My wife and I recently attended a screening of At Berkeley, a documentary created by Frederick Wiseman. The film is four hours long, so be warned. We left the theater at the halfway point to check out an exhibit of the work of some Iranian and Arab women photographers. Seeing on screen the same staff meetings and classroom environments that the two of us experience daily is just not that interesting after a while.
Of the two hours of the documentary that we did watch, a few scenes stand out. One was a retreat of UC Berkeley’s top administrators in 2010 (I think), led by the university’s chancellor at the time, Dr. Robert J. Birgeneau. At the meeting, Dr. Birgeneau laid out the problem facing Berkeley in stark terms: how can the university maintain its academic excellence and affordability for non-wealthy Californians when the state government has steadily divested itself from the public university system? Berkeley was in the position of having to cut $75 million from its operational costs without sacrificing academic quality or student financial aid.
A subsequent scene showed a graduate classroom discussion about poverty and economic opportunity, especially in relation to equitable access to educational resources. An astute student made the point that — in the USA at least — these topics didn’t attract much attention until Caucasian, middle class, suburban families began experiencing unemployment and home foreclosure during the economic crisis that began in 2008.
Although At Berkeley supposedly has no underlying theme beyond presenting an inside look at an organization in a particular place and time, I believe it showcases the implications of treating knowledge production and dissemination, and the universities where that happens, as private rather than public goods. Unfortunately, public divestment in higher education — in terms of state government appropriations of taxpayer dollars — has been occurring in the USA for a few decades now, and the process is likely to continue.