What Should Berkeley's University Be?

By Becky O'Malley
Friday September 06, 2013 - 08:12:00 AM

Social Notes from All Over: Local website Berkeleyside.com (never call it a blog) is now promoting what it describes as “an enthralling new gathering for those wishing to broaden their horizons.” Among the speakers at “Uncharted: The Berkeley Festival of Ideas” will be new UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks.

From the inevitable flackery which such events generate:

“Dirks, a historian and anthropologist whose work focuses on India, will be in conversation. The subject: “What are the humanities — chopped liver?”

Now there’s a topic which is close to my own heart. 

Per Wikipedia, just a refresher for those who might be confused: “The humanities include ancient and modern languages, literature, philosophy, religion, and visual and performing arts such as music and theatre.” 

As an Old Blue Comp Lit major, it’s been sad for me to see what New York Times Science Times columnist Natalie Angier called “the odious and increasingly pervasive term” STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) promoted as being innately superior to the humanities. In my undergraduate days, British scientist and novelist C.P. Snow was dining out on advancing the premise that humanities devotees were ignorant of science: 

“A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists. Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a work of Shakespeare's?”
Well, yes, but now the shoe’s on the other foot. The STEMites are ascendant and the humanities are in retreat. 

Case in point: U.C. Santa Cruz has just announced, with crocodile tears of course, that it’s canning the immensely popular Shakespeare Santa Cruz summer play festival, putatively because of cumulative shortfalls adding up to perhaps $1.98 million over about 5 years, though the figures UCSC provides are vigorously disputed

Anyone familiar with technology funding knows that two million dollars is chump change in those circles. Santa Cruz is awash in Silicon Valley spillover—newly minted moguls who could underwrite those bills if they were asked politely. 

Now, I have nothing against science and technology: my husband is a computer scientist who once taught at U.C. Berkeley and my Daughter the Professor’s doctorate in biology is from UCSC. Despite my humanities education, I was a science reporter for a few years myself. But today’s University of California seems to be leaning way too far in the other direction now: STEM‘s in, Shakespeare’s out. 

And there’s a Berkeley example: The much lauded Young Musicians Program has been shut down. From the press release announcing its demise: 

“Over the last 45 years, the Young Musicians Program has provided a valuable public service to the community by providing high quality tutoring and musical education to low-income and disadvantaged youth. The program was initially founded within UC Berkeley’s Music Department in 1968 as a summer program for youth from Berkeley and surrounding communities. Over time, it has expanded to a year-round program, featuring individual, group, orchestral and choral instruction. Musical instruments and all other aspects of the program were provided at no cost to the students and their families. In the 2012/2013 academic year, YMP enrolled 92 students aged 10 to 18.”
So why was it axed? The back story is murky. I’ve called around to try to get it straight, but I can’t. 

I know quite a few current and past students in the program, and I’ve now talked to many administrators, parents, teachers and board members. The best I can determine is that ineffectual management allowed an untenable labor dispute to develop between the director and the instructors, so UC Berkeley just decided to bail, much easier than solving the problems or braving a lawsuit. Money woes haven’t even been mentioned. 

An external non-profit spinoff, to be called the Young Musicians’ Choral Orchestra, was announced in the press release which reported the YMP closure, but has yet to materialize. It’s being organized by a small group which includes YMP’s former director Daisy Newman (who hasn’t returned my calls) and its former advisory board chair and major donor Richard J. Olsen, a former TransAmerica corporate executive (to whom I spoke yesterday). 

Despite their evident good intentions, one more non-profit youth orchestra competing among many similar organizations for scarce foundation funds just won’t have the same cachet as a 45-year-old University of California program which has been an acclaimed success. 

UC Santa Cruz served not only its students but the city of Santa Cruz and the public at large by sponsoring Shakespeare Santa Cruz and providing a percentage of its funding. Christopher Krohn, a former Santa Cruz mayor, has written to UCSC Chancellor George Blumenthal urging the formation of a blue ribbon committee, with members both from city government and from the university, to try to salvage the festival. As of this writing the university seems uninterested, but perhaps that will change. 

Here in Berkeley, citizens and others interested in salvaging the full scope of the Young Musicians’ Program for continuation under university auspices should make a similar offer to new UCB Chancellor Nicolas Dirks. I’m sure local residents who know and appreciate the Young Musicians Program would rally round—I’d certainly volunteer to help myself—and we could probably find one of our own ex-Mayors to participate. 

Perhaps one of the Ideas to be considered by Dirks and his interviewer at the “Berkeley Festival of Ideas” could be The Idea of a University (a title previously used but not trademarked by John Henry Newman). What the University of California in all its branches seems to be forgetting at the moment, as exemplified by these two cases, is the obligation of a great and historic public institution to be a good citizen in the communities where it resides. 

Saving these iconic arts programs would be one way for UC to provide a resounding answer to the challenging question which Chancellor Dirks should be asked to answer in his “conversation” onstage at the festival. 

What should a university be? 

Well, more than just chopped liver!