The Future of Flagship Universities

Texas A&M University
October 5, 1998


The Future of Flagship Universities


By Robert M. Berdahl
University of California, Berkeley


I appreciate very much the invitation to share in this convocation. Knowing, as I do, the sometimes intense rivalry between the Longhorns and the Aggies, especially during this time of the year, I recognize that the invitation represents a remarkable generosity of spirit and a tolerance for me, a former Longhorn or "tea sipper", as I believe we are referred to here. Many people ask me about the differences between my life at Berkeley and at Austin. A primary difference is that I have much less indigestion at Thanksgiving! The gracious welcome that you have extended to me and to my wife Peg is much appreciated. We are especially pleased to return to Texas, to see once again many of the people of whom we became very fond while we were living here. President Bowen and I worked closely together on many matters of interest to the University of Texas and Texas A&M; he is an academic leader respected all over the United States. You are fortunate to have him. So, I'm delighted to be on your campus once again.

 Among the many issues that confront higher education in Texas and California alike, the one which attracts the most attention is the fact that, after Hopwood in Texas and the passage of Proposition 209 in California, we are both struggling with the aftermath of the end of Affirmative Action in university admissions. You might have expected that I would have chosen to talk about that, drawing some comparisons based upon my rather unique experience of having been an academic administrator both in Texas and California. But, vital as that issue is, it is not what I wish to talk about here tonight.

 The issue I want to talk about tonight is the future of "flagship" universities, institutions like the University of Texas at Austin, or Texas A&M at College Station, or the University of California, Berkeley. This is not an easy topic to talk about for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that those of us in "systems" of higher education are frequently actively discouraged from using the term "flagship" to refer to our campuses because it is seen as hurtful to the self-esteem of colleagues at other institutions in our systems. The use of the term is seen by some as elitist and boastful. It is viewed by many, in the context of the politics of higher education, as "politically incorrect." I remember vividly being chastised by the Chancellor of the System of Higher Education in Oregon when, as Dean of Arts and Sciences at the University of Oregon, I referred in testimony in the legislature to the University of Oregon as the "flagship" campus. I had similar experiences at the University of Illinois, at Texas, and at Berkeley. (You might wonder why I haven't learned by this time!) Only in the safe company of alumni is one permitted to use the term.

 So why talk about flagship universities? Because they are vitally important. And because I believe they are in peril.

 What do we mean by the term "flagship" universities? The term applies, in all the cases I can think of, to the fully mature public universities serving most of states. In most cases, these institutions were the first public universities to be established in their states. Many of what we now call the flagship campuses were established in the extraordinary period of university building that took place in the United States in the roughly three decades from the mid-1850s to the mid-1880s. Many came into being after the Morrill Act of 1863 provided the federal grants of land to the states to establish public universities. Some states built two institutions, a land-grant college focused on agriculture and the "mechanical arts" as well as general education, and another more directed at classical education and the other professions. For example, Michigan, Indiana, Iowa, Washington, and Texas, among others, built separate institutions, while Illinois, Minnesota, Ohio, and California combined the land-grant and liberal arts function on a single campus. These institutions formed the core of the public systems of higher education in their respective states. State teachers colleges, later evolving into regional state colleges or universities, formed the rest of the higher education institutions in most states.

 But it was always clear that the one or two institutions that were the original land-grant or public universities in the states were the flagships--the leaders--even though they may not have been referred to as such. They became the centers for research and graduate education and they developed an array of professional schools that added to their size, scope, and pre-eminence.

 The term "flagship" universities came to be associated with these institutions primarily after the Second World War, largely in the 1960s, when the country underwent its second enormous expansion of higher education. During this period two things happened. First, in many states, branch campuses of the primary universities were established in the cities. The original university builders had been suspicious of the cities, with their sinful distractions, so most early university campuses were located in rural, bucolic settings. They were, for the most part, built in places like Iowa City; Columbia, Missouri; Champaign-Urbana, Illinois; West Lafayette or Bloomington, Indiana; or Ann Arbor, Michigan or College Station. Some were built in the state capitals: Austin, Madison, Lincoln, St. Paul, or East Lansing. In any event, by the 1960s, it was clear that major cities did not have public universities to serve their rapidly expanding populations so branch campuses were built in Chicago, Milwaukee, Indianapolis, Kansas City, St. Louis, Boston, and elsewhere.

