In 1960, California passed the Master Plan for Higher Education, which established a framework for public higher education in the state. It envisioned a University of California without tuition that guaranteed access for the top one-eighth of the state’s high school graduates, funded by taxpayers who believed in the university as a source of economic and social mobility.
UC Berkeley, in particular, as an elite public school, has aimed to reconcile its responsibility to the state's people with its status as a highly selective academic institution — a challenge faced by few others.
Today, state disinvestment, rising tuition costs, more out-of-state students, increased private research funding and a greater emphasis on alumni giving have left some questioning whether UC Berkeley is drifting farther from the public ideal of the Master Plan and closer to the private universities with which it has always competed.
Some have suggested that UC Berkeley adapt to the reality of the state’s financial priorities, that a public university is not defined by its level of state funding, that the values ingrained throughout 147 years of history are immutable. Others worry it is only a matter of time before UC Berkeley’s shifting funding model undermines the institution’s public mission.
The Master Plan defined the University of California as a public trust. Half a century later, in the face of the fiscal and political uncertainty of its current situation, what makes UC Berkeley a public institution?
I. Playing With Fire
The California State Legislature has historically provided much of the university’s funding, though it can’t direct the university’s operations. In recent years, the state has dramatically scaled back support — and as the Legislature and the university continue to clash over budget allocations, it’s unlikely that previous levels of state funding will ever return.
II. The Sticker Price
The university is increasingly reliant on student tuition for support. But because financial aid packages have grown simultaneously, it’s unclear whether rising tuition is a barrier for California’s poor students or part of a model in which wealthier students subsidize their lower-income peers.
III. An Artificial Binary
The proportion of UC Berkeley students from outside California has doubled in less than a decade. Out-of-state and international students pay higher tuition, which the university uses to finance enrollment of in-state students, raising concerns that increased out-of-state enrollment contradicts UC Berkeley’s commitment to the people of California.
IV. A Moral Obligation
Although UC Berkeley enrolls more low-income students than many of its peer universities, its student body doesn’t fully represent the racial or socioeconomic diversity of the state's population. Under California's Proposition 209, however, UC Berkeley is legally barred from discriminating based on race in its admissions process.
V. Hat In Hand
UC Berkeley is increasingly turning to alumni and wealthy donors for support, much like private universities. Although the campus has always benefited from philanthropy, some worry that greater reliance on private gifts might undermine the academic autonomy of the campus and the integrity of the admissions process.
VI. Corporate Firewalls
Campus partnerships with corporations bring in millions of dollars in research funding. In some contracts, such as those with BP and Novartis, private interests can set research agendas and influence the publication of findings, potentially threatening UC Berkeley’s commitment to research in the public interest.
VII. Public Character
UC Berkeley has, in some ways, strayed from the vision of the Master Plan — but do those changes signify an erosion of its public character?
Interviews were edited for length and clarity.
Read more higher education coverage from The Daily Californian.
Researched and written by Sahil Chinoy and Chloee Weiner
Photography by Kore Chan
Designed and built by Sahil Chinoy
Edited by Katy Abbott and Sophie Ho