Introductory Remarks - 2015 Horace M. Albright Lecture in Conservation


Chancellor Nicholas Dirks: Good evening. I am thrilled to be welcoming all of you to what is surely one of the more special Albright Lectures since the series was established in 1959. It was exactly 100 years ago, in March of 1915, that Berkeley alumni, Horace M. Albright and his mentor, Stephen T. Mather, brought together on this campus the leading scientists, conservationists and park leaders of their day to lay the foundation for what would become America’s National Parks system….an idea that has had an enormous, lasting impact on the fundamental relationship between humanity and our planet.

This week, as most of you are surely aware, we are hosting a modern day corollary to Mather and Albright’s historic conference. The summit now underway is called “Science for the Parks, Parks for Science: The Next Century”--- one of the more important events being held to celebrate the National Park Service’s centennial.  Now, once again, leading scientists, conservationists, policy makers and park managers have come to this University, bound together by a deep belief in, and commitment to, the preservation of our parks and the extraordinary, if often under-appreciated, contributions not just to our well-being as a nation that has a love of natural beauty, but as a laboratory for understanding far better how our natural world works. Now, more than ever, as the looming threats of climate change become ever more tangible, the work that goes on at the nexus of our nation’s research institutions and national parks  has never been more important.

It was the historian and novelist Wallace Stegner who said that our national parks are “Absolutely American, absolutely democratic” and that, “they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.” And while I am admittedly biased, I am convinced that we can and must say the very same thing about our system of public higher education…another idea that embodies a deeply American, deeply democratic ethos, while reflecting an enlightened and capacious understanding of the public good.

It is surely no coincidence that President Abraham Lincoln played a particularly important role in the establishment of our pioneering systems of national parks and public higher education. It was in 1862 that he signed the Morrill Act, legislation that was promoted by supporters as a matter of “public justice” and led to the establishment of land grant universities across the country. And then, in 1864, the president who vowed at Gettysburg, “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth”, signed legislation deeding Yosemite Valley to the state of California, the initial step towards the establishment of a national system of parks.  The “Yosemite Grant” was the first land grant to protect wild lands for the enjoyment of the people, all the people, not just of this country but of the world.  At the heart of both the higher education and parks systems is the provision of the most precious of public resources—land---in support of the public interest.

Think for a second what these two great ideas say, or at least said, about who we are as a people and a nation. Inherent in both is a disdain for the notion of inherited privilege and a commitment to equality of opportunity without regard for socioeconomic status—the opportunity to learn and explore… to engage fully in our physical and intellectual surroundings…to have free and unfettered access to the best of this country’s human and natural resources.

Dig down a little deeper and you’ll find, there at the foundation of our national parks and public universities, ties that binds them together in an even more fundamental fashion: a basic belief in the notion of a public good, and the need for robust, equitable public institutions to safeguard and support that greater good for posterity. Of the people. By the people. For the people.

Today, as our panelists prepare to explore these two great ideas, let us not allow this celebration to engender any complacency on our part when considering the future. There is abundant evidence that the very idea of the public is in serious trouble. We are living in an age of political paralysis and institutional decay, with a palpable decline in our confidence that government, and by extension and implication other public entities, are worthy of our support. Funding for scientific research is in decline. More states across the country are jumping on the disinvestment bandwagon when it comes to public higher education, and according to the National Parks Conservation Association, “the Park Service, which has long struggled with underfunding, has been crippled by compounded budget cuts over recent years.” This is not to mention ways in which public lands have been compromised, and increasingly eroded, by private interests that seek to undo one of the two greatest ideas this nation has had.  All of this, of course, stands in marked contrast to the past, when there was a broad – if not completely shared – national consensus about the efficacy and value of public institutions.

The same threats exist around our extraordinary system of public higher education.  We are being told that excellence in research and teaching is an extravagance that only the private sector, and by implication the privileged elite, should have access to, that equality of opportunity should give way to the same private interests that threaten the natural inheritance that earlier generations sought to reserve for all of our use, and all of our experience of what this nation means. 

So, today, as we become preoccupied again with presidential politics and national campaigns, let us remember that the idea of a public good is enshrined in these two great ideas, that our democracy, our belief in opportunity and the need for socioeconomic and cultural betterment, the sense that the American dream is for all who come to these shores from all over the world and from every possible position in the socioeconomic spectrum, will depend upon our success in remembering, and restoring, the belief we share about the importance of what we celebrate this evening.