Times Higher Education Review

Nicholas Dirks on reimagining the university

By Nicholas B. Dirks, July 5, 2018

Clark Kerr, the first chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, is best remembered as the architect of California’s Master Plan for Higher Education – which he drew up in his subsequent role as president of the University of California System in 1960. The plan is still the gold standard for those seeking a balance between universal access to higher education and the highest levels of excellence in both research and education.

Soon after his triumph, however, Kerr (pictured below) got caught between the rise of the 1960s student movement around free speech and the emerging political reaction against universities. This reaction was symbolised most conspicuously by Ronald Reagan’s promise, during his run for the California governorship, to “clean up the mess at Berkeley”. Fired by the regents in early 1967, soon after Reagan’s election, Kerr could at least take satisfaction that the Master Plan endured to his death in 2003.

Despite his educational vision and accomplishment, Kerr spent a considerable amount of his time after stepping down defending his administrative record. He was, for example, offended that some student activists, including the celebrated Mario Savio, accused him of being an apologist for the “multiversity” that activists felt rendered individual students mere cogs in a corporate machine.

Kerr had coined the term “multiversity” to capture the extent to which the university had ceased to be a single community. As he wrote: “The university is so many things to so many different people that it must, of necessity, be partially at war with itself.” He was deeply concerned that individual students, especially undergraduates, were ill-served by this development, and he was relentless in his critique of faculty who had become autonomous entrepreneurs and members of guilds connected far more vitally to their professional cohort than to the university more broadly.

He wrote that in all intellectual and social revolutions, “the university, as an institution, was initially more a ‘stronghold of reaction’ than a revolutionary force”. Collectively, the faculty are rarely the agents of change, he noted, except when there are new institutes, departments or campuses that provide innovative spaces outside the institutional inertia of the academy.

But he firmly believed that “the great universities of the future will be those which have adjusted rapidly and effectively…to the important new possibilities”. And he saw the multiversity not just as a necessity but as a new institutional form that was creative, adaptive and productive in unprecedented ways – provided enlightened administrators were in place to accommodate and balance its array of often-competing visions and interests, including those of society at large.

For Kerr, the imperative to change was no different from the imperative to stay both relevant and excellent. The challenge for university administrators was “to make the collective faculty a more vital, dynamic, progressive force”. That went alongside “making the old departments and divisions more compatible with the new divisions of knowledge” and making it possible “for an institution to see itself in totality rather than just piecemeal, and in the sweep of history rather than just at a moment of time”.

He hoped that universities could avoid becoming like the proverbial dinosaur that became extinct because – as George Beadle, then president of the University of Chicago, put it – “he grew larger and larger and then sacrificed the evolutionary flexibility he needed to meet changing conditions”.

Today, Kerr would doubtless still be concerned about how he was misunderstood: such is the afterlife of administrators. He would, however, be far more concerned about the steady demise of the Master Plan, and he would be thinking about new ways to adapt it to changing circumstances.

Read the full article here.