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Is a New Politics Possible?

Following the campus furor over Cambodia the Regents again began to challenge faculty prerogatives. In July, 1970, a few Regents succeeded in temporarily blocking two faculty promotions, one involving tenure for a young faculty member who had been active in moderate left politics on the Berkeley campus (and who was defended by the Berkeley Chancellor for being a restraining influence), the other a promotion to full professorship for the chairman of Miss Davis’s department. At this same meeting the Regents singled out two professors, well-known for their highly conservative views, and granted them exceptional salary increases, thereby prompting one Regent to remark, “We are blocking liberal professors and voting raises for conservatives—how much more political can we get?”6

The answer to the last question is, quite a bit. The Regents have made it clear that they are determined to impose tighter “discipline” on the faculty. In this task they have found a willing agent in Charles Hitch, the University’s president. According to the latter, the present system of voluntary adherence to a code of faculty ethics has not worked because faculty committees have mistakenly assumed their “main duty to be that of defender of all the rights of the faculty member without a corresponding degree of concern for the welfare of the University” (i.e., such committees have blocked local chancellors in their attempts to fire faculty members for political reasons). He has called for the rules to be revamped so as to prevent teachers from altering course content or from rescheduling courses for political reasons. He has also asked for greater administrative voice in curriculum and course content to protect the “academic freedom of students” by screening out “extraneous subject matter” or “irrelevant discussion.” “We are,” he noted without irony, “experiencing new pressures.”

The recent actions of the President suggest another change of great historical significance. During his presidency Clark Kerr had always managed to preserve considerable autonomy by attracting strong faculty loyalties. But his successor has become wholly dependent on his employers. This historical shift in the President’s power was clearly recognized at the Regents’ meeting when the President brought in his proposals for faculty discipline. According to newspaper accounts the proposals were received “enthusiastically.” One Regent called it “a brave first step” and another suggested that the Regents might some day have to take away all of the Academic Senate’s authority “and give it to the president over whom we have control.”

The time span of these events does not stretch over several years but is compressed in a short period. Moreover, the pace is quickening and the Regents’ offensive is spreading. At their July, 1970, meetings the Regents instructed the chancellors to prepare measures for eliminating “socio-political advocacy” and “the dissemination of lewd, obscene [a bit of California overkill] articles and photographs” from student newspapers. Failing such measures, the Regents promised to cut off all funds to the papers.

When the Berkeley faculty voted to modify ROTC programs, the Regents’ response was to approve a resolution to explore the possibility of introducing ROTC units at the four campuses which do not now have them.

After the Berkeley faculty had voted to request the termination of the relationship between the campus and two laboratories which, according to an official report, “encompass every aspect in the process of developing nuclear weapons,” and over which the campus had virtually no control, the Regents passed a resolution (July 17, 1970) reaffirming the importance of research for national defense and vowing to continue to sponsor such programs.

What all this adds up to is not a series of attacks, but a roll-back which threatens the modest measure of academic freedom previously enjoyed and promises a greater increase of bureaucratic controls. It represents, too, a denial of all that has happened, not only at Berkeley but throughout the country, between 1964 and 1970.

The picture is made all the bleaker by the progressive demoralization of the faculty. Bugged by students, assailed by Regents, surrounded by a hostile citizenry, feeling the pinch of shortages in research funds and of salary increases denied, they, along with their colleagues at the other campuses, have begun to show signs of capitulation. Not even the mildest protest was registered against the Angela Davis decision by the Berkeley faculty; and even the UCLA faculty has begun to retreat. More ominous, there are signs that an organization of faculty members is being formed to seek ways of ridding the campuses of faculty troublemakers, even if they are tenured members. As one of their spokesmen put it, the position of the academic community is much the same as that of the business community in the Thirties: it has developed abuses which it cannot remedy by itself and hence government intervention is justified.

At this juncture it is difficult to predict how long and how far the present dynamic will go in California. Recently it sputtered slightly when some state legislators demanded an inquiry into alleged improprieties involving the borrowing of University funds by a powerful Regent. Shortly afterward another disclosure hinted at some dubious relations between certain Regents and a land development company working on one of the local campuses. When one of the Regents charged that the Board had “ducked the issue” about the company “because some people have been caught with their hands in the cookie jar,” and when he raised questions about the improprieties referred to above, the Board quickly moved on to other things.

