Zipporah Films

The University of California, Berkeley’s Wheeler Hall, in a scene from Frederick Wiseman’s At Berkeley


In the summer of 1967 I drove across the country from Boston to the West Coast with my friend Burt Fishman. Neither of us had much money, but gas was 33 cents a gallon, cheap motels and simple food cost next to nothing, and life was good. I had never been west before, at least never west of the Berkshires. What I saw amazed me. Parts of the country seemed almost unimaginably uninhabited—in recent decades I have seen something like it only in the Kalahari and the Australian Outback. We drove for hours on end without seeing another soul. To amuse ourselves, we sang at the top of our lungs. We must have been bopping up and down in time with the music, for on some godforsaken highway in Utah a cop in a helicopter spotted us and signaled ahead to have us stopped to see if we were drunk.

Our giddiness only grew as we crossed the Sierras and descended toward San Francisco. No city has every looked more magical, all the more so in that era when, since engineers hadn’t yet figured out how to build high-rises on the treacherous geological plate, Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill was still the tallest building in town. In Golden Gate Park’s Panhandle I saw a free concert by Jimi Hendrix and Buddy Miles. At the concert’s end, an ecstatic and seemingly crazed Hendrix, wearing a drum major’s coat covered with gold brocade, smashed his guitar to smithereens. My ears ringing, I joined the crowd in howling my delight.

I returned to graduate school with a sense that there were more things in heaven and earth than were dreamt of in New Haven, Connecticut. Not long afterward I finished my Ph.D. and was offered a job at the University of California, Berkeley. The university, which had been convulsed by the Free Speech Movement in the mid-1960s, was once again in the news, with protests that eventually escalated into the bloody riots around People’s Park. But though I had neglected to visit the campus on my trip out west and had only the vaguest idea of what the university was actually like, what I had seen in San Francisco that summer was lure enough, and I gleefully accepted the offer. Many of my Yale professors, including Bart Giamatti, shook their heads and told me that I was making a terrible mistake.

I arrived in Berkeley in the fall of 1969 and stayed until 1997. It was love at first sight. There was a magical lightness about it all that amazed me after the neo-Gothic heaviness of Yale, a sense of youth and freshness and infinite possibility. Here was a state whose citizens had decided that higher education was its most important priority and that true excellence did not only belong to private, elite institutions. The university embraced its junior faculty, welcoming insurgency and innovation. The campus was amazingly unpretentious and unhierarchical. The only sign of privilege was that Nobel Prize winners got their own designated parking spaces. There seemed to be no last names: when I had a small fender-bender in my car and suggested to the other driver that we exchange names, he stuck out his hand and said, “Bob.”

Enraptured by it all, I climbed out onto the parapet outside my office on the fourth floor of Wheeler Hall to take in the astonishing beauty of the place: to the east the golden hills rising behind the football stadium; to the west the dazzling brilliance of San Francisco Bay. (Realizing only slowly that with one small misstep I would plunge to my death, I inched my way back to my window with beating heart and trembling knees.)

My starting annual salary of $8,500 proved more than enough to live on. My wife and I rented a small cottage on Cedar Street, with a backyard shaded by an old fig tree. One day some people knocked on the door and asked to sit in the backyard under the tree, since it was there a few years back that they had met with Mario Savio to come up with strategies for the Free Speech Movement. It turned out that we were inhabiting a pilgrimage site.

That first year at Berkeley and the years that immediately followed were quite turbulent, just as I had been warned they would be, but by then the turbulence had spread across the country. In the spring of 1970, in the wake of the bombing of Cambodia, I joined the protests along with everyone else. I cannot endure shouting slogans, but I remember marveling at the tireless voice of a medievalist colleague who marched next to me hollering over and over again, “On strike! Shut it down!” When the next day the governor of California, Ronald Reagan, did in fact shut down the university, we were all out again, my colleague now shouting, “On strike! Open it up!” I grasped then, if I hadn’t already, how inept and otherworldly most of us were.


The point was put elegantly by the experienced, battle-hardened Irish diplomat Conor Cruise O’Brien, who was visiting the campus at the time. All hell was breaking loose: sirens constantly wailed; helmeted police used batons to drive rioters down Telegraph Avenue; helicopters dropped tear gas on student protesters massed in Sproul Plaza. My curiosity laced with a certain pride, I asked O’Brien what he made of what he had witnessed. He smiled and said: “A pastoral ballet on a revolutionary theme.”


O’Brien’s wry assessment echoed for me throughout the four hours of Frederick Wiseman’s new documentary, At Berkeley. Like others of Wiseman’s documentaries that I have seen, including the celebrated Titicut Follies (1967), State Legislature (2007), and La Danse (2009), this one is slow, patient, and meditative, but it gradually builds toward a climax of sorts in a student protest sparked by state budget cuts to the university and attendant fee increases. The protesters rehearse their grievances, shout slogans, listen to fiery speeches, invoke the blessed memory of Mario Savio, draw up lists of increasingly incoherent and self-contradictory demands, and eventually occupy the reading room of the library. There they make further speeches, annoy those students who are trying to study, listen to the pleas of the library staff, weigh the administration’s warnings, and finally disperse—before the deadline—into the eucalyptus-scented air.

