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Is a New Politics Possible?

The responses were astonishing. Secretary of State Rogers confessed, with proper diplomatic understatement, that the Administration had not fully anticipated the campus reaction to the invasion. Equally astonishing was the response of politicians and campus officials. With virtual unanimity, college administrators gave ground. They relaxed the normal rules governing academic routines and campus facilities. Several even expressed their sympathy with the antiwar sentiments of the students. National and local politicians were less unanimous, for they had to contend with the fears and hatreds of Middle America which for the past quarter century they had done so much to create. Even so, many politicians urged students and faculties to exert pressure on the government, especially in the campaign to limit the war powers of the President.

More astonishing still was the speed of the about-face of the President and his advisers. They were compelled to repeated justifications of the invasion, justifications so transparent that the public was given an unparalleled opportunity to watch a myth being manufactured. So intense was the pressure that the President soon had to promise that American troops would be pulled out of Cambodia on a specific date. More important, he had to keep that promise, despite the risks. Rarely if ever in American history has a President reacted so hurriedly to a wave of public sentiment and reversed a policy. The reversal was dangerous because it involved a pre-announced military retreat accomplished in full view of the entire world and against the opposition of some of his own military men. The reversal was also difficult politically, because it touched strong popular emotions of patriotism and national pride.

This heady experience of campus power may obscure the special circumstances which made it possible and blind the campuses to the gathering political dangers. Even if we grant what is not at all self-evident, that the termination of the Cambodian intervention marks a decisive turn toward disengagement in Indochina, the fact remains that a unique conjuncture of circumstances made the result possible. The power of the antiwar forces in the Senate was cresting while popular support for the President’s Vietnam policies was temporarily ebbing. Such a fortuitous conjunction might occur again, but the fact that the success of the campus protest depended upon it demonstrates that its potential falls far short of being revolutionary.

That the campuses had such potential was once an illusion of the radical left. Unfortunately, it is now becoming an illusion held by an ever-increasing number of citizens of all classes and promoted by politicians of both parties. We may even now be moving from a period dominated by the one illusion to a period dominated by the other, the illusion that since a revolutionary peril exists, harsh and systematic measures are therefore needed. Although there have been specific instances of severe force being applied against campuses, there seems as yet no determination on the part of the Nixon Administration to mount a sustained attack upon higher education. Nevertheless, the present campaign against the Black Panthers, as well as the past experience of heresy-hunting, argue that political suppression is not an unthinkable possibility. There is, however, one important difference between suppressing campus political activity and suppressing Panthers, Communists, and alleged faculty “Reds,” a difference which presents certain difficulties to policy-makers. The society needs campuses in a way that it does not need Panthers and leftists. As Professor Teller, an archenemy of the new politics put it, if campus disturbances continue, “in 20 years, the United States will be disarmed.”

If a systematic campaign were to be launched against the campuses, certain elements would have to be present in combination. What would the profile of such a campaign look like? First, there would have to be a demonstrated willingness to apply police and/or military force against the campuses and to apply it quickly, often, and disproportionately to the actual threat. Second, there would have to be politicians ready to define themselves primarily by their hostility toward higher education, in its intellectual as well as its political aspects; ready to make that hostility a fundamental feature of their electoral campaigns and daily rhetoric; ready to initiate policies or legislation patently designed to injure the operation, development, and morale of campuses and to restrict traditional faculty prerogatives; ready to provoke or maintain campus unrest, thereby proving to the public that a revolutionary conspiracy exists; and careful not to cripple so vital a national resource as the campuses, only to render them docile and powerless.

This combination, in which repression provides the stuff of a political dynamic, does not exist in Washington at the present time. The backlash to Cambodia has produced instead some conciliatory gestures, such as the appointment of Alexander Heard as a temporary Presidential adviser, the creation of a Commission on Campus Unrest, and the acknowledgment that, at times, the rhetoric of the Vice President and Attorney General may have been a bit much. Although nothing profound is likely to happen as a result of any of these moves, they hardly suggest anything ominous.

But in one part of the country the combination of anti-university elements is in active operation. Since 1967 California has been governed by an administration which has perfected the art of using the universities for political advantage. The dynamic of the Reagan administration depends almost entirely upon its ability to sustain public anger against education. In this way not only is he assured of solid public support for his periodic attacks on higher education, but he is also enabled to distract the voters’ attention from welfare programs, taxes and revenues, primary and secondary education, and boondoggles like the one of converting the Queen Mary into a tourist attraction.

The Reagan administration may have given the illusion of being little more than a Hollywood creation, but behind the appearance is a sure instinct for power. Nowhere is this displayed more clearly than in Reagan’s open domination of the Board of Regents, the supreme authority of the nine-campus university system. The Governor’s control over the Board is best summarized by the Board’s voting patterns. On any matter involving political controversy, be it finances or personnel, he can usually count on a majority of 20 to 4, rarely less than 17 to 7. As now constituted, the Board is deeply conservative and representative mainly of great corporate power and its auxiliaries in public relations, advertising, and the law. The composition of the Board has pretty much been this way for many years. What is new is not the presence of conservatism on the Board, but the disappearance of that possessive and paternalistic affection toward the University which used to temper regental outbursts. Several Regents plainly do not like the University or its employees.

