October 3, 2009
Cracks in the Future
By BOB HERBERT
While the U.S. has struggled with enormous problems over the past several years, there has been at least one consistent bright spot. Its system of higher education has remained the finest in the world.
Now there are ominous cracks appearing in that cornerstone of American civilization. Exhibit A is the University of California, Berkeley, the finest public university in the world and undoubtedly one of the two or three best universities in the United States, public or private.
More of Berkeley’s undergraduates go on to get Ph.D.’s than those at any other university in the country. The school is among the nation’s leaders in producing winners of the Nobel Prize. An extraordinary amount of cutting-edge research in a wide variety of critically important fields, including energy and the biological sciences, is taking place here.
While I was roaming the campus, talking to students, professors and administrators, word came that scientists had put together a full analysis and a fairly complete fossilized skeleton of Ardi, who is known to her closest living associates as Ardipithecus ramidus. At 4.4 million years of age, this four-foot tall, tree-climbing wonder is now the oldest known human ancestor.
Give Berkeley credit. The school’s Tim White, a paleoanthropologist, led the international team that worked for years on this project, an invaluable advance in human knowledge and understanding.
So it’s dismaying to realize that the grandeur of Berkeley (and the remarkable success of the University of California system, of which Berkeley is the flagship) is being jeopardized by shortsighted politicians and California’s colossally dysfunctional budget processes.
Berkeley is caught in a full-blown budget crisis with nothing much in the way of upside in sight. The school is trying to cope with what the chancellor, Robert Birgeneau, described as a “severe and rapid loss in funding” from the state, which has shortchanged Berkeley’s budget nearly $150 million this year, and cut more than $800 million from the higher education system as a whole.
This is like waving goodbye to the futures of untold numbers of students. Chancellor Birgeneau denounced the state’s action as “a completely irresponsible disinvestment in the future of its public universities.”