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If America doesn’t change its provision of education to its poor residents, the effects on democracy, health, crime and economic growth will eventually drive it into third-world status, says Pradeep Khosla, chancellor of UC San Diego.

The school’s liaison with the outside world began in his role last year, and has used the platform to advocate for combating unequal access to education in San Diego and in higher learning in general.

Meanwhile, he’s dealing with a UC San Diego research budget that’s been cut, he says, by nearly 10 percent because of so-called sequestration cuts, and an ongoing desire to make the La Jolla campus a “student-first university.”

Khosla and I spoke about those issues, and UC San Diego’s role in the regional economy.

I know you’ve said previously that you’d like to use your role at UC San Diego to focus attention on the effects of income inequality. It’s interesting to me that UC San Diego is regarded as having a major role nationally and internationally on climate change. What will it take to make UCSD similarly regarded on an entirely different global phenomenon?

Right. So I just want to make one clarification: I’m not going to fix income inequality. [Laughs] What I want to say is: Unequal access to education because of income — right? — as in poor people who can’t afford to go to school.

And, the reason I think, Andrew, that is so important, not just to me, but to this country in general, is because education is one of the enablers of moving from — it’s one of the enablers of social mobility. And, this country has done an amazing job of social mobility post-World War II. And because of that, we’ve been able to generate a lot of wealth, which generates a lot of upward mobility and feeds into itself.

Right now I’m concerned that we’re at a point right now where your income is deciding more than it should: whether you can go to school or not. And if we keep on going down that path, I think we’ll become a country where only the rich get educated and the poor don’t, and it won’t be the great democracy that it is, and will become in my mind, a Third World country.

Economists have increasingly focused on how income inequality not only has effects on health and crime, and those sorts of socioeconomic issues, but also on economic growth in general.

Right, and also on democracy. If you think about it, the issues we face are becoming more and more sophisticated. And we need to have people who are able to think through these issues before they take a position.

Photo by Sam Hodgson
Photo by Sam Hodgson

So as chancellor, how do you think you can use your role to spark that conversation or affect change?

I think just talking about it, as part of conversation, and you can tell: I mean, because I’ve been talking about it, you feel the need to ask me a little bit more about it. This morning I had a conversation with the group LEAD — L-E-A-D — and they wanted me to come talk to their leadership about access to education, and social justice, and what role UC San Diego can play in that area.

Secondly, I think since we do raise a lot of money, philanthropic money for various projects, and I want one of those projects to be undergraduate scholarships, which is a different way of saying access to education, for those who are qualified.

Meaning, rather than a symbolic role, actually using your role as a fundraiser to diminish some percentage of the problem locally?

Exactly right. And thirdly, one of the things I’ve been doing is talking to the various high schools out here, seeing if there’s a way for us to offer our freshman-level courses to the high schools so that we partner with them, and allow for a smoother transition from high school to UC San Diego.

When we talk about income inequality, it’s usually in a global or national context. What about in a local context? Certainly the cost of living in San Diego is very high. Do you have any take on what San Diego’s relative level of income inequality is?

I don’t have an understanding of relatively if San Diego is better or not, but I can tell you that I see a lot of underserved populations in San Diego.

Should that be a priority for UC San Diego, to …

It is a priority for UC San Diego. For example, if you look at our hospital, when people think of UC San Diego they rarely think of the hospital, but they should. Nearly — and I need to check this number — but if I remember this right, 30 percent of our patients are indigent. Right? We run one of the largest HIV-AIDS clinics in the country. We run clinics south of the border, all free. Right? So that is our way of bringing our capability to the underserved. Also, you know about the Chancellor’s Associates Scholarship program, where we pick high schools and, students from these high schools that are committed to UC San Diego go there for free.

Was this something you attempted to deal with at Carnegie Mellon? Was it a priority for you there as well?

Let’s say: My philosophies have been very similar, but Carnegie Mellon being a private place had different needs than this place. So this place, what I’m doing here, fits with my view of life, and my view of fairness, and my view of the role of a higher institution of education — especially a public one! [Laughs]

Chancellor Gene Block at UCLA recently said the sequester has resulted in $50 million in losses there. I assume there’s been a similar effect of the sequester at UCSD?

Yeah, absolutely. So UCSD, because of the sequester, we had I would say about, 8 or 9 percent reduction in our income, in our research income. But that’s to be expected, so…

So have you been lobbying congressional or senatorial leaders to …

Absolutely. We are part of the AAU (Association of American Universities, an organization of 60 universities that promotes national standards in research, scholarship and education), so I was in D.C. twice over the last month, and I did go and talk to several people on the Hill, also other agencies, trying to see if there was more funding available for the work we do. Umm, but, yes: We are working hard. And we are working hard, not just me personally, but also the six chancellors of the UC that are part of the AAU, and the other 54 who are outside California.

What should be the relationship with the academic world in UC San Diego, which can easily be insulated from the broader civic conversation, and the regional economy we all live in?

I think every university has, and should have, a role to play in the regional economy. With that said, and this may sound like an exaggeration to you but not to me, I think San Diego would not be what it is without UC San Diego. I think without UC San Diego, a lot of the communication industry would not exist. A lot of the biotech. I mean, we have a billion-dollar-a-year research portfolio, half a billion of which is in the medical school. Most of biotech exists because of our research in biological sciences, biochemistry, medical sciences. A lot of these companies are created by our faculty.

So, I think we have an important role to play, I want us to continue to play that important role, and I also want us to reduce the friction of transferring technology from the campus to the outside.

On that last point, I’ve heard there are issues with the UC system’s intellectual property policy and that maybe it’s not as helpful toward spawning spin-off companies as maybe it could be if it was like other institutions of higher learning.

Right. I think what you’ve heard was probably true a while ago. But, our vice chancellor for research — Sandy Brown — she’s doing a great job, and I think we’re making a lot of progress under her leadership.

In what way?

We have now something called “express licenses.” You can go to the website and get express licenses for example in biological sciences. You know you can license your technology with little hassle.

We’ve spoken a lot about your relationship with the city. What are your priorities for student life, on campus?

Priority No. 1 is we want to become a student-centered university. This might mean different things to different people, which is exactly the way it should be. But for me it says every choice I make is focused around, is it good for the student experience, or not?

UC San Diego has a reputation in sciences, I think it’s fair to say, that far outpaces its reputation in humanities, for instance. Is bringing humanities up to the same level of esteem a priority?

Absolutely, it’s a priority, but I should tell you, you pick humanities, but if you look at art, our theater and dance is ranked top three in the country. Our music. If you look at social sciences, our political science department is one of the tops in the country. So I think we have breadth across not just science and engineering, but also in art, humanities and social science. And just like in science and engineering, not every department in science and engineering is at the top. Do you see what I’m saying? That’s also true for arts and humanities. But they are all top 20, I can tell you that. We have 32 departments, and hardly any that are not within top 20.

Andrew Keatts

I'm Andrew Keatts, a managing editor for projects and investigations at Voice of San Diego. Please contact me if you'd like at

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