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A Special Supplement: Berkeley and the Fate of the Multiversity

It isn’t often that a great university suddenly goes smash, yet that is what happened to the Berkeley campus during the first week of last December. During that week the University of California (Berkeley), numbering 27,000 students, 12,000 faculty and non-academic employees, numerous research laboratories, institutes, old-fashioned classrooms, and boasting an annual budget of $60 million, suffered an almost total collapse. Campus authority vanished, academic routines were reduced to a shambles, and the prophesy of Mario Savio was fulfilled: the “machine” came to a “grinding halt.”

This brought to a climax a succession of events, each more astonishing than the one before, which had kept the University in a continuous ferment since mid-September. It is no surprise that those outside the University community have been unable to make sense of these events, for even the participants themselves often had trouble in understanding their own behavior. Many of the student demands and tactics seemed outlandish and more appropriate to Birmingham than to Berkeley. The responses of University officials wavered between treating the student movement as a Children’s Crusade, a Communist conspiracy, and “a civil rights panty raid” (as one administrator saw it). The most outlandish behavior, however, came neither from the students nor the myopic deans, but from those specifically charged with governing the institution. Supporting the seemingly invulnerable institution in its moment of crisis was a broad array of interested and powerful elements: the Governor and Board of Regents; interest groups which had long prospered from the services and needs of the University; and a suspicious and hostile public, misled by the local press into believing that agitators were destroying the University and moved by an urge to punish the young for their seeming lack of gratitude for all the advantages which a generous citizenry had given them. Yet, the authority of the University crumpled under the pressure of a few thousand students who had no other power than the moral courage to say “no” before the colossus and the tactical skill to say it at the right time and in unison.

Absurd it may have been, but it was not trivial. The events destroyed some illusions about contemporary education and disclosed the depths of the antagonism between a generation which has all but contracted out of the affluent society, and the perfect dehumanized expression of that society, the large-scale organization, which transmutes knowledge, energy, and money into technological miracles—the perfect artifact for multiplying change so as to drown out purpose. In a society which values growth and material power above all else, and which cannot comprehend why rebellion and discontent should flourish amidst plenty and opportunity, it was astonishing to observe the students making a moral protest in defense of traditional rights which their elders could not take seriously and in defense of the principles of a liberal education which their elders had mislaid somewhere among the many other functions of the “multiversity.” The crisis demonstrated that socially useful functions, no matter how competently performed, are no substitute for moral authority.

Had the students not succeeded in creating an instrument to convert their moral outrage into power, their protests would have died unheard. The Free Speech Movement came into existence during the first week in October, and from them on it enjoyed a near monopoly on the expression of protest. It attracted widespread support and enlisted the energies of thousands of students for the numerous tasks demanded by a political struggle. Although its wide support gave it a heterogeneous quality—stretching from the radical right to the radical left—its political style was uniquely expressive of the new generation. It was highly conscious of political and social issues; its language was radical and its tactics aggressive, but pervaded by a novel blend of moralism and impudence (“liberal” and “fink” were almost synonymous, “textbook” was made to sound like “pornography”). There is no doubt that there were devious motives among its leaders; that occasionally they became intoxicated by their sudden power and made noises as if they intended to smash the whole system; that here and there extreme leftists were to be found. Yet it would be a serious mistake to suggest, as other writers have, that the entire crisis was fabricated and dominated by subversives or riff-raff. It has been well established that most of the followers were intelligent students who were novices in political action. The sacrifices of many who were willing to place their careers on the line, the spontaneity of their indignation, the warm fellowship of their movement, and their unfailing good humor were too real to be explained by subterranean conspiracies. Those who believe that, by definition, a problem does not exist if it can be shown that radicals are somehow involved, are not about to acknowledge the dominating idealism of the movement. At bottom the unbelievers must fear that the situation is really worse than even the conspiracy theory suggests: if it is possible for so many—faculty and students alike—to be duped by so few, then the condition of one of the world’s greatest universities is more hopeless than even its critics charge.