 Second, during the 1960s, various institutions were grouped together into "systems." The creation of systems was impelled by three primary forces. First, and this drove the other two forces, was simply the enormous expansion of the college-age and the college-seeking population. Colleges were growing rapidly, new colleges were springing up closer to population centers, and states were investing heavily in this remarkable expansion of educational opportunity. Consider these numbers: In 1960, there were 2 million students enrolled in all of the public post-secondary institutions in the United States 2-year colleges and 4-year colleges and universities. In the following two decades, that had grown to 9.5 million; today, nearly 40 years later, it is approaching 13 million, more than a six-fold increase in four decades. This onslaught in enrollment was matched by the expansion of colleges. The number of public colleges and universities more than doubled in that same time period, from 700 in 1960 to 1,576 in 1994. The number of doctoral institutions increased by 50 percent in that same period, from 109 to 152.

 It was a remarkable time to be in higher education. For example, I received my Ph. D. in 1965, during the most rapid growth in faculty positions ever experienced. I began my teaching career, as a historian, at the University of Massachusetts in Boston; the Massachusetts legislature approved this new branch campus in January 1965; it opened the following September. In 1967, I moved to the University of Oregon. In each of those two years, there were more jobs available for new Ph. D.s in history than there ever had been before or ever have been since.

 This enormous expansion of higher education created problems of governance, the second force behind the creation of systems. To accommodate the complex issues of governance, that is, to avoid multiple boards of governors for the many new campuses, systems of institutions were developed, combining several institutions under one governing board.

 And finally, the third compelling reason for the development of systems was political. The leaders of the "main" campuses of the universities, both presidents and board members, felt the need to develop political bases of support across their states, especially in the cities with concentrations of voters. This was a logical political response. At the University of Texas, the powerful regent Frank Erwin argued this case quite explicitly. The means of assuring political support for Austin was to extend the reach of the University to all parts of the state.

 The creation of new universities and the expansion of higher education generally was also tremendously encouraged by the large infusion of federal funds in the post-Sputnik era. Between 1965 and 1975, federal expenditures in higher education increased by an astonishing 263 percent.

 It was in the context of this massive expansion, then, that the term "flagship" came to be used to refer to the original campus of the system, the campus from which branches were developed or other institutions attached. The metaphor obviously had a naval origin; each fleet has a flagship, the largest battleship or aircraft carrier from which the admiral directs the movements of the entire fleet. Given the origins of systems, the fleet metaphor is somewhat appropriate. The fleet is intended to maximize the firepower of a navy by concentrating it and coordinating it; the fleet moves in such manner defensively to provide best protection for the flagship.

 From the start, faculty on each of the flagship campuses expressed concern at the growth of peripheral campuses; they still do. They see these campuses as detracting from and draining resources away from the flagship. As early as the 1920s, when the first branch campus of the University of California was established in Los Angeles, the faculty expressed concern and a fair amount of disdain. For more than two decades, the Los Angeles branch was known merely as the "Southern Division of the University of California." Today we call this outpost UCLA. However, in the heady sixties, with vast amounts of money being poured into higher education, these concerns were easily overridden; the rising tide raised all boats and the political wisdom of systems seemed to be confirmed. Let me add my own view that the political wisdom was correct. I believe the creation of systems was the right choice. But it was the failure to define clear missions that created the problems.

 Aside from the goal of providing greater access to higher education for a growing population, the creation of higher education systems was undertaken without any clearly defined educational purpose. They came into being with virtually no genuine educational planning, no clearly defined or differentiated missions, and very little thought about how, in fact, the new "fleets" of campuses related to the flagships. More often, they were the results of ambitious and effective university leaders or political compromises.

 In most states, as a result, the systems are unwieldy confederations of very different kinds of institutions. In New York, for example, the state system of higher education embraces over sixty institutions, ranging from community colleges to research universities. In Oregon, where I spent nineteen years, the state system ranged from a technical college, to a regional campus with too small a population base to sustain its enrollment (but too big a political base to close it), to the research universities of the University of Oregon and Oregon State. And you are well aware of the circumstances of both the Texas A&M System and that of the University of Texas, with wide ranges of size, scope, scale, and mission within each of the systems.

 There are some exceptions to this pattern, to be sure. Iowa refused to add universities during the expansion of the 1960s, choosing instead to invest in and expand its two flagship campuses, Iowa State and the University of Iowa, as well as its one teachers' college, which became the University of Northern Iowa. No public university was built in Des Moines, the largest city in the state. As a result, with a population base roughly the same as Oregon, or slightly less, it has two excellent and thriving AAU universities, while Oregon has eight underfunded, struggling institutions.

