Is Berkeley getting ready to consider a queen sacrifice?

Berkeley logoResearching what I’ve been calling the queen sacrifice has meant focusing on a certain group of colleges and universities.  These campuses are often small and/or regional and/or finding themselves down the US News ranking tables.

Yesterday, I found something that could be a little different.

The chancellor of the University of California Berkeley announced he was leading a massive strategic planning effort.  That isn’t newsworthy, as most colleges and universities do so these days.  What’s interesting for me is that it sounds like – maybe –  preparation for sacrifices to come.  The Chronicle of Higher Ed thinks so, in a stark headline:

Confronting a ‘New Normal,’ Berkeley Considers Cuts

Let’s look carefully at these passages from Nicholas Dirks‘ letter.  I’ll pull out some themes.

Financial pressures: the very first sentence describes, “a strategic planning process designed to ensure our excellence in the face of continuing financial challenges”.  And “[n]ow, for a variety of reasons, both internal and external, we face a substantial and growing structural deficit, one that we cannot long sustain.”

Dirks emphasizes declining state funding: “Whether in California, Wisconsin, Michigan, or elsewhere, public research universities have been challenged not only by dwindling state support”.  “[T]his deficit does not reflect a short-term dip in funding, but a “new normal” era of reduced state support”.  There’s no return to higher levels of support.

There’s a sense of serious threat in general: “What we are engaged in here is a fundamental defense of the concept of the public university, a concept that we must reinvent in order to preserve.”

The statement also includes warnings about pain to come: “[t]o be sure, ahead of us lie difficult decisions and hard work”.  “[W]e also know that some of the changes we will undergo will be painful.”  “Every aspect of Berkeley’s operations and organizational structure will be under consideration.”  “difficult decisions” doesn’t mean more fund-raising, or cutting the toner budget.

Dirks hints at pain for faculty:

Working with the Academic Senate leadership and the deans of the schools, colleges, and Letters & Sciences divisions on the redesign of some of our academic structures. Realignment will ensure that we are excellent in all we choose to do, in our research and in our educational mission.  In some instances, this means strengthening units as is; in others, it means narrowing the focus to specific areas of excellence; and in some instances it means combining and rearranging to capture intellectual synergies and to ensure sufficient scale academically, administratively, and financially.

“Realignment”?  “Narrowing”?  Does that suggest shrinking departments?

Speaking of faculty, Dirks also touches on grad students: “over the course of the next few years, financial support for our admitted doctoral students will be improved, while some enrollments will be reduced and brought into alignment with those at peer universities in order to better support the quality of these programs.”  “some enrollments will be reduced”: does this include shrinking the faculty who teach grad students in those programs?

Staff won’t evade the pain, as this planning process includes

[e]valuating our workforce in relationship to our changing needs and resources. This will also entail a new mechanism for the monitoring and control of staffing levels – mirroring the discipline we have long applied to hiring of faculty. We will also review our senior administrative functions, including central units, to reduce redundancy and create new forms of collaboration.

Did you catch the word “redundancy”?

Overall, this letter is very strange to read.  Berkeley is a world class university, after all.  Its endowment is around $4 billion (2014-2015 official figures).  Return rates look decent. Is it really facing such dangers?  I wouldn’t have thought so, but Dirks’ letter is pretty dark.

The document also emphasizes a deliberate, social process, apparently:

“This initiative will involve extensive consultation, consideration, and testing.”

“In the months ahead, we will be engaging with faculty, staff and students in order to share more detailed information, answer questions and solicit suggestions.”

“We rely on a tradition of shared governance with the faculty that will be the basis for the decisions we make and the changes we implement in the months and years ahead.”

“Throughout the process, however, it is crucial that everyone work together…” “we are committed to broad engagement with campus constituencies… Now, as we transition from analysis to comprehensive planning, we want to be sure that Berkeley’s faculty, staff, students, and alumni are well informed.”

At the same time, Dirks is launching a new office just for this planning process:

Berkeley's new Office of Strategic Initiatives

To support the design and implementation of the individual initiatives, we are also establishing an Office of Strategic Initiatives, which will provide analytical support and coordination to the working teams and leaders of the various initiatives.

Setting aside what sometimes looks like irony in spending money to save money, we should keep an eye on OSI, which could be the leading edge of painful change.

I’m the first to admit that this post could well prove wrong.  It’s possible that Dirks is openly embracing the possibility of pain in order to anticipate faculty resistance.  It’s also possible that this is a negotiating tactic with the state of California, threatening embarrassing cuts in order to get funding back up.  And I could just be reading too much into a single document, letting my Gothic tendencies and writing about too many queen sacrifice stories bias me unfairly.  Maybe the Chronicle, too, is emphasizing the negative too strongly.

What do you think?  How does the document read to you?  How does Berkeley’s near- and medium-term future appear?

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4 Responses to Is Berkeley getting ready to consider a queen sacrifice?

  1. VanessaVaile says:

    I had similar reactions — and wonder about the other UCs. Is the there a university “too big to fail” category? If Chris Newfield isn’t already addressing this in more detail, no doubt he will (I hope). Remaking the University posted the email announced Dirks sent to the UC Berkeley community. I haven’t checked the FB page yet.

    There’s also an IHE piece by Colleen Flaherty,

  2. Pingback: More information on Berkeley’s strategy | Bryan Alexander

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