The many issues raised during these chaotic months can be classified under two broad headings. First, there were political and constitutional issues centering around whether the University should place any but the most minimal restrictions upon the exercise of political rights by students on campus, and whether the University should restrain and discipline political acts or advocacy performed on the campus but leading to illegal acts off the campus (e.g., a political rally called on campus to organize an illegal sit-in at a hotel). Historically, the Administration had based its highly restrictive policies on a provision of the state constitution requiring that “The University shall be entirely independent of all political or sectarian influence and kept free therefrom in the appointment of its Regents and in the administration of its affairs.” This became the justification for prohibiting political advocacy and activity on campus, for defining what activities were political, and for denying the use of campus facilities for organizing off-campus political actions. The policy of the Administration was determined primarily by the desire to prevent the involvement of the University in public controversy.

The students’ general contention was that they should have the same political rights on campus that they enjoyed as citizens off the campus, and that determinations of the legality of off-campus actions should be reserved exclusively to the courts. In addition, the students argued that the constitutional provision upon which the Administration relied was intended to prevent the University itself from becoming involved in politics, and to prevent the governors of the University from applying political criteria in the conduct of University affairs, but was not intended to deny students the right to engage in political action not involving the name of the University. Finally, the students argued that the Administration had been highly arbitrary in the day-to-day application of its rules.

An overwhelming majority of the faculty was gradually persuaded that the student argument was generally correct. As early as October 13th, the faculty had affirmed its support for “maximum freedom for student political activity” and on December 8th formally resolved that there should be only minimal regulations on the form of political speech and action on campus, no University controls on the content of expression, and no University sanctions on the off-campus political activities of its students.

The second broad range of issues related to the University itself. The gross size and population of the campus, the numerous research and service functions carried on, its intimate connections with outside interests have transformed the old categories of “teacher” and “academic community” into “researcher” and “multiversity” or “knowledge factory” (the last phrases are those of its President). Unlike many private institutions, Berkeley’s character was not established by a founder or given shape by a religious sect determined to bring piety and learning to a rude society. Ungraced by traditions, its graduates lack a distinctive stamp. Above all, identities are hard to come by and definitions difficult to pronounce when an institution is determined to gear its life and growth to the needs of an ever-expanding society, or at least to the needs of society’s most powerful and clamorous parts. In The Uses of the University, President Clark Kerr writes that the multiversity has “no prophet to proclaim its vision; no guardian to protect its sanctity.” The clear implication is that the multiversity dare not risk self-definition. It must remain “as confused as possible for the sake of the preservation of the whole uneasy balance” among the interests and pressures that make up its environment. If it is the multiversity’s nature not to have a nature, there is comfort in knowing that it is “an imperative…. rooted in the logic of history.” The beauty of an imperative is that it provides a “justification” for virtually anything, including the mish-mash of activities that have found a home in the multiversity.

Kerr’s realization that the condition of the multiversity’s existence is also the source of its weakness imports an element of desperation into his analysis. His use of industrial metaphors disguises the inherent anarchy of the multiversity system. There is a touch of melancholy in his conclusion that “the task is to keep this lawlessness within reasonable bounds.” In the end the university is reduced to being a puppet, twitching to stimuli it cannot control, powerless to set its own direction. “The process cannot be stopped. The results cannot be foreseen. It remains to adapt.”

If one is startled by this confession of drift by the head of the enterprise, how much more unprepared one is for his cynicism. The university is characterized as “a mechanism held together by administrative rules and powered by money.” The faculty is “a series of individual…entrepreneurs held together by a common grievance over parking.” For all their sprightliness, these epigrams sag—melancholy testimony that the realist is second to none in his illusions. Their author is the same man who early in the crisis denied that a “freedom of speech issue” existed and who, after the faculty voted overwhelmingly to eliminate restrictions on the content of expression, demeaned the motives of that distinguished body by attributing its action to petty jealousy towards the other campuses in the system.

An examination of the pattern of events shows how great is the distance and how difficult the communication between those who make the multiversity’s rules and those who must live by them.

The controversy opened on an appropriate note. On September 14, the Administration blandly announced that a narrow strip of land at the entrance to the campus was really University property and not, as previously assumed, the property of the city (uncertain as to its own identity the multiversity has never been sure where it ends and the world begins). This strip had been the locus of student political activity. Since it was assumed to lie outside the campus, University regulations restricting political activity did not apply. Without consulting the students, the Administration closed off the main outlet for political energies, claiming at first that these activities interfered with pedestrian traffic, but later reaffirming its position that “University facilities may not, of course, be used to support or advocate off-campus political or social action.”

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