Berkeleyan: A newspaper for faculty and staff at UC Berkeley
Berkeleyan Home Search Berkeleyan Berkeleyan Archive UCB News UCB Calendar

 Stories for April 1, 1998:

Clark Kerr: Higher Education in Perspective

In anticipation of the upcoming inauguration April 24 of Robert M. Berdahl as the eighth chancellor at Berkeley, this is the first in a series of conversations on the topic “Higher Education in the 21st Century,” the inaugural theme.

by Julia Sommer, Public Affairs
posted Apr. 1, 1998

Clark Kerr served as Berkeley’s first chancellor from 1952 to 1958. President of the University of California from 1958 to 1967, Kerr is perhaps best known for spearheading California’s Master Plan for Higher Education and being fired by then-Governor Ronald Reagan, who was displeased by the level of student activism at Berkeley and other UC campuses.

Berkeleyan’s interview with Kerr, now 86, took place at the Institute of Industrial Relations on Channing Way, which he founded in 1945. He is currently completing his memoirs, “The Gold and the Blue,” to be published by UC Press.

Here he puts forth his views on the state of higher education.

Q: From your vantage point as a major force in shaping 20th century higher education, would you care to predict any trends in higher education for the 21st century – the topic of Chancellor Berdahl’s inaugural address?

A: It’s a lot harder to talk about basic trends today than it was in 1898, or even 1958, when I became president.

In 1898, we could have predicted a continued move from providing higher education only for the elite. The land-grant college movement meant children of farmers could also get a higher education. This trend culminated with the GI Bill after World War II and the California Master Plan for Higher Education in 1960.

We could have predicted easily in 1898 that science would continue to replace religion and philosophy as the most important subject in the curriculum and that the faculty would have a greater role in university governance.

What no one foresaw in 1898, or even in 1958, was the sudden wave of human liberation movements around the world, starting with the overthrow of colonial governments after World War II. Then came the civil rights movement, the free speech movement, the women’s movement, gay and lesbian liberation, and ethnic groupings as the less advantaged demanded more opportunities.

Q: What about the electronic revolution?

A: Now, in 1998, we can begin to see the impacts of the electronic revolution. It has become central to the conduct of research and administration, and is beginning to impact teaching.

One model that seems to be working is the University of the Highlands and Islands in Scotland. Transfer of knowledge is via computer, video and books, but small residential campuses with discussion leaders scattered in many locations provide the human contact necessary for motivation and for developing judgment and opinions. Large lecture courses have been eliminated.

Least affected by the electronic age may be liberal arts colleges because families send their children there for the total human development experience – to make friends, play sports, learn how to live in groups. Liberal arts colleges will continue to produce supporting alumni, while alumni spirit may flag at more electronic institutions.

Q: Do you see the nature of the research university changing?

A: The place of research universities like UC is absolutely solid. A lot of research, especially basic research, is better done in the atmosphere of a university, where you have various disciplines working together, than in individual corporations. That means that graduate education, at the PhD level, is solid.

It becomes a little more iffy when you get to university undergraduate education. Either undergraduate education at the big research university will have to improve to compete with the best liberal arts colleges, or some of it may be taken over by electronics.

A current trend worth watching is that higher education, defined as all the means for creating new knowledge and disseminating existing knowledge, is being taken over in significant part by for-profit corporations.

The University of Phoenix and the National University in San Diego are using electronics along with part-time faculty to give university-level training. IBM, Xerox and many others have their own “corporate classrooms.” More and more developmental research is being done in the for-profit sector. We are witnessing a vast commercialization of higher education even within not-for-profit colleges and universities.

I think that much of remedial work, language training and routine instruction at the undergraduate and even the MA level is susceptible to being taken over by the electronic revolution and the commercialization revolution.

Q: Do you see UC maintaining its pre-eminence among the world’s universities?

A: A few institutions of higher education, nationally and internationally, are catching up with ours. UC’s dominance is under increasing pressure. Great universities are advancing in Britain, Germany, Scandinavia, Japan, maybe China.

In the United States we jumped a long way ahead after World War II. At the moment, the United States produces 50 percent of the world’s patents with only 5 percent of the world’s population, but that may change. Within the United States, several of the private universities are becoming more competitive with Berkeley, including Stanford, MIT, Princeton and Cornell.

Q: Are there trends in higher education that disturb you?

A: The increasing fractionalization of knowledge. The social sciences in particular need to integrate more, like biology and chemistry already have.

The campus has been slowly disintegrating as a human community. It’s much bigger, more fractionated in knowledge, much more externally oriented.

One consequence is that the Academic Senate is not as much of an involved community of interest. There is much less interest in educational policy, especially for undergraduates. The administration and the UC Board of Regents have taken over much of the responsibility for undergraduate admission policy.

Q: Do you have any advice for Chancellor Berdahl?

A: Move cautiously into the electronic age. Keep the best of the old. Writing didn’t replace the oral tradition, and printing didn’t replace writing, nor can electronics by itself fully replace earlier techniques of communication.

Make sure the campus is a vibrant human community. I put emphasis on the cultural life of the campus – Cal Performances, the Art Museum – because an attractive cultural life holds a place together and is important to attract and keep the best faculty.

The College of Letters and Science and the College of Engineering are as good as anything you’ll find in the United States. Chancellor Berdahl might help the rest of the professional schools reach that level of distinction.

Watch the developing trends but also be alert for the unexpected. Be skeptical about all predictions. Turn your own hopes and expectations into reality.

[ Back to top ]

UCB Home
Copyright 1998, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
Comments? E-mail