 Another exception is California, whose system of higher education is deserving of some attention because it has been widely studied but rarely successfully emulated. As early as the 1930s, President Robert Gordon Sproul of the University of California recognized that the rapid growth of California posed problems for the organization of higher education in California. By 1958 UC had a total enrollment of 44,000 students. Projections, however, showed it would grow three fold, to roughly 120,000 by 1975 and that the demand for access to other post-secondary institutions were grow accordingly. A plan was needed.

 In 1959, therefore, under the leadership of Clark Kerr, newly appointed President of the University of California, the legislature requested that a Liaison Committee between the University Regents and the California State Board of Education produce a long-range plan. The Master Plan for Higher Education in California was the outcome. It was approved by the Regents and the state board in 1959 and by the legislature in 1960. What was seen by its authors as a means of avoiding the worst, has in fact become the way of achieving the best.

 Under the plan, only the top 12.5 percent of the high school graduates would be entitled to enroll in the University of California; in addition, sixty percent of its undergraduates would be upper division, forty percent lower division. The University of California was to be the research institution of the state, and it alone would be permitted to offer graduate education through the doctorate as well as professional education. As the sole institution with a dedicated research mission, the teaching expectations of the faculty of the University of California were adjusted accordingly and the funding formula for the University called for a lower student-faculty ratio.

 According to the Master Plan, the California State Colleges, which became the State University System, recruited its students from the top 33 percent of the high-school graduates. Its campuses were not to develop doctoral programs except in collaboration with the University of California, and the faculty, not expected to be a research faculty, had proportionately larger teaching responsibilities. The funding formula for the State Colleges called for a substantially higher student-teacher ratio.

 High-school graduates who did not qualify for admission to either the University of California or the California State University were eligible for admission to the numerous community colleges that were established throughout the state.

 The California Master Plan simultaneously accomplished two vitally important things: by differentiating clearly the missions of the three levels of higher education, it provided both universal access and the delineation of excellence. As Clark Kerr, the leader most responsible for the success of the Plan has said: "I feared that atomistic competition would lead to all institutions seeking to homogenize themselves with similar academic missions as research universities … So I had in mind that we wanted universal access, but we also wanted a margin of excellence as well." The negotiation and adoption of the Master Plan required both political skill and political will. To quote Kerr again, "What we were really engaged in was negotiating a treaty among the constituent parts of higher education in California that would, at the same time, be acceptable to the Governor and the Legislature of the State."

 The California Master Plan remains the formative document of California higher education from 1960 to the present. It has guided the growth of the various segments of higher education through the past four decades with remarkable results. The University of California now has eight comprehensive campuses and one free-standing medical center. There are 22 campuses in the California State University System and 106 community colleges in the state. Six of the eight eligible campuses of the University of California are now members of the Association of American Universities, comprising 62 of the top public and private research universities in the United States and Canada. Last year, the New Yorker magazine carried a double page picture of Nobel Laureates that it gathered for a picture on a beach north of San Francisco. Observing that dozens of Nobel prizes had been garnered by scientists in California over the years, the New Yorker commented, "The affiliations of California's Nobelists are also telling. Of the total, a huge numberthirty-twotaught in the state's public university system. California in its heyday managed to make genius public property. By contrast, Massachusetts, the other great American academic enclave, has always kept genius locked away behind ivied walls. Is it any wonder that the Massachusetts Miracle faded, while California's state system was able to turn out the engineers and scientists necessary to fuel its high-tech industries?" I couldn't have written it better myself, especially as the article refers to Berkeley as the "jewel in the crown" of the University of California!

 The Master Plan's designation of the University of California as the primary locus for research in California higher education has paid enormous dividends to the state. It has made it possible for the University to manage three of the major federal laboratories, one of which is located on the Berkeley campus and provides enormous advantages for our physicists, chemists, biologists, and engineers. The commitment to and funding of excellence in the UC system has made possible, along with Stanford University, the development of the micro-electronics industry in Silicon Valley and it has led to the overwhelming concentration of biotechnology companies in northern California as well as in the San Diego area. The three largest of these were all founded by faculty and graduates of the University of California.

 I could go on, but this already sounds too much like propaganda for the University of California. I haven't gone to this length because I want merely to brag about the University of California. My purpose here, rather, is to say that excellence matters, that it exists in flagship universities like California or A & M or UT Austin, and that it takes careful, thoughtful rational planning by states and by systems to assure the preservation of flagship universities. California was fortunate to have developed a plan for the identification and cultivation of excellence as well as universal access.

