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CAUT Bulletin Archives

January 2003

So Much to Say Left Unsaid

William Bruneau

The Gold and the Blue: A Personal Memoir of the University of California, 1949-1967

Clark Kerr. Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2001; 573 pp; hardcover $35 US.
Clark Kerr was, and is, a tremendously active participant in academic life. In 90 years of life he has seen public post-secondary education and public life from every imaginable vantage point. To draw on the sort of analogy he himself favours, Kerr has been a water boy, a quarterback, a coach and an owner, and now looks on from high in the bleachers. Most of us can only pine for the sort of perspective he should be able to give. Yet this book, sliced as it is into hundreds of disconnected snippets and smoothed over by Kerr's pleasant bedside manner, makes it hard to know what was going on, let alone why.

Remember that Kerr was, and is, linked with the appearance of the best-known multiversity in North America, an entity governed federally, and containing dozens of schools, colleges, and divisions clustered around nine main campuses. This alone leads to questions that matter in any discussion of the future for universities and colleges in this country or his.

How, then, does one account for the University of California's turn-of-the-21st-century enrolment of 340,000 students, putting aside demography for a moment? Was UC's good fortune the result of gubernatorial progressivism in the California of the 1950s and 60s? (Not very likely.) Was it the near-tidal largesse of Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson at the federal level? (That is, did federal cash tidal waves wash huge numbers of students onto the shores of UC, bringing with them numerous and highly successful laboratories and institutes?) Was the rise of the UC multiversity a natural result of the political influence and personal wealth of the California elites whose members Kerr reverentially lists, over and over, across more than 400 pages of disorderly prose - elites who wanted to leave a legacy?

Or more seriously, could Californian post-secondary education, in its size and form, best be explained by social forces loosed by migration (how can we not think of Steinbeck on the subject?)? One thinks of the cultural and scientific constellations that formed in and around Los Angeles and San Francisco between 1935 and 1950 as a result of writers, artists, scientists and engineers having to leave Europe before their imminent destruction in the Holocaust. And one remembers the unending stream of intra-American migrants on the hunt for jobs in the late 50s and 60s, even before the rise of Silicon Valley.

Or is it simply that Californian public education, including post-secondary education, has deepest roots in reform movements of the 1850s and 1890s, so that the growth of the 1950s and 1960s is merely a consequence of immutably strong historic forces? Or was it just that the post-Sputnik Californian military/industrial complex was so big and rich that, with a flick of a budgetary finger, it helped finance, by private and by public means, an entire world-famous university system?

These "why" questions lurk beneath the surface of Kerr's book all right. But in Kerr's hands, that's just where they stay: submerged. Readers of Gold and Blue, unless they pick their topics well and follow them carefully with the help of the (reasonably good) index, are unlikely to be much the wiser.

All is chaos. Even the photos in the middle of the book are out of order. We see family and friends of whom little or nothing is made in the text. We are given a long shot of the family log cabin (I exaggerate a bit) in Pennsylvania. But these iconographic bits are placed with photos of John Kennedy about to receive an honorary degree, or Bob Sproul looking cheerful about something or other (the text says he was cheerful).

But toward the end we have 100 or so beautifully organized tables of enrolment, faculty size, budgetary decisions, and so on - vaguely unconnected to themes in the text, yes - but proof that Kerr had able and energetic research assistants (none of whom are sufficiently acknowledged, by the way). Much of the book's value lies in these tables, let it be said.

We are promised another volume, much like this one, but devoted to politics and "context." This is incomprehensible, since nearly all of the present volume is exactly about politics. We know, for example, that Kerr, Governor Ronald Reagan, and UC parted company in 1967. Heaven knows why, and Kerr must know, but the reader certainly won't.

It's not as though Kerr can't write. He is the author of dozens of persuasively written works, among them competent books on industrial relations from his period as an arbitrator in Seattle in the 1940s. Kerr makes a point in passing about his earning $40,000 a year as an arbitrator in 1952 and giving it up to Chancel at $15,000 a year at Berkeley.

Indeed, his speeches, brochures, and finally his 1963 book on The Uses of the University helped to shape thinking about provincial higher education systems far afield. In Canada there was John MacDonald's (1962) Higher Education in British Columbia and Plan for the Future, and in Quebec, the technical reports for the Parent Commission - with eventual creation of Université de Québec whose decentralized character, and whose initial public investments were for a time reminiscent of California's. Kerr's peculiar faith in the powers of a semi-centralized federal system of universities and colleges was catching. So was his view that close ties with the private sector were a good idea.

After assuming the California-wide presidency in 1958, Kerr led the nine-campus University of California to social and scientific eminence in the United States, and eventually to a healthy international scholarly standing. His Berkeley, his Davis, his UCLA - all came to centre stage in the great political and social movements of the 1970s.

So many badges of honour. One way or another, we are made aware of each and every one of those badges. Pages 403-475 are a compilation of statistical data and performance indicators, lovingly offered as evidence of UC's greatness. There are SAT scores, lists of Nobel Prize holders, and faculty quality rankings as between UC's constituent campuses.

