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…

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