 I recognize that it would be extremely difficult in the current political environment for states to develop plans akin to that of the California Master Plan. I doubt very much that it could even be achieved in California today. Nevertheless, there are four principles that I believe are central to the Master Plan that should be kept in mind as states like Texas consider the futures of their systems of higher education. One, it is important to provide broad, virtually universal access to post-secondary education. Two, it is essential to differentiate clearly the missions of the various institutions, with the recognition that each type of institution is essential, though differently. Three, that research universities cost considerably more and therefore need a different funding base and student-teacher ratio. Four, states can only afford a very limited number of research universities and that not every institution that wants to be one can be and not every region that wants to have a research university can have one.

 My concern is that flagship universities are in peril today and I believe that the educational and political leadership of our states must generate the political will to secure the future of these investments.

 Why do I believe that these flagship institutions are in peril? There are several reasons.

 Flagship universities, research universities, have during the past decade or more been subjected to a relentless barrage of criticism. The publication of books talking about the failures of the research universities has become a cottage industry. Books with the titles, Profscam, Tenured Radicals, The Killing of the Spirit, The Closing of the American Mind, to name only a few, and critics like William Bennett, Lynn Cheney, and Dinesh d'Souza have kept up a steady criticism of higher education that has helped to undermine public confidence in what we do. You are all familiar with the charges: faculty who care little about students, faculty at research universities interested only in research, faculty who do too little of the teaching and graduate students who do to much of it.

 Add to this the fact that tuition and fees at private universities have reached stratospheric heights while fees at public universities, some of which used to charge very little, have also climbed steeply. So parents worry about whether they can afford to educate their children and wonder if they are getting their money's worth when they do.

 Now, those of us in higher education need to take these criticisms seriously and ask ourselves whether they have validity. Some criticisms are valid. We have not given undergraduate education the attention that it deserves; since the 1960s, the faculty have withdrawn from some of the roles they traditionally have played, such as undergraduate advising and public service. Administrators, eager to improve the scholarly reputation of their institutions have rewarded research productivity far more than teaching. And some of what passes for research is trivial.

 But the fact remains that these flagship universities have accomplished a great deal and are the envy of the world. We have created institutions that are superior to the revered institutions of Europe and we have provided a model of excellence that is being emulated everywhere. We have combined graduate education with research in a fashion and to a degree that is not practiced anywhere else, and higher education has been one of our most important means of cultural exchange and the distribution of American ideals and values throughout the developing world, as thousands of students come here of study each year. We have some weaknesses and some failures, but the story of the American research university over the past four decades has been a story of tremendous success.

 Still, the criticisms have caused serious damage. Legislators question the importance of research, the value of subsidizing graduate education, the teaching effort of the faculty, and the reason for educating international students. In an era of budgetary constraints, the criticisms have provided a rationale for cutting the support of university budgets. The political will and support for higher education that was evident in the expansion of the 1960s has clearly waned.

 The expansive economy of the 1960s gave way, especially from the late 1970s until very recently, to much slower growth, demands for tax reductions, an many new competitors for state support. Property-tax revolts and court decisions forced state governments to assume more of the burden for K-12 funding; increased crime led to the large investment in prisons; the federal government off-loaded more responsibilities to the states without the concomitant transfer of resources. With the increase of entitlements, higher education became everywhere the largest chunk of states' discretionary budgets. And federal support for higher education began to decline.

 The competition for resources and the criticism directed at research universities have combined to create a political dynamic that puts many of the best public institutions at risk. Regional campuses in each of the states have built political alliances in the legislatures that protect them at the expense of the flagships. This has happened despite the fact that the creation of systems was intended to minimize political infighting. It has happened within systems and between them.

 In Texas, during my first years here, the regional universities launched an assault on graduate education, ostensibly in the name of undergraduate education, that moved resources from College Station and Austin elsewhere. Regional universities, envious of the resources available to the larger, older flagship campuses persuade their representatives that the distribution of resources is unfair. How many times has the Permanent University Fund been held up as an expression of the unfairness of the distribution of resources to the advantage of Texas A&M and UT Austin? The PUF was a whipping boy of sorts during each of the three legislative sessions that I was in Austin. I actually came to see the PUF as a political handicap for UT. It was merely a substitute for state funds, allowing the state to invest less general revenue in UT and A&M; at the same time, it gets listed as an endowment that caused people everywhere, our donors among them, to think that we were, next to Harvard, the most well-endowed university in America. During my last appearance before the House Appropriations Committee, I was told that the reason Austin was left off the list of $600 million in capital projects recommended was that it had the capacity to raise money privately. (That happened to be the day that I decided to accept the invitation to talk with the search committee at Berkeley.) Nothing, of course, kills private fundraising for public universities faster than the belief that the state will withdraw funds if private donors are willing to add them.