In the old days Regents used to contend fiercely with governors and legislators over the budget of the University. Now, however, it is a fairly predictable process. It runs like this: the Board prepares its budget and the Governor prepares his. Since the Governor is, at the same time, a member of the Board and since most of its influential members are his appointees, it is fair to say that neither party is very much in the dark about what the other is prepared to concede. Every year the charade is played out and the financial plight of the University steadily worsens, its construction plans halted while student enrollment pressures rise, its faculty salaries lagging well behind those of comparable institutions, until the only promising solution appears to be the one rumored about: that the Regents are thinking of selling a couple of campuses.

It is clear that, during the Sixties, the Regents have lost the autonomy which the California constitution intended they should have. 2 As a result, they have become a conduit of, rather than a buffer against, hostile political forces.3 Their role as guardians of the financial needs of the University has been subordinated to that of an agency for carrying out the politico-fiscal policies of the Governor. 4 The Board of Regents has become incorporated into the political plans of the Reagan administration.

In surveying the actions of the Regents over the past few years, one is tempted to describe them as counter-revolutionary, except for the fact of a revolution which never materialized. Nonetheless, believing that they are combatting revolutionary movements and conspirators, the rulers of the university system have struck at most forms of hopeful change and destroyed or threatened some traditional practices—traditional, that is, at decent colleges and universities. The first major step toward pacification of the campuses was in 1968. The motivation behind it was plainly political. Eldridge Cleaver delivered several lectures in an experimental course held on the Berkeley campus. The Regents declared that academic credit could not be given for the course, even though the course was well under way. They went on to reverse their own well-established principle by which the faculty had been granted authority over curriculum, course credits, and the use of “guest lecturers” in a course.

The Board’s next step was to fire faculty members on political grounds, even if it meant violating their own rules. The perfect test case was provided by a young philosopher who had been teaching on a temporary basis and was now about to be offered a regular appointment. The philosopher, Angela Davis, was female, black, an alumna of Brandeis, a student of Herbert Marcuse (who was about to have his own annual reappointment blocked by the Regents), and an avowed Communist. In order to prevent the appointment, the Regents had not only to reject a recommendation from the faculty, but they had to violate their own rules—first, by taking the final disposition of the case from the office of the UCLA Chancellor, where normally it would have been concluded, and, second, by ignoring their own resolution which forbids firing faculty members because of their political views.5

All of these complicated maneuvers were prompted by the fact that when the Regents had first discharged this same philosopher, a Los Angeles judge had held that she could not be fired for political reasons. The Regents have won a motion to have the case transferred to another jurisdiction. Such are the whimsies of the law-and-order mind that one is led to believe that the main difference between the campus rebels and the Regents is that the students break the rules, while the Regents merely change or evade them.

The cynical disregard for the spirit of legal forms is not a peculiarity of California conservatism. We have seen the defenders of law and order prosecuting the Chicago Seven, hunting down the Panthers, and pushing what the President recently called “the necessary strong methods” of quick entry and preventive detention. Doubtless the President was being sincere when he said that “repression‌is not a government policy,” just as the Regents doubtless believe that their recent resolutions are individually tough but not the collective product of a policy aimed at eliminating academic freedom and prerogatives. The predictable result in both cases will be a further decline of authority. Those in high office fail to understand that their own legal lawlessness promotes both the lawlessness they abhor and the political disrespect which feeds so much of the present lawlessness.

  1. 2

    Article IX, section 9 of the constitution establishes the Board of Regents. It contains the following: “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….”

  2. 3

    Occasionally the politics of the Regents is expressed amusingly, if spitefully, as when they refused to award an honorary degree to Mayor Lindsay. Berkeley faculty responded by awarding the mayor a citation.

  3. 4

    The most vivid illustration occurred during the maneuvering over the 1967-68 budget when the Regents ended up appropriating nearly $25 million from their own special funds to round out an austere budget. The issue is not that universities ought not to dip into their own funds during periods of fiscal troubles, but rather that in this instance the Regents were abetting the generally punitive fiscal policies of an Administration bent on redeeming its campaign rhetoric at the expense of education, welfare services, and medical services. See the account of this dispute in V. A. Stadtman, The University of California, 1868-1968 (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1970), pp. 493-95.

  4. 5

    Later, the Regents declared that the firing was based on Miss Davis’s intemperate language, which was interpreted as indicative of conduct unbecoming a faculty member. This justification was produced after the actual decision had been taken. The press and media throughout the state made it public knowledge that Miss Davis would be fired well before the announcement, just as they had reported the daily development of the Regents’ argument that she was not being fired for her political views but for her deportment.

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