The protesters’ core grievance—the steady increase in the cost of attending the university—is a real one. When I began to teach at Berkeley the tuition cost for California residents was zero. Higher education in the state-subsidized California system was free.* It is now almost $13,000 for residents and over $35,000 for nonresidents, and those figures, of course, do not include the ordinary expenses of life.

We could say, of course, that, compared to the roughly $40,000 tuition fee at Harvard, Berkeley is a great bargain—and so it is—but the rise in costs makes it almost impossible to put yourself through college by taking part-time jobs, as many undergraduates did during my years there. The lowest- income students have access to financial assistance: as we hear the smiling chancellor, Robert Birgeneau, say multiple times, as a kind of reassuring mantra, there are record numbers of low-income students currently at Berkeley. But the drastic cuts in state funding—now down to something like 11 percent of the university’s budget—have forced many students who do not qualify for aid to take on higher and higher levels of debt. In a poignant sequence, Wiseman trains his camera on a girl who begins to weep when she talks about the debt that she is running up. Another girl passes her a tissue.

It would have been possible for Wiseman to tilt his documentary toward an indictment of the administrators who are presiding over what his film represents as a probably irreversible transformation of the greatest public higher education system in the world into a relatively costly, semiprivatized, insufficiently competitive, and perennially underfunded one. He has the footage for it: the student protesters in the plaza with their idealism, earnestness, and anxiety; the administrators in their corporate offices with their cheerful enthusiasm for the police, their well-oiled public relations machinery, their savvy political calculations, and their willingness to knuckle under to budgetary constraints.

At one moment Chancellor Birgeneau, faced with the question of whether Berkeley will continue to attempt to keep its star faculty by matching offers from competing universities, talks smilingly about “transiting” to a policy of not matching them any longer. At another, he happily embraces the notion of routinely bringing outside police forces onto the campus—something zealously resisted in the past as a violation of the university’s cherished autonomy. Wiseman does not depict a university in which the faculty plays a significant part in governance. Birgeneau is a physicist, and is listed as a member of the physics faculty, but in the film at least there is no indication that he or anyone on his staff has set foot in a classroom for many years; nor is there footage of a vital, active Faculty Senate setting any of the key policies. At Berkeley portrays a cohort of professional administrators sheltered in their offices, making decisions behind closed doors, issuing press releases, and emerging on campus, when they do so at all, mostly to announce further cost-cutting measures mandated by Sacramento and to warn deans not to try to bring forward unworthy candidates for tenure.

But the surprise of At Berkeley—by a director who has made a career skewering bureaucrats—is that the chancellor and his team come across as little less than heroic. After all, it is not they who have instituted the draconian budget cuts or decided that higher education is no longer the highest priority of the state of California or chosen to put one of the great achievements of our civilization at risk. Their task, as Wiseman’s film documents, is to struggle, against the odds and under ridiculous pressures from all sides, to keep the whole enterprise going.


They sit through long and unendurably tedious meetings—and Wiseman cruelly makes the viewer experience the tedium—discussing how they are going to meet payroll, or ward off the next threat of disruption, or pay for preventive maintenance, or prevent the hacking of the computer network, or persuade the faculty and staff to take furloughs, or simply get the grass cut. (We learn that they are down to a single lawn mower for the entire huge campus, and we see a solitary cleaning man sweeping dust balls from the stairs.)

W.H. Auden imagined “The Fall of Rome” as the moment in which “an unimportant clerk/Writes I DO NOT LIKE MY WORK/On a pink official form.” Berkeley may be tottering under assaults from the barbarians, but none of the clerks in this film seems tired of the work. I confess that I have never before been made to feel so sympathetic to administrators.

Wiseman’s celebration of the clerks is made all the easier by the failure of the callow protesters to understand that two or three rational demands are vastly more effective than a laundry list of impossible dreams, and by their emblematic stupidity in occupying, of all places, the library. But what really makes the case for the administration—and what makes whatever is valuable and enduring about At Berkeley—is Wiseman’s vision of the actual daily life of a great university. Throughout the length of the film the budget discussions and strategy sessions are intercut with long sequences in the lecture hall and the seminar room, where faculty and students are immersed in cancer research and poetry readings and entomology and particle physics and macroeconomics and robotics and a dozen other miscellaneous pursuits. Each of the sequences is long enough to produce at least the illusion of authenticity, an authenticity that includes moments of dullness and incomprehensibility as well as of humor, canny intelligence, and rich insight. No one of these scenes is essential; they constitute rather a poetics of accumulation, a gradual, slow enthrallment, an education.

The film’s great virtue, as well as its challenge, lies in its assumption that viewers have an attention span longer than five minutes, so that they will continue to watch as teachers and their students painstakingly think through the problems of devising prosthetic legs or explore the metaphoric structure of a lyric by John Donne or attempt to understand an insect’s optimal foraging strategy. The effect then—and the effect of a university education—is what the poet Yeats called “the emotion of multitude.”

That emotion is intensified by the recurrent glimpses of the in-between moments, the hundreds of students moving from class to class or reading under the trees or playing frisbee on the grass, as well as the football games and fraternity rushes and string quartets and theatrical performances. The feeling evoked by this fantastic swarm of activity, constructed around the life of the mind, has sustained me now for more than a half-century. Wiseman’s documentary captures at least something of its wonder and also—alas—of its fragility.