Ask Berkeley economist and blogger Brad DeLong about the future of higher education as digital technology develops and you’ll get a disquisition about Erasmus of Rotterdam and the puzzle about how the idea of the university survived Gutenberg and 1435. DeLong enjoys pointing out that UC Berkeley is the only university to have named four elements (Chicago only counts two). His blogging occasionally plunges into detailed macroeconomic arguments, but he seems happiest when drawing on a seemingly inexhaustible trove of economic, political and social history to make cogent points about the present day.
I caught up with DeLong in the new Peet’s in the university’s gleaming CITRIS building for some blogger-to-blogger chat, but also to see what he thought of UC Berkeley’s future given its dire budgetary straits. DeLong has written frequently about the importance of Berkeley as a public university, often contrasting it with his own alma mater, Harvard. It was a day after the particular highpoint for a Berkeley economist of seeing yet another colleague, Oliver Williamson, awarded the Nobel prize for economics (the fifth Berkeley economist to win that honor).
Berkeleyside: Does Berkeley have a future as a great public university?
DeLong: There’s one view that it’s going to be absolutely fine. You look at the University of Michigan and UVa and they have made successful transitions to this mixed public/private institution.
Berkeley should do even better. We are close enough to Silicon Valley and the extraordinarily unequal California economy that they money will flow. Not at a Harvard scale, but it will flow.
Berkeleyside: Is it just the California advantage?
DeLong: We’re Oxford 1880. Everyone at the rising superpower across the ocean wants their children to come.
We’re culturally more friendly to Asia in lots of ways than other institutions. Then you think that there are 80 million 18-year olds in Asia. There are 800,000 of them in the top 1 per cent of income. There are 16,000 of them in the top 2 per cent of intellect and achievement. If we fumble that market position, we don’t deserve to survive.
But we are also an amazingly bureaucratic organization and it’s conceivable that we could fumble the whole thing.
Berkeleyside: But if Berkeley and other UC campuses end up serving the Asian elite, what does that mean for its public role in California?
DeLong: There will still be pressures to fulfill Clark Kerr’s vision of creating a broad UC system. Since 1950 the system went from admitting 4,000 undergraduates a year to 50,000 a year. That’s institutional success at an extraordinary level.
Berkeleyside: Do feel the budget cuts directly?
DeLong: No, not me personally but all kinds of administrators around me are feeling it. And economics has had a greater than normal number of faculty losses recently. It’s hard to know whether that’s just part of the cycle or whether it’s people leaving because of the prospects.
There’s also the fact that life for Berkeley economics faculty always becomes more stressed when there’s a Democratic administration in Washington. You lose some colleagues to that, but you also go from being someone who is carping on the sidelines to someone whose ideas are sought.
For all the pressures, being a tenured professor at a research university is still an amazing deal. It’s the closest thing in our age to being landed gentry.
Berkeleyside: You’ve talked about the rosy scenario for Berkeley, but what could take it in the wrong direction?
DeLong: You could have a situation where more and more money gets sucked up into keeping our old tenured faculty. Instead of hiring new tenure track people you hire lecturers who are less expensive. You get the grant-running done by non-tenured researchers.
Then we have something like the old regime in France where the aristocracy — the tenured faculty — is corralled into Versailles.
Berkeleyside: You’ve written often on your blog about the virtual university that exists in the blogosphere. Is the information age going to create something that supplants the university?
DeLong: Why didn’t this happen after 1435 when the price of a book fell 30-fold? The book is a sophisticated multimedia device. Reading takes place between the ears in a brain that is capable of extraordinary things. There were plenty of people who were disappointed when The Lord of the Rings movies came out because the characters didn’t look anything like the characters they had created in their own minds.
So what you suggest ought to have happened in the 15th century.
Berkeleyside: But now in addition to books you can go online and follow courses at MIT or Berkeley.
DeLong: I’m going to teach my 20th century economic history course online next summer. I feel that if anyone is going to be making money or having influence teaching 20th century economic history, I want it to be me.
Photo Brad DeLong