Berkeley or the Distress of American Universities

In “At Berkeley,” director Frederick Wiseman explores the concerning challenges faced by universities that are seeing public funding dissolve. Is there a lesson for France in this?

“At Berkeley,” a four-hour documentary that came out on Feb. 26, is a stunning dive into the depths of the life of the famous American university. Director Frederick Wiseman chose his moment well: we are in 2010, and the state of California, completely broke, ends up cutting aid to universities, which leads to a protest in the form of a library takeover. Now, a protest at Berkeley in the U.S. is like a takeover of the Sorbonne in France: an earthquake that could destabilize the country.

Berkeley is iconic in the political debate in the U.S.: it’s there that the Free Speech Movement erupted in 1964. Students out to reclaim free political speech on campus launched a 32 hour sit-in in order to prevent the police from arresting one of them. It resulted in 774 arrests, a record to this day for a North American protest. It kicked off protest movements — notably against the Vietnam War — that went around the world and made it to France in May 1968.

Mario Savio, the son of an Italian immigrant worker, fired up the students with a speech that is still famous. “The university is not a business, and we are not products for sale.” Mario Savio was the American Daniel Cohn-Bendit. Since then, there is a “speaker corner” that is named after him in the university and a Hollywood-style plaque engraved in the pavement. Cohn-Bendit did not receive such an honor at Nanterre. As a character in the film says, “Berkley’s fame is not in its Nobels, but in the Free Speech Movement.”

A Drastic Drop in Government Subsidies

How can a university that wants to be so politically emancipated support itself if the government abandons it? This question gave the film its flavor. It showed us an administration proud of this tradition of engagement brought on by this redoubtable challenge: how to contain the anger of students furious that the state of California’s funding had diminished to 16 percent of the budget from 40 percent, a reduction by 58 percent in 10 years.

How [could the university] face this drop in revenue without lowering the level of science or increasing tuition? Berkeley’s master achievement was its success in rising to a level where it could be counted among the best three global universities, next to Stanford and Harvard, while remaining public, whereas Harvard and Stanford are private and very expensive, with tuition rates of 30,000 euros per year. Berkeley, which has 36,000 students, 7,000 of them undergraduates, claims to be a university with modest tuition rates for the American market: around 9,500 euros, which would be less than Sciences Po [Paris Institute of Political Studies].

Today, it has a higher proportion of students from modest backgrounds than it ever has. Forty percent of its students are on scholarships. It was the first to establish a system of aid for the less wealthy that makes incomes of up to 100,000 euros eligible for grants.

“Here, we are not puritans like at Harvard and Princeton,” jokes the school’s president (whom they refer to as the chancellor over there) Robert J. Birgeneau, a friendly and famous Canadian physicist. California likes to poke fun at the posh Ivy League schools. But now, he who boasts of having been among the protesters in the free speech movement in his youth has recently had to call the police four times, something that has not happened in the last 10 years.

“Here lies California’s future.”

The film opens with a sequence where we see him, very concerned, explaining to his administrative staff the looming danger of the drastic drop in government subsidies for the school. “We need to keep the dream alive, faith in the future, diversity and everyone’s ascent to knowledge. Here lies California’s future.” The problem? How to save 56 million euros a year without affecting academic excellence.

All these measures possibly follow: reducing faculty pay, attracting foreign students, reducing maintenance costs for the 20,000 campus facilities, all the way to reimbursing babysitting fees in order to prevent absenteeism among professors with sick children. One professor opposes chairs paid for by industrialists. “This entails giving him the fruits of our research when we are here so that the whole world can benefit from our knowledge.” By the way, we find out that Americans use the French word “triage” to refer to the manner of choosing the victims of a selective process or a difficult choice.

At the side of the students, we debate about solidarity. Nothing compared to the feverish general assemblies of our universities. Calmly seated, a group discusses points of view around a team leader. Why did the state of California cut subsidies? One student defends the selfish point of view, “Joe the Plumber, who is self-made through the dint of hard work, he does not see why he should have to pay taxes to finance Berkeley’s elites. Everyone should manage their best on their own.” Another’s replies, “Why does the governor refuse to draw on billionaires? Our country demonstrates the greatest inequalities in history. What threatens us: a rise in tuition by 4,500 euros, with a 10 percent increase each year.” One girl cries. Another one, from the Caribbean, says that school is more democratic in her country.

A Listless Protest

Then we partake in the famous protest of Oct. 7, 2010, which will make a lot of buzz on social networks, advises Berkeley. However, the event is nice enough: 300 students invade a library. There we note a long-haired hippie who looks like a lost soul, a haggard phantom of the 1960s protests. The protesters make the mistake of posting a list of grievances on several dozen points, which make any ultimatum impossible. They even demand a reduction in executive pensions in California.

