Saturday, June 21, 2014

Randy Scheckman and Public Universities

Randy Schekman at UCLA

Here is Randy Scheckman, an alumnus of the University of California, Los Angeles, and now a professor at the University of California, Berkeley.  This year he was the commencement speaker at his undergraduate alma mater.

He took the occasion to issue a cri de coeur for public universities.  Here is part of what he said.

"I came from a middle class family where college was an expectation, but money was a concern.  No private school for me.  But UCLA was great.  I paid $270 in fees for my freshman year in 1966, and my room and board at the student co-op amounted to no more than $800/year.

"As a freshman, I learned chemistry from Willard Libby, a Cal PhD Nobelist who invented C-14 dating of ancient biological materials.  Working in a research lab as an undergraduate at UCLA stoked my passion for science as a path to discovery of basic cellular processes.  I worked a summer job and earned enough money to cover my fees, room and board and books for the full year.  My father paid next to nothing to send five children through college.  At least 80 percent of the University of California budget at that time was covered by the state, compared with a meager 10 percent today."

Why should we care about Randy Scheckman's views of public education?

Maybe because of where it led him.

He was the first graduate from UCLA to earn a molecular science degree.  Many, many others have followed the path he blazed in essential research.  Since his graduation, UCLA's bioscience research laboratories have grown to rank among the finest in the world.
Randy Scheckman in Stockholm

In 2013, Schekman, with two others, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine.  He devoted his considerable share of the prize money to an endowed professorship he already had established at Berkeley and named after his mother and sister, who died of cancer.

Also last year, he announced that his lab would no longer submit articles to Nature, Science or Cell.  He said those journals restricted publication to drive up demand and that they were self-serving, causing scientists to cut corners or pursue trends, rather than focus on important scientific questions. Not surprisingly, he now edits eLife, an open-access, reviewed journal.

Later in his speech, Scheckman said, "I have remained a faculty member at Berkeley for over 37 years in part because public universities are the most effective engine of social mobility in our society."

He's right.  Seventy percent of American college students earn degrees at state colleges and universities, including several like UCLA and Berkeley that are ranked among the best in the world.

This last year, in-state tuition with dorm and board fees at the University of California was over $30,000.  The average family income in California, higher than in most states, was around $58,000.

Meanwhile, private colleges cost about twice as much.  Even those with the most lavish endowments enroll far fewer students from working- and middle-class families than the University of California.

The California situation is not a one-off.  All states, their budgets strained by bureaucracies and pension commitments, have cut back funding for public higher education.  All colleges, public and private, seem to rely more and more on adjunct, non-tenured faculty to teach students while expanding their administrative staffs with extra layers of bureaucrats.

If these trends do not change, how many future Randy Scheckmans will never achieve their potential?

To quote an old expression, this is what as known as eating one's seed corn.

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