentious environment where a wide array of stakeholders can veto even the most necessary reforms. With brutal honesty, Dirks, a leader in postcolonial studies and an eminent anthropologist and historian of South Asia, explains why even the most storied and respected public universities are hard-pressed to compete with their elite private counterparties. The book is a rich, accessible and eloquent examination of what it will take for public higher education to live up to its democratic promise. I found it deeply moving, even wrenching at times.

I have read many recent autobiographical accounts by senior academic administrators, and Dirks’s is the most honest, incisive and personally revealing.

I am just three years younger than the former Berkeley chancellor, and his story is pretty much my story: how, in the wake of the upheavals of the 1960s, so many of us entered the academy with a belief that we had an unparalleled opportunity and a duty to uncover the dynamics that undergirded our society and to place present-day realities in a fresh perspective.

I never had a chance to lead a major institution, but I did direct a $50 million initiative to drive innovation across a major public university system. The experience was, in the end, bittersweet. The UT system successfully opened two new medical schools and merged two existing campuses into a new university in South Texas. We experimented with competency-based curricula and online education, developed an exciting middle school–to–medical school pathway, and created a host of new technologies.

Yet, while Institute for Transformational Learning team members now hold or have held leadership positions across the higher ed ecosystem (at Arizona State, Coursera and Western Governors) and in the tech and publishing worlds (at Salesforce and McGraw-Hill), we weren’t able to make the kind of difference in Texas we hoped for—for reasons that Dirks’s book explains so poignantly and powerfully.

His book will prompt you to ask a host of questions.

  1. Which institutions contribute most to society, the elite privates or the flagship and land-grant publics? There’s no question that the major public universities almost certainly exceed the elites in the truly cutting-edge fields, in part due to their faculty’s size and scope. Here, I’m thinking of such fields as artificial intelligence, biotechnology, computer science, data science, machine learning, neuroscience and robotics, as well as the most advanced areas in the health sciences: biomedical engineering and biophysics, biotechnology, computational biomedicine, cellular, molecular, chromosomal biology, epigenetics, genomics and genetic engineering, health disparities, health informatics, immunology, molecular pharmacology, virology, and epidemiology.

But, due to resource constraints, a lot of cutting-edge research Is gravitating away from these public universities to medical schools, dedicated technology institutes or private firms. Without greater public support, the most advanced public university research is under threat.

  1. Is it possible to build the kind of public university that Berkeley once was? Probably not. It’s partly a matter of money, but there are many other obstacles. One problem is hiring: public universities, in particular, must build from within, and that is a crapshoot. Some hires turn out great, but most don’t. You wind up with many fine teachers and scholars but not so many of great ones that transform entire fields.

Many of the most innovative scholars in my neck of the woods aren’t at the most richly resourced institutions. Great faculty can now be found everywhere, and research is thriving not just at the top 50 institutions but the top 250, at least. That’s great for society and students but presents a challenge to specific campuses, which face intense competition for faculty, grants, graduate student talent and other resources.

  1. What might leading institutions do, given the reality of limited resources, to maintain their edge? Dirks’s vision strikes me as correct: focus on areas of strength and areas that should be areas of strength. Recruit more cutting-edge international scholars. Hire more public intellectuals. And, yes, find ways to capitalize on their brand in ways that might create new revenue streams.

Columbia’s Fathom online portal project, launched in 1999, failed, but it was an idea whose time would eventually come—and Michael Crow, who spearheaded the original initiative, showed that it could work. We need to recognize that innovation is an iterative process. We need to be happy with modest, incremental steps forward.

Berkeley’s global campus remains an inspiring idea, and the campus would be much stronger today if that vision was realized.

  1. What are the obstacles to much needed institutional innovations? I find Dirks’s analysis utterly compelling, beginning with his discussion of the lack of resources. But he also points to many other structural and systemic impediments to change. For public institutions, like Berkeley, big-P politics matters. Even the most prestigious public universities in the bluest of blue states do not exist free from political interference. Even before his appointment as chancellor was finalized, Governor Jerry Brown already called for Dirks’s salary to be cut.

System politics matters, too. Within a public university system, even a high-profile institution like Berkeley is not master of its own fate. As Dirks shows, decisions made at the top did damage the campus.