The speeches are very weak. One student attacks big money, “Our country is built on the exploitation of others. No one makes a fortune fighting for a good cause.” There is applause and then the event finishes off in calmness. The next day, President Birgeneau laughs with his staff that in his day they knew how to stage a protest. And that he himself was fired by Bell Labs for having participated in the protests.

What the film does not show is that a year later the campus was more seriously fired up in the Occupy Cal movement (Cal is short for University of California) happening at the same time as Occupy Wall Street, and that the president had a hard time calming down the students, threatening heavy sanctions that he would have certainly opposed when he was an activist. What the film also does not show is something unimaginable in France: The campus, covering an area of about 500 hectares, has its own commissariat with about 40 police. We are in America!

In France, Rising Tuitions

What happens in the U.S. often lands in France a few years later. What this film tells us is that the government, when it is short on money, does not hesitate to transfer tuition costs to families for the most prestigious establishments. The left-wing think tank Terra Nova has recommended making the wealthy pay for higher education.

Dauphine, which had determined that tuition for masters degrees would be 4,000 euros per year, is going to raise it to 6,000 euros, and 4,000 euros for a masters at IAE d’Aix, which depends on the university. This is half Berkeley’s price. At Sciences Po, this could go up to 13,000 euros: more expensive than Berkeley. The same price at private engineering schools and high-level business schools. Slowly, surely, and subtly, higher education for pay is making its way in France. The government is going to increase the cost of tuition by 850 euros at the Ecole des Mines to 1,600 euros, which includes insurance.

With its 36,000 students, and despite the scholarships (because the state pays for these), Berkeley collects 360 million euros each year in nothing else but tuition. Enough to make all French schools salivate. The University of Rennes 2, one of the few that publishes its budget details online, enjoys a budget of 106,000 euros for its 21,000 students. And if we consider the Sorbonne consortium of schools, which raked in an endowment of 900 million euros as an Initiative for Excellence (Idex), this sum will bring in at most 36 million, which will be divided among a dozen partners: a drop of water.

In all these aspects, it is impossible to compare the situation at Berkeley with France for one simple reason: In the U.S., universities can depend on donations, an enormous source of revenue. Berkeley’s recent call for gifts brought in 2 billion euros from around 281,000 donors.

22 Nobels and 99 Gold Medals at the Olympics

The university has 485,000 alums throughout the world. And its prestige pays. It reels off dizzying distinctions: 22 Nobel Prize winners have taught there; eight do currently. It counts 29 Nobel Prize winners among its graduates, and even 99 gold medalists at the Olympics. On its website (subject to several million hits per day), the school details in a table its classification by the National Research Council, the authority that oversees research in the U.S. In 48 of the 52 fields of study, it is in the top 10 in America, ahead of several thousand colleges and universities. Plenty of reason to facilitate donations.

The fact remains that one of the most prosperous regions in the world is allowing its support to one of the most prestigious universities to decline. This gives us something to think about. In terms of universities, California has two jewels in its crown: Stanford (private) and Berkeley (public). A little bit like HEC at Nanterre or the Sorbonne in Paris. Compared with Stanford, strongly supported by the Silicon Valley companies, Berkeley will only save itself through academic excellence. But what will happen if one day, a large donor, for example an industrial mogul, says that in order to balance the budget it would be necessary to cut philosophy and literature courses?

David Thoreau, the First Theorist on Civil Disobedience

Frederick Wiseman’s film fittingly invites us to delve into a good dozen courses, hence the length of the film. But it’s worth it. In a sociology course, the professor comments on the work of Henry David Thoreau, a 19th century American author, Harvard alum, nature enthusiast, and ecologist ahead of his time who went away to live in the woods for two years. “Everywhere we are always talking about idols, stars, never ordinary people. But it’s always these last few who change the world,” professed this anti-slavery, first theorist on civil disobedience who inspired Gandhi, Tolstoy and Martin Luther King Jr.

Robert Reich, former secretary of State under Bill Clinton, delivered an engrossing lesson on the nuisance of brown-nosers in business and politics. “I remember a day when I was on TV. I knew that I had been terrible. At the end, all my advisers congratulated me effusively. There was just one young novice who risked telling me that I was gesticulating too much, while the others there gave dirty stares. I promoted her. Remember this when you are in charge.”

A literature professor comments on John Donne, a 17th century author of love poems. She read extracts on desire, making love, and the penis and erection, while casting her gaze over students who are wrapped up in taking copious notes.

Let’s hope that we can always finance all these kinds of courses.

Editor’s note: These quotations, accurately translated, could not be verified.

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