Charaiveti: Journey From India To The Two Cambridges And Berkeley And Beyond, Part 51

by Pranab Bardhan

All of the articles in this series can be found here.

In the middle 1990’s along with journal-editing I did another job in Berkeley which was even more arduous, but also in some ways quite exciting and instructive. I was invited by the campus academic senate to serve for 3 years in a high-powered committee that decided on all appointments, promotions, salaries and merit payment increases for all Berkeley faculty (then roughly about 2,000 in size). This committee is called the Budget Committee in Berkeley; technically it advises the Chancellor, but the latter took our advice in 99% of cases—in the less than 1% cases when the Chancellor did not follow our advice, the rule was that the Chancellor was obliged to meet us in a special session of the committee and explain why he/she would not follow our advice (most often this involved some legal issues) and we had a chance to rebut their arguments.

Working in this Committee gave me valuable insights into the process of how a top public university like Berkeley, even though substantially more constrained in terms of resources compared to the rich heavily endowed private universities in the US like Harvard, Princeton, MIT, Stanford, Yale, Chicago, etc., could maintain its high ranking in terms of academic excellence in most disciplines. I thought the insights I got from my experience would be of some use in any reform of the public universities in India. I wrote a couple of op-ed pieces in Indian newspapers and gave some public lectures in India with suggestions for reform on the basis of my Berkeley experience, but very few people paid much attention, probably because people thought my ideas were utopian in the Indian context. The Indian public universities have for long been severely hamstrung by political and bureaucratic interventions, overregulation and mismanagement by different governments. (Some years later Jean-Jacques Laffont, a leading French economist, gave me a qualitatively similar account of problems afflicting French public universities.) On top of this the current right-wing government in India has a distinct political-ideological agenda of washing away the remnants of left-liberal ideas from universities, mangling the teaching of history and culture in universities (and schools), and of installing a narrow essentially anti-science Hindu-supremacist nationalist viewpoint.

One way Berkeley maintains its record of excellence is by zealously guarding faculty autonomy in appointments, promotions and salaries, and by a continuous process of merit reviews. The Budget Committee answerable only to the academic senate representing the faculty guards the latter’s interest in keeping high academic standards. Every department carries out frequent, and at some intervals particularly intensive, reviews of faculty merit (on three usual criteria of research quality, teaching performance—where student evaluations of the teacher play an important role– and university service), and at every important step gets confidential reports of evaluation from academics in other universities. The department faculty votes on its decision, and passes the whole file on to the Dean, who adds his or her own evaluation and passes on the whole file to the Budget Committee.

The Committee has 9 members, and each of these members is assigned several disciplines; in my case for example, I had to handle files from Economics, Political Science, Business Management, Public Policy, Mathematics, Statistics and a few other departments. After studying each of these files, and depending on the stage of promotion forming an independent subcommittee of evaluation (with a member from the department, but mostly from other campus departments, and sometimes from outside the campus) and getting their report, I’d prepare my report on a candidate on the basis of all those multi-stage evaluations and mine.

Every Thursday morning the whole committee will have a meeting where each of us would have to present our report and defend it for each case in our charge. (One regular item where I had to put up a stout defense was on why a relatively junior economist had to be paid a salary which sometimes exceeded that of even a distinguished veteran in the Physics department. I had to resort to what Paul Samuelson in his elementary undergraduate economics textbook called the ‘water-diamond paradox’ – everybody knows water is much more valuable for life than a diamond, and yet the latter fetches an incredibly high price, etc.). Then the whole committee would take a decision on the file and pass on the decision to the Chancellor who’d take the formal final decision.

The politicians, particularly the Governor of California, get involved in the process of selecting the super-administrators called the Regents of the University of California, and the latter are involved in the selection of the Chancellor (apart from long-range planning and university policy particularly with respect to undergraduate student admission numbers and tuition fees). But as the Chancellor used to accept almost all our decisions on appointments and promotions, the faculty autonomy from politicians remained largely protected. In my 3 years in the Budget Committee with hundreds of cases there was only one case where the Chancellor decided to override our decision on what he called legal grounds of affirmative action. In the special session of our Committee where he had to come and explain his decision and face our questions, he came with the university lawyer in tow, who explained to us that even though he understood the academic grounds of our decision (to deny a tenure in a particular case), if the candidate went to court, the university might have to go through an expensive legal process where the ultimate outcome would be quite uncertain. This lawyer had to face sharp questions from us, particularly from the faculty member in our Committee who was from our Law School.

One major way the California politicians affected the university was in terms of the total education budget (particularly the part assigned to the University of California system), which determined, for example, the general cost-of-living adjustment to our annual salary, apart from student admission numbers and fees, repair and construction of buildings and other facilities. Of course, over the years funds from the California budget have been a diminishing part of our total campus budget, and the campus independently raises funds from donors—in this, of course, Berkeley is less successful than private universities with wealthy alumni.

