Noted academic talks about big picture

Nick Lowrey

The process for developing SDSU’s next strategic plan is in its beginning stages.

SDSU has begun to think about where it will be in the next five years. The first phase of creating SDSU’s next strategic plan began Nov. 30 with a visit from Dr. Robert Berdahl, president emeritus of the Association of American Universities. The visit was part of an effort to spur conversation about the future of SDSU. Berdahl spoke to a sizable crowd of SDSU faculty members about the issues facing public higher education now and in the near future.

Berdahl’s visit was the first in a series of events designed to kick start the process of creating SDSU’s next strategic plan. The current plan is set to expire next year.

“We identified 2011 as a year of enlightenment,” said SDSU President David Chicoine, “to determine where we are in a bigger sense … Dr. Berdahl’s visit is part of that.”

The “year of enlightenment” was started to help inform both students and faculty about the issues facing higher education nationally. Chicoine said he hopes the events held as part of the year of enlightenment will provide a framework for the process of developing SDSU’s next strategic plan.

According to SDSU Provost Laurie Nichols, the year of enlightenment will continue into next semester. The next speaker will be Michael Tanner, chief academic officer of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities. Nichols said Tanner will likely arrive on campus sometime in late February and will speak more about teaching methods than issues.

“From there,” Nichols said, “we’re going to start on campus conversations.”

Berdahl spent 46 years in higher education as both a faculty member and as an administrator before retiring from the AAU last summer. Berdahl served as the chancellor for Academic Affairs at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign while Chicoine was a faculty member there. The two developed a professional relationship while at Illinois that eventually led Chicoine to invite Berdahl to campus.

Berdahl concentrated his speech on several areas he felt were key to the future of higher education. The first was the decline in state support. According to Berdahl, over the last 30 years there has been a change in the public’s attitude toward funding higher education.

He said in the past, education was seen as a public obligation and a public good. Berdahl said this attitude has shifted to one viewing education as an individual benefit instead of a societal benefit.

“This represents a fundamental reluctance to invest in the country’s over all infrastructure,” Berdahl said.

Berdahl also spoke about the rising costs of tuition. According to him the group who will be most affected by rising costs are the middle class. While he was the chancellor at the University of California at Berkeley, Berdahl saw a decrease in the percentage of middle class students whose parents made between $80,000 and $100,000. That group often does not qualify for financial aid because of their family’s income. Meanwhile the attendance rates for both the lowest and highest income students rose during the same period.

“All of this has a tremendous impact on society and on the universities themselves,” Berdahl said.

Another issue Berdahl focused on was the increase of market-based principles in higher education. Universities are increasingly adopting market-based solutions to their problems with competition. According to Berdahl students are seen increasingly as customers instead of students, which has helped lead to the shift in state funding.

Berdahl concluded his remarks by explaining his belief that America is falling behind when it comes to supporting higher education faculty. He said that Europe, China and even Saudi Arabia are investing huge amounts of money in research to develop faculty as well as new technologies.

“We’re dis-investing,” Berdahl said, “they’re investing.”