But the most immediate question for the campuses in California and elsewhere is, after Cambodia, what? In his memorandum to the President, Chancellor Heard had struggled to shake Mr. Nixon and his advisers by describing the situation as “a national emergency” which “we do not believe that our national government really understands.” That lack of understanding was confirmed by the cool reception accorded Heard’s eloquent statement.

The most striking, if inadvertent, testimony to the chasm separating the thinking of our national leadership from that of the student generation was contained in a report (July, 1970) by the President’s National Goals Research Staff. Its conclusion is a classic statement of the current malaise, for it declared that the President cannot set goals for America. Instead he should provide information so that society can debate what it wants. “A national growth policy” would somehow “evolve in varying pieces,” but, thanks to the dynamic nature of events, growth “will probably never be completed” during the Seventies. Somehow, too, it did not seem to worry the NGRS that it had provided a longwinded confession that the highest office in the land could not formulate some vision of the future—a failure which was also explained by the “political” consideration of what the Democrats might do if they were supplied with norms for appraising the President’s performance. The Report deliberately avoided any discussion of national goals involving such problems as racism, foreign policy, the plight of the cities, or political suppression.

The most characteristic response to the chasm has been to try to bridge it by assimilating student activism into the structure of traditional pluralistic politics. This was the response embodied in the “Princeton Plan” for encouraging summer political activity and promising a moratorium on classes during the final two weeks of the electoral campaign in the fall. Although many students eagerly welcomed the chance to work for the parties or candidates of their “choice,” many of their elders took the cooler view that contact with the “real world” would prove sobering. So during the summer students cut their hair, shaved their chins, shed their jeans, lengthened their skirts—mute testimony to the politics that Americans understand and demand.

Many of the goals now being pursued through electoral politics are so eminently necessary—peace in Vietnam, reasserting constitutional control over the President, and ending racial and political oppression—that criticism inevitably seems ungenerous and obtuse. Yet there is reason to pause over the warnings voiced by some politicians and commentators that the odds are overwhelming that students will be disappointed by the results of electoral politics. This is another way of saying that the system is incapable of responding to powerful protests even when they follow orthodox lines. It is also a way of conceding that what need to be changed are not the actors but the assumptions of the system. An infusion of young blood is not going to alter things: there are always more William Moyerses than Mario Savios.

Even in the midst of the Cambodian protest widespread apprehension began to be expressed about what was likely to happen in the fall. In part there is apprehension because student politics is no longer innocent. It has begat its share of opportunists, hooligans, and ideological thugs. If internal corruption and demoralization increase or if electoral politics becomes the controlling form of “political socialization” they will pretty much end what promise there was in the Cambodian flare-up. The meaning of those events was that politics was taking hold in new places and seeking new forms. During the May and June days many thousands of students who, until then, had had little care for political things were initiated into the new politics. It is too early to assess the staying power of these new recruits or the extent of their understanding of the issues. It is also apparent, not only from the popularity of the Princeton Plan but from the fate of the New Left, that the “system” has lost little of its absorptiveness. The New Left of the past decade has seen its issues adopted by liberals and moderates and its tactics rejected by both moderates and extremists—violence is preferred by the latter, electoral politics by the former.

It remains to be seen whether the crisis of the spring of 1970 amounted to a critical experience which could launch a whole new generation of political activists and a whole new style of political action. A few voices did rise above the anxious but self-congratulatory din of the new converts to the antiwar cause and tried to call attention to the profound crisis in the state. A few others tried to call teachers and students to the large task of redefining the aims and structures of higher education so that we might produce educated men for whom knowledge, personal identity, and public commitment are part of the same quest.

Something new took place on the campuses after Cambodia, but in our day it is the special fate of novelty, even extraordinary novelty, to pass quickly and be forgotten. “I had hoped,” one of the astronauts wistfully remarked a year after the moonlanding, “that the impact would be more far-reaching….” It may be that the campus effects of Cambodia will be comparable in the long run to those produced by the civil rights movement. It may also be that the aftermath of Cambodia will confirm that we are truly in an iron cage.

  1. 6

    On August 7, 1970, it was announced by one Regent who had blocked the promotions of (as he put it) “the two faculty described in the press as ‘liberals’ ” that the promotions would probably go through. He also defended the exceptional salary increases even though in one case neither the Berkeley Chancellor nor the Berkeley faculty had recommended it. As the Regent noted, the faculty member had “long been a colleague of mine.” What seems to have been lost in the dispute is not whether liberal faculty are punished or conservative ones rewarded, but whether the Regents have any business determining complex questions of academic competence.

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