Perils Facing Higher Education Focus of Talk

Neil Smelser, a professor emeritus of sociology at UC Berkeley, spoke Feb. 14 at UC Riverside about perfect storm of factors facing higher education

Neil Smelser

Neil Smelser giving the Clark Kerr lecture at UC Riverside

RIVERSIDE, Calif. ( — Neil Smelser, one of the most distinguished professors in the University of California system, gave a lecture Feb. 14 at UC Riverside about perils facing higher education.

Smelser is a professor emeritus of sociology at UC Berkeley and one of 38 professors in the UC system to be named a university professor since the title was created in 1960.

Smelser called his talk “Contemporary Trends: Diagnosis and Conditional Predictions.” He addressed what he calls a perfect storm of factors threatening higher education. These include: budgetary starvation, accountability, and governance; commercialization; on-line instruction and the rise of the for-profits; non-tenured and part-time faculty; and access, inequalities, and diversity.

On the point of budgetary starvation, he spoke about decreasing state aid for higher education at a time when legislators are trying to increase their governance of colleges and universities.

“Paradox is the weakest term you could use to describe this,” Smelser quipped.

Neil Smelser trio

From left, Neil Smelser, UC Riverside Provost Dallas Rabenstein and C. Judson King, director of the Center for Studies in Higher Education at UC Berkeley, talk before the Clark Kerr lecture.

The lecture was the last of three Clark Kerr lectures. The series was called “Perils for Higher Education: Crisis or Continuity?” Smelser gave all three lectures at UC Berkeley in January and February before presenting the third lecture again at UC Riverside.

The Clark Kerr Lectures series honors Clark Kerr, who served as president of the University of California from 1958 to 1967. He spearheaded the negotiation of California’s Master Plan for Higher Education, a 1960 document that endures to this day and is considered a model plan by many states and other nations.

This was fifth installment of The Clark Kerr Lectures, which were started in 2003. It is the first time UC Riverside has hosted one of the lectures.

Past lecturers have been: Harold Shapiro, president emeritus of Princeton University and the University of Michigan; Chuck Vest, president emeritus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Donald Kennedy, president emeritus of Stanford University; and Hanna Holborn Gray, former president of the University of Chicago.

Smelser’s research has focused on what he calls the “macroscopic social structural level” of social life, including economic sociology, social change, social movements, and the sociology of education. His most recent book, published by the University of California Press in 2010, is “Reflections on the University of California: From the Free Speech Movement to the Global University.”

Smelser is a former president of the American Sociological Association, a member of the National Academy of Sciences, and a member of the American Philosophical Society. He joined the UC Berkeley faculty in 1958 and has authored eighteen books, including “Theory of Collective Behavior” – a classic in the field of social movement studies.

“The lecture confirmed that Neil Smelser is one of the deepest and most subtle thinkers concerned with the great issues facing American higher education,” said Steven Brint, UCR Vice Provost of Undergraduate Education.


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