Education experts led a discussion at UCSB yesterday on the shifting role of California’s public higher education, continuing an ongoing lecture series on the subject.

An audience converged in the McCune Conference Room at 3 p.m. yesterday for the symposium — the second lecture in the Interdisciplinary Humanities Center’s “The Future of the University” series — to open dialogue on the obstacles facing public research universities today. Discussion centered on noticeable trends of privatization among public universities today, as key speakers Executive Dean of UCSB’s College of Letters and Science David Marshall and author Jennifer Washburn cautioned against allowing private industries to possess an interest in university matters.

According to Washburn, public universities’ tendency to adopt new methods of management in the face of financial troubles, a strategy she said the UC is currently employing, has proved disadvantageous in the past.

“The market-modeled university has played a significant role in weakening their own ability to weather financial crises, as well as losing its sense of its own public knowledge mission,” Washburn said.

If public universities wish to recover from their fiscal crises, Washburn said, they must commit to a broad-based liberal education, as well as pursue research that doesn’t translate into profits but instead seeks to enrich communities.

Moreover, Washburn warned against further encroachment on public education by private industry, claiming that research funded by such firms possesses little objectivity.

“Industry-sponsored research tends to draw pro-industry conclusions,” Washburn said. “Universities must pursue essential independence from outside benefactors that threaten our distinct academic culture.”

Marshall, specifically, spoke out against public universities’ recent abandonment of liberal arts and humanities programs. Marshall, who according to a press release is a national leader in championing these disciplines, said he couldn’t stress enough the importance of funding liberal arts and social science departments at public universities such as the UC. These public institutions, he said, dole out the majority of arts and humanities degrees in the nation.

The state’s omnipotent budget constraints, coupled with effects of the national economic recession, could soon reduce admission rates, and thus further depress revenues at California universities, Marshall said.

“California state universities, as well as the UC, could reduce enrollment by 300,000 students by 2011,” Marshall warned.

Furthermore, Marshall said, as more students find themselves unable to afford public universities, they will be more inclined to take the less costly option to transfer into public universities after two years at a community college.

Despite the dire forecast, Marshall said, he remains hopeful that public universities can respond positively to current challenges.

“This plight will necessitate potential reinvention in perilous times,” he said.

A roundtable discussion followed, featuring Washburn, Marshall, physics professor Mark Srednicki, English professor Aranye Fradenburg and art history professor Robert Williams. English professor William Warner moderated the event.