After all that, we have Table 43, showing that in 1995-1996 California's appropriation of state funds for operating expenses of higher education put that state in thirty-third place, just after South Dakota. To my mind, it is not terribly surprising that somebody with faith in performance indicators, and who trusts in the good will of private industry when times are tough, should find his university system in thirty-third place. Not once in the hundreds of pages is there a critical discussion of finance, nor is there a single serious discussion of what the word "quality" might mean - in administration, in teaching, in university architecture and planning, in research, especially research in the humanities.

Kerr's book reminds me of the nicely paragraphed, but wholly descriptive work of Robin Harris, an historian of Canadian higher education. There are lots of facts in Harris, and nuggets of archival gold. But I have met only three persons, in my 35 years of work in the field of university history, who claim to have read every word of Harris, and found those nuggets. Kerr's numerous private asides and tales out of school makes his book a little easier to swallow than was Harris's. And Kerr does propose arguments, but disconnected and poorly evidenced. One imagines Kerr's book will have a few more readers than did Harris's.

Let me say where I found a bit of gold, three or four themes sufficiently developed to be valuable.

First, there is the development in 1959 of the famous Master Plan for Higher Education in California, connected matters of public finance, and the contrast between Governors Pat Brown and Ronald Reagan. It was this plan that led to the creation of three new campuses in the University of California, complete with satellite colleges and laboratories, in the early 1960s (San Diego, Irvine and Santa Cruz).

Meanwhile, the academic senate was exercising more muscle than it had in years, partly because it had been freed by Kerr from the heavy, centralizing administration of Robert Gordon Sproul, and those who preceded Sproul.

It's revealing to see how Kerr, the academic senate, the regents, and the legislature, came to agree on the placement and eventual size of the new campuses. (p. 177) We have here an important study of the academic effects of decisions about administrative structure, presented well and clearly. (see esp. pp. 208 ff)

There can be little doubt that Kerr's light touch helped ensure new campuses would not split off into totally independent entities. But equally certain, the structure made it hard for unhappy academics to organize. The American Association of University Professors is mentioned exactly four times in the pages of Blue and Gold, and there are few cases, if we are to accept Kerr's account, where academic research projects could draw on the human and fiscal resources of more than a single campus.

In short, Kerr's moderate decentralism, the effects of geographical dispersion, and the costs of expansion all worked to keep faculty activism down. And anyway, by 1995, higher education took 7.8 per cent of California State General Fund Expenditures, compared to 11.3 per cent in 1960. Prisons meanwhile rose from 2.4 per cent to 7.1 per cent. Yet another question: was Kerr's strategy, the multiversity strategy, a great political and fiscal mistake?

Two more themes with which Kerr deals in a somewhat organized way are the loyalty oath controversy of 1952 and its aftermath, and the student free speech movement of the mid-1960s at Berkeley and elsewhere.

Under the Levering Act of 1950, reimposed by California referendum in the fall of 1952, university faculty members found they must be able to swear loyalty and, in effect, to assert their anti-Communism, or be dismissed. Faculty members began to come to then-chancellor Kerr in Berkeley (already known as the Red Campus) to see if it was "OK" to join various associations. There was popular pressure not to buy books from Eastern Bloc countries. The archives of the California Labor School, a devotedly socialist and probably communist outfit, were accepted at Berkeley only with difficulty.

Then in May 1958, David Rynin of Berkeley's philosophy department asked the Berkeley academic senate to declare "not permissible any reports by faculty to the FBI." (p. 133) Kerr toughed it out, and academic freedom came back to life ... with time. Kerr agrees the scars remain, and how nice it would be to read a paragraph or two on what he thinks "academic freedom" means today.

But Kerr's account of the McCarthyite madness is, on balance, weak. He mentions those black years, but under plays the regionalism, parochialism, and legislative educational politics in 1950s California that made matters far worse than they should have been. Kerr would have had to struggle against them all had he wanted truly to lead. I found little evidence in his own book that he did anything of the sort.

I well remember hearing of the terror of academic work in 1950s UC from émigrés who arrived at UBC, the University of Toronto, and so on. Those newly-arrived colleagues had nothing good to say of Sproul or Kerr or Brown.

As for the Free Speech Movement of 1964-1965, we have less than two pages of scattered discussion. On the other hand, Kerr gives us a whole chapter on "student sports and student life," in gymnasia and on football fields, and heartfelt discussions of residential construction for out-of-town students. In short, the great social questions of access, equity and participatory university governance are organized (if at all) on themes other than the interests and demands of students and staff. On the question of women and their status, I found a little more than two pages of discussion, again scattered across hundreds of pages on unrelated matters.

Kerr awards us a lump of coal: he provides no sustained discussion whatsoever of gender, women's rights and the possible or putative rights of social and ethnic groups.

One feels this is a Venusian university, bathed in surreal light, not quite of this world. It is quite definitely not the California of migrants and immigrants arriving in their millions from all four points of the compass across two centuries.

I am one of the few who will read volume two. It is rather the case of a person who sees the beginning of a train wreck, and with fascinated dread, looks between his or her fingers to see how bad it may really get to be.

William Bruneau is with the department of educational studies at the University of British Columbia.