UCs' significant differences are not academic, but social

Dr. Barbara Sawrey, chairwoman of the UC Academic Senate’s Board of Admissions, recently penned a letter to a certain publication and addressed the UCSD division of the Academic Senate to express her belief in the success and reliability of comprehensive review of undergraduate applicants. Perhaps in a rather vain effort to quell the perceived quality differences between the UC campuses, Dr. Sawrey pointed out that “”all eligible applicants are still guaranteed a spot on at least one of our campuses,”” and “”the selectivity rate is not the sole or best indicator of quality.””

Dr. Sawrey points out one of the fallacies of undergraduate education: Contrary to popular belief, at the level of universities that all the UC campuses fall into, undergraduate programs are not going to vary significantly in quality, especially in engineering and sciences. Regardless of whether you are an electrical engineering major at Berkeley or at Riverside (or, for that matter, at an Ivy League school), the course material over four years is going to largely be the same: differential equations as a sophomore, linear systems as a junior, etc. And given that the vast majority of students hardly approach a command of the material in any given course, and that students across the system all use similar textbooks, it seems that the breadth and quality of undergraduate education has much less to do with what particular University of California a student attends and more to do with his or her work ethic in any given place. Professors who are not at the top of their respective fields can probably teach undergraduate material as effectively as professors who are at the forefront of their field; after all, undergraduates are generally not learning research-level material.

Arguably, this does not hold as true for majors with less rigid curricula than the sciences; one would hope, at least, that UCSD’s much-vaunted political science faculty would translate into better undergraduate courses. However, people who can teach well are hardly correlated to those whose research records are laudable, and since the Universities of California are first and foremost research institutions, one might surmise that the best teachers (if not the best researchers) are randomly and somewhat equitably distributed anyway. If anyone has any doubt as to whether the UC system values research or undergraduate education more, one need only look to how lecturers are treated by the university.

This being said, however, Dr. Sawrey’s statement is misleading in some way; selectivity in and of itself is probably the most important indicator of another sort of quality — that of the undergraduate populace at any given school. Regardless of how politically correct we wish to be in our vague definitions of what constitutes worthwhile individuals to admit to an undergraduate institution, it is an inescapable fact that it is extremely likely that the student populace at Berkeley is more driven and more informed (if not necessarily more intelligent) than that at Davis or Santa Cruz. And for an undergraduate who is faced with the prospect of a nearly homogenized education across the various UC campuses, the selectivity rate is the best indication of the quality of the people you’ll be around for the next four years.

Thus the selectivity rate of a school is a means in and of itself; the way the outside world perceives a university and the way students at the university itself view themselves is intrinsically tied to how and how many students are admitted. To some degree, comprehensive review undermines the credibility of that selectivity rate by using standards that are neither entirely objective nor academic. Whether or not this is a problem is an issue of much debate that this writer is torn over. For as much that can be said about the value of diversity and the sacrifice needed by this society to create true equality of opportunity, university students are served very well by peers with comparable prior bodies of knowledge and life experiences.

Thus, while academic opportunity may be the same across the campuses, the same cannot be said for the opportunities for intellectual and emotional developments, of which the nature of one’s peers is crucial. Because for every person who adds to the student populace at a “”selective”” University of California because they bring a unique and interesting background to the university may mean one less person selected on more stringent, “”objective”” criteria who may contribute precisely because he is similar to everyone else there. And which of the two is more valuable to UCSD’s undergraduate populace?

he 24 hours of CLICS during finals week is no doubt a valuable and thoughtful gesture that has become immensely popular. Unfortunately, the study rooms at CLICS are also extremely popular and perennially filled. One wonders whether the small classrooms in Center Hall and Warren Lecture Hall could be reserved for odd hours (say, midnight) by intrepid study groups. It seems that if those rooms are often left unlocked in the evening anyway, the concerns over vandalism should be somewhat minimal (though, conversely, these are college students we are talking about).

Perhaps the markers and chalk (and even security) provided for such an endeavor could be provided by the proprietors of the coffee carts at the two locations; after all, they would make quite a bundle.