A big impediment to campus governance lies in the way power is distributed. Big universities are a bit like medieval Europe, where power was divided between kings and lords. Power at every campus is highly decentralized, with each school, college or department prizing its autonomy and treating access to resources as a zero-sum game. Each stakeholder places its own interests above the institutions’. This problem is worse, however, at the big research universities, where each tub rests on its own bottom and where business, engineering, law and medical schools hold special sway.

Then there are a number of other challenges. Even at Berkeley, athletics proved to be an albatross around the chancellor’s neck, extracting substantial amounts of time and attention that would have been better spent elsewhere. Dirks also discusses how hard it is for outsiders, who lack a strong internal constituency or power base, to advocate for necessary changes.

Another big obstacle: universities have many competing, conflicting and contradictory missions that aren’t easily reconciled. This is especially the case at Berkeley, with its long-standing tradition of student and faculty activism. University chancellors or presidents find themselves caught in the middle of larger debates over campus priorities. One lesson Dirks quickly learned: it’s easier to make across-the-board cuts rather than targeted cuts and investments. What an awful irony.

After finishing the book, I came away with several takeaways.

One is that the humanities aren’t entrepreneurial enough. Why don’t history departments work with RTV and film or technology programs to teach documentary filmmaking or serious game development? They could, but they don’t.

Why don’t the humanities departments better partner with business, engineering and prelaw and premedical programs to better serve their students? They should but generally fail to.

And why don’t these departments do more to speak directly to contemporary concerns: About global and domestic inequalities, the legacies of colonialism and slavery, cultural exchange and appropriation, citizenship, migration, sustainability, and racial, ethnic, gender, religious and sexual identities?

Another takeaway: highly selective institutions, including campuses like Berkeley’s, haven’t really adapted to the new world of college for all. Even at Columbia, I found the students far more uneven in terms of preparation and polish than at Yale 20 years earlier. At institutions like my own, many students need much more mentoring, support, advising and help with skill building—things that research faculty, in general, aren’t very good at (or, alas, even care about).

One more takeaway: the problems facing higher ed pervade this society. Entrenched interests. The prevalence of veto groups. Institutional inertia. Inefficiency. Uncontrolled spending.

Madrid and Paris and even Rome can build subways at a fraction of New York City’s costs. Housing and power-transmission lines get stymied in red tape. The most notorious example: San Francisco hasn’t yet been able to build a single public toilet after spending $1.7 million.

The most important question that Dirks raises is whether our great public universities can truly serve as cities of the intellect. Not just serve as teaching institutions or as research hubs or even as drivers of innovation, but as spaces where ideas matter, where culture flourishes, where serious and engaged discussion of current and enduring issues thrives.

I like to think the answer is yes. But at least at my own campus, departments are too siloed. Research is too narrow and, at times, too applied. Faculty, too often, work from home, and too many aren’t intellectuals in the New York City sense—that is, interested in weighty issues involving culture or ethics. There are too few spaces for cross-disciplinary conversation—and too little interest in those kinds of interchange anyway.

I entered the academy because I thought it would be just like Oberlin in the early 1970s or Yale in the mid- and late ’70s: incredibly intense intellectually, culturally vibrant and brimming with ideas and incredibly thoughtful, creative people. There was a sense that a new world was opening up: new fields (e.g., the new legal history, women’s history, the new social history), new methodologies (i.e., quantitative), and new schools of interpretation (including deconstruction, critical race theory, poststructuralism, postmodernism and the cultural turn).

But after becoming a professor, that wasn’t the world I inhabited.

I recently saw a meme on Twitter. It describes the history of American higher education as three stages: 1636–1945: dogmatism. 1945–1980: meritocracy. 1980–present: dogmatism.

There is, I fear, the tiniest bit of truth to that timeline. Oberlin and Yale back then—and Wesleyan, Reed, Carleton, Grinnell and Swarthmore—were communities of inquiry, filled with activists but somehow balancing protest with a really intense liberal education—with relatively little emphasis (except among the premeds) on vocationalism or careerism.

These schools weren’t hotbeds of activism like Antioch, on one side, nor were they producers of consultants and financiers or techies, like Harvard today. My friends who went to Berkeley and Michigan, too, were very different from their contemporary counterparts. They obtained an intellectual and cultural education before they either entered or refused to enter the real world.

Much has changed since then—and not, I fear, for the better.

Nick Dirks has it right. Colleges and universities are many things, but first and foremost they should be cities of intellect.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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