 In short, in the name of fairness, equitable distribution of scarce resources, or regional politics call it what you will there is a subtle, but dangerous effort to weaken flagship campuses. No one will admit that it is happening, but it is. Texas is not unique in this; similar political dynamics are at work in many of the states.

 What, you may ask, is wrong with this? Why should these older, more established campuses have advantages? Why shouldn't the newer universities be able to exercise their political muscle in the effort to become as strong as the flagship campuses? Why should we even allow the flagship campuses to claim any superiority except that which is the product of age? Why should they hold back the newcomers?

 I am not claiming that a state like Texas should not consider developing another campus that would be as strong as A&M or Austin. What I am saying is that the decision to do that, the decision of where to locate it, and how to build it should be the consequence of careful deliberation, not merely the consequence of political jockeying. Texas, the second most populous state in the United States, probably needs a third or maybe even a fourth such campus. California, with half again as many people as Texas, has, after all, built eight comprehensive universities in the UC system. But, such an effort should only be undertaken with a definite plan to provide both access and excellence. And any successful plan requires a clear understanding of what it takes to build excellence.

 There must be a recognition that flagship campuses cost more than other kinds of institutions. To build a flagship campus, you must have faculty who are internationally recognized and competitive. That requires substantial salary differentials, and salary differentials that are not merely made possible by the herding of undergraduates into large classes with graduate instructors. It requires student-teacher ratios that are comparable to those at the best universities in the country, and that costs money.

 I am frequently asked why it costs so much to maintain a first-class university. Donald Kennedy, the former president of Stanford, once asked the question, "Why do we look so rich and feel so poor?" There are many answers to this question, of course. But I am convinced that a key answer lies in the fact that, as the great German physicist Max Planck observed long ago, each new scientific discovery costs more than the last. We tackle the easy problems in any developing field first. The tougher problems require more time, more people, more expensive equipment. I am reminded of that whenever if visit the Lawrence Hall of Science on the Berkeley campus. Part of this science museum, dedicated to the memory of Berkeley's first Nobel Laureate, Ernest O. Lawrence, has the first cyclotron developed by Lawrence. It looks like an extremely primitive device to us now. When you compare this early "atom smasher" with the current equipment or the sadly aborted super collider, you have an illustration of how the cost of research increases to make new breakthroughs. Or take the example of library materials whose cost escalation over the past decade has increased at three times the rate of health care. Or consider the cost of connecting all of the buildings on a campus with fiber-optic cable and equipping each faculty member with a computer. Telephones and typewriters did not last forever, but they did not have to be replaced every three years. Or consider the start-up costs of a new faculty member in the sciences or engineering. Depending on the need to renovate laboratories, these costs can run from a minimum of $100,000 to as much as $2 million.

 Research universities cost a great deal of money. They also take a long time to build. When John D. Rockefeller first considered building the University of Chicago, he visited President Eliot at Harvard to ask what was required to build a great university. Eliot replied, "Fifty million dollars and two hundred years." The amount of money has grown considerably, and the amount of time has shrunk. But the fact remains that very, very few of the universities built or expanded in the 1960s have become front-ranked institutions. Some of the University of California institutions, especially UC San Diego, may be exceptions, but even UCSD had a head start with the presence of the Scripps Institute.

 No state can afford to build many flagship universities. They cannot be built quickly. They cannot be built by faculty who do not meet the highest standards of scholarly research. They cannot easily be built from institutions that have historically not been involved in much research or graduate education. Once built, they can be easily destroyed by political intrusion or financial neglect.

 But flagship universities are vital to our future. If states such as Texas do not work to protect and promote the excellence that UT Austin and A&M here in College Station have achieved and will build upon, the best and the brightest students will either have to leave the state or settle for a less challenging education offering fewer opportunities for them in the future. Unless the state recognizes and supports excellence, excellence will not develop and we will all be the poorer for it.

 So I wish this flagship good sailing. Texas A&M is a fine institution; it deserves your support and protection.