March 28, 2016

UC Historian Patricia A. Pelfrey Discusses Challenges to Governance in UC’s Multicampus System

BERKELEY, CA, March 28, 2016 -  As American higher education struggles to adapt to the downward spiral of public support in the wake of the Great Recession of 2008, the reaction has been a steady stream of proposals that argue for redesigning universities from the inside out.  Economic models of university organization have been especially influential.  On March 30 at Berkeley, Patricia Pelfrey, Senior Research Associate at UCB’s Center for Studies in Higher Education, will discuss the University of California’s unique governance principle, known as the one-university idea, and whether it remains viable in the landscape of 21st century higher education.  Its premise is simple: that a large and decentralized system of ten campuses, differing in size, resources, aspirations, and stage of development, can nevertheless be governed as a single university. 

The one-university idea dates to the 1930s and the administration of charismatic UC President Robert Gordon Sproul.  Fearful that political pressures would split the University into two separate institutions, one at Berkeley and one at Los Angeles, Sproul proclaimed that all UC campuses had to be seen as one university, an undivided center of learning with the same mission and the same commitment to academic excellence.   Long regarded as a major structural reason for the UC system’s rise to pre-eminence among public research universities, the one-university philosophy has served as an organizational answer to the centrifugal forces in a growing multicampus system, a framework for balancing cooperation and competition among campuses, and a means of cultivating academic quality in new and old campuses alike. 

The story of its origin and evolution across successive administrations, Pelfrey argues, holds lessons for understanding university governance that are relevant beyond the confines of the University of California—among them that institutional redesign is rarely an impartial contest among rational alternatives.   It is the product not only of financial and other external pressures but of institutional conflicts, personal rivalries, temporary interests, and the irresistible urge to rectify the mistakes of predecessors.  Actual reform in universities comes with a history, and UC’s experience offers its own context for today’s national debate about multicampus systems and new paradigms of university organization.

 The one-university model has been a unifying administrative and cultural ethos within UC for more than 80 years.  Does it have a future in the era of disruptive innovation?   “The one-university idea was born out of a political battle over regional dominance, served for decades as a justification for centralizing executive authority, and has always oscillated between the values of leadership at the center and independence on the campuses,” Pelfrey notes.  “But it is also the single most important reason the University of California has become an institution of distributed power and endemic excellence.  And that makes it worth the struggle.”

Carol Christ, Director of the Center for Studies in Higher Education, will moderate Ms. Pelfrey’s presentation at The MATRIX, 8th Floor Barrows Hall, from 12:00-1:30 on Wednesday, 3/30.  Lunch will follow the presentation.


Patricia Pelfrey, Senior Research Associate, Center for Studies in Higher Education. Co-author (with Margaret Cheney) of A Brief History of the University of California (University of California Press, 2004) and editor of The Pursuit of Knowledge: Speeches and Papers of Richard C. Atkinson (University of California, Press 2007). Her most recent book is Entrepreneurial President: Richard Atkinson and the University of California, 1995-2003 (University of California Press, 2012), a study of the Atkinson presidency and the principal issues facing the University of California. Before joining the Center in 2002, Pelfrey served for more than thirty years as a member of the immediate staff of five University of California presidents: Charles J. Hitch, David S. Saxon, David P. Gardner, J.W. Peltason, and Richard C. Atkinson. Pelfrey holds a Ph.D. in English literature from UC Berkeley.

Carol Christ, Director, Center for Studies in Higher Education, UC Berkeley; former President, Smith College; Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost, UC Berkeley.

Center for Studies in Higher Education (CSHE) was established in 1956 and was the first research institute in the United States devoted to the study of systems, institutions, and processes of higher education.  The Center’s mission is to produce and support multi-disciplinary scholarly perspectives on strategic issues in higher education, to conduct relevant policy research, to promote the development of a community of scholars and policymakers engaged in policy-oriented discussion, and to serve the public as a resource on higher education.