In years of tight budgets the university may cut down on new hires but tries its best to guard the part of the budget that is earmarked for merit increases on the basis of the intensive merit review process I have mentioned above. One of the toughest battles the Committee usually had to fight was in cases when a rich private university tried to lure away a ‘star’ professor from us by offering much higher salary, research money, laboratory resources, etc. Even there Berkeley often tried to match some of those offers by deftly juggling the salary scale. One of the first words I learned when I joined the Committee was ‘decoupling’: this was the name for tortuous departures from Berkeley’s standard salary scales mostly to withstand the salary offers from other universities. Of course, the campus would often remind people of the non-monetary advantages of remaining in California, with its climate and other benefits (obviously of not much use for offers from the nearby rich private university, Stanford). I remember once the Governor of California while cutting the university budget told people how much of what he called ‘psychic income’ California residents enjoyed—to which many protested and said that at the next election they’d contribute to his campaign fund with ‘psychic dollars’.

One possible downside to the principle of faculty autonomy is that with full autonomy some universities could degenerate into cozy, nepotistic clubs of rampant mediocrity. Sociologist Diego Gambetta has described such a system of collusive mediocrity in some Italian universities—a culture of mediocrity where mediocre people get other mediocre people around them and thrive in a cocoon of comfortable cronyism. Autonomy vs. cronyism is the inexorable dilemma of a higher education system.

In the US this problem has been mostly averted by a culture of constant competition among the better universities—they raid one another for the best faculty, and try to generate a critical mass of good faculty and students. Students also gravitate to where the best faculty are. When professors move from one university to another they move with the whole paraphernalia of funded research projects, labs and affiliated students. So it’ll be costly for a university to lose its good faculty members, if it fails to provide a stimulating environment.

It is, of course, not easy to reproduce this culture of competition and mobility everywhere, but one can try, with some external monitoring mechanisms in place. Periodic reviews of a whole department by outside professional peer groups of academics, particularly if the review report is taken seriously by the external financial authorities in the allocation of faculty slots to the department, can be a significant deterrent to indulgence in mediocrity. In many fields research grants from external funding agencies are an important source of finance for a US university (in the form of overhead costs charged to the grant), and mediocre people failing to get such grants can become financially costly for a university.

Apart from mediocre faculty, the other related problem of autonomy may be in encouraging low-quality degree giving. The solution to this is not state or regulatory interference. The ultimate solution will have to be the market test. Job-givers will not value such degrees given by universities that abuse their autonomy, and students will soon find this out.

This kind of cutting-edge competition, both in recruiting faculty and in quality education for students at least in the better universities, has been slow to come even in advanced countries like Japan or in Europe—it has been at the root of the relative attractiveness of the US academia in the last at least 60 years.

Berkeley is widely regarded as the best public university in the world. This, of course, depends on the definition of a public university. The high-ranking Cambridge and Oxford universities in UK are public in the sense of large subsidization by the government, but the private endowments and assets of these two old universities far exceed those of Berkeley. In fact when I went on a visiting Fellowship (at the invitation of my friend Jim Mirrlees I have talked about earlier) at Trinity College, Cambridge twice in the period 2002-4, I came to know that not merely Trinity was the richest college in UK, its land holdings alone in vast tracts of the surrounding countryside, largely bequeathed by King Henry VIII, exceeded $1 billion in value.

I remember asking Amartya Sen, then the Master of the College, how much of his time as the head of the College was spent on raising funds. (This was uppermost in my mind, as shortly before then I was asked in Berkeley if I’d like to take over the job of a Dean, and I immediately said ‘no’; not merely that I did not have much administrative skills, but also that I heard a main task of a Berkeley Dean was to raise funds from donors, a skill in which I was singularly deficient). Amartya-da said Trinity was so rich that he not merely did not have to raise funds, he had to preside over some meetings where following a Cambridge tradition he had to take decisions on sharing some of the riches of the College with the less well-off colleges—how I wish the US had a similar tradition!

The Master’s Lodge where he lived had 19 bedrooms, one of which was permanently reserved for the possible occasional visit by a member of the royal family. In some small ways I partook in Trinity’s riches: most afternoons, if it did not rain, Kalpana and I enjoyed walking in the large beautiful lush green Faculty Gardens, and the food at the High Table for the faculty was good, unusually so for an old British establishment. (For an Indian philosopher friend, Arindam Chakrabarti who was also visiting at that time, and who was not just a strict vegetarian, he’d not even touch onions and garlic, the kitchen staff would serve specially cooked meals just for him at the Table). I was told that the kitchen at Trinity was the inventor of an English, less sweet than the French version, crème brûlée, known as “Trinity burnt cream”, first introduced at Trinity High Table in 1879.

My first night at dinner High Table I heard Amartya-da saying grace in Latin; I later told him that I almost saw him slipping into the shoes of his grandfather who used to preside over ceremonies in Santiniketan, chanting Sanskrit.