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CAUT Bulletin Archives

May 2006

Kerr's Three Blunders Only Part of the Story

William Bruneau

The Gold and the Blue: A Personal Memoir of the University of California, 1949–1967 Volume Two: Political Turmoil

Clark Kerr. Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2003; 458 pp; ISBN: 0-520-23641-6, hardcover $34.95 us.
Three centuries after their composition and publication, Jean de la Fontaine’s fables make irresistible reading. Twenty of the fables have foxes as heroes or anti-heroes. In some, the fox does badly — no grapes (The Fox and the Grapes), no drink (The Fox and the Stork), no luck (The Cock and the Fox), or still worse, no life (The Cat and the Fox). But if the moral lessons of the fables are various and sometimes contradictory, the overall point remains: those who think they’re smart ... usually aren’t as smart as they think. But the fox’s sheer wit draws us in and we go on reading and reading.

The late Clark Kerr, who served as first chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley (1952–1958) and 12th president of the University of California system (1958–1967), was a fox. He was at least as lucky as he was shrewd. Not for him the awful fate in “The Cat and the Fox.”

In this volume, Kerr turns to the external and political environment of the 1950s and 1960s and says he made three mistakes in his administrative career:

1. Not responding with sufficient vigour to the Loyalty Oath controversy of 1950–1952 at Berkeley;
2. Not distinguishing clearly enough between ordinary civil liberties and the special requirements of academic freedom (especially at the height of the free speech disturbances at Berkeley, 1962–1965); and
3. Choosing to be fired by Ronald Reagan in 1967 rather than resign.

All but about 50 pages of this volume are devoted to the circumstances of these blunders. And the book suffers from its author’s strong emphasis on his three narrowly-conceived themes. It is not an adequate history of the university presidency in the 50s and 60s, nor an adequate autobiography. Mind you, Kerr, clever fox, acknowledges in footnotes the many excellent historical and sociological studies of UC published since 1980. Perhaps Kerr hopes these books will excuse his eccentricities.

But think what Kerr has missed, just by choosing to write this way: After nearly 1,000 pages of Kerr I and Kerr II, we still do not see why or how the UC system maintained its old ties with California agriculture, yet vigorously looked for federal research funds in the field of defence. Every California industry should and would support his university. Kerr made room for them all without asking too many questions. At the same time, he persuaded the regents and the state to expand and expand and expand. And perhaps that was the point of it all.

Kerr tediously recounts UC and Berkeley’s growth in student numbers and national reputation. In his first volume of memoirs (reviewed, Bulletin, January 2003), Kerr noted UC had an enrolment of 340,000 students by the late 20th century. This happy result may, he opines, have been a matter of simple demographics. After all, this was a state whose population exceeded and still exceeds that of Canada. On the other hand, he suggested at other places it may have been a matter of populism, the politics of Pat Brown and Ronald Reagan. The people wanted access to post-secondary education and the people triumphed.

Or it might have been the capitalist tidal wave that gave California one of the larger economies of the world. This last theory rings hollow considering California’s later dismal record as a provider of public services after California court rulings in 1971, 1976 and 1978, and the referendum known as Proposition 13 (1978). If Kerr had made universal access a popular rallying cry in California, it might have been difficult to pass Proposition 13. But just 10 years after Kerr left the presidency, the success of Proposition 13 showed Kerr had not persuaded the broader public well enough so voters would remember his arguments and reject Reagan’s. This undermines the view that Kerr was a successful “salesman” for public post-secondary education in California.

The narrowness — the emphasis on three non-explanatory themes — also allows Kerr to avoid tough questions about his spending practices. He does not help us to see how a huge university bureaucracy could be good for university research and teaching. We hear he hired strong and reputable scholars whenever he could and that he “had an eye for good horseflesh.” He tells us he rejected so many candidates for tenure he was routinely called “President No.”

We hear that wealthy barons who once ruled the board of regents were in disarray by 1960, and that this created a power vacuum which his administration immediately filled. All are intriguing facts or factoids, but distract us from thinking directly and in a sustained way about the size, cost and power of Kerr’s UC administration.

When you consider that half the book is about the free speech movement (FSM) of the early 60s, and thus about a revolt partly against big administration, you would think Kerr II would have to offer a rationale for keeping a big bureaucracy. Instead Kerr pleasantly reports the judgement (of the American Council of Universities) that Berkeley was the “best balanced university in the United States.” We begin to suspect that the great message of Kerr II is that UC was good because Kerr was good.

Forget demography, forget the economy and remember Clark Kerr. In Kerr II, the narrative ends with Kerr receiving a medal from a later president of UC in recognition of his “massive contribution” to higher education. And the triple dedication of the volume goes first to his wife, second to the UC academic senate, “which for the past 80 years has wielded such essential endeavours of the university and, with but a very few exceptions, has done so with high expectations matched by outstanding results,” and to the board of regents, “... (with its) supreme authority over the University of California and, again with a few exceptions, has exercised that authority with devotion and wisdom.” Those “few exceptions” were unhappy moments when the board or senate chose to overrule Kerr.

In order to seal the point, Kerr adopts a second strategy. It is classic: Kerr finds enemies, real and imagined, who he claims were at the seat of his troubles. In the 50s, it was Robert Sproul, authoritarian president of UC while Kerr was chancellor of the Berkeley campus. When the California legislature brought in the demand that professors make a loyalty oath to the USA and to the state, Sproul pressed all UC professors to comply. Kerr struggled, but failed to maintain academic freedom as a central feature of any decision the university would take. The regents were confused, unsure how many Communists there might be at Berkeley or UCLA and worried that people like Kerr might be unwitting fellow-travellers. Several professors were fired for refusing to sign the oath. Kerr agreed, after all, that it was quite correct to fire known Communists.

His general approach to the Loyalty Oath crisis requires 100 pages. Kerr offers up some remarkable documents. They reveal the “evil atmosphere” of the McCarthyite times in which he had to work and throw important light on the internal workings of Berkeley, his administrative home at the time. Some spectacular documents had been hidden until their appearance in this book. So, on pages 331–365, we have photocopies of notes from the files the FBI gathered on Kerr between 1941 and the date of the manuscript’s completion. Early on, there is a photocopy of a handwritten note from J. Edgar Hoover that flatly states “I know Kerr is no good.” (p. 50)

Kerr did not realize the FBI notes had been written, nor could he have known what use was being made of them in Sacramento and Washington. But he had his suspicions.

“There was no clear definition at either the national or the state level of who was ‘un-American’ and why. In practice, it came to mean someone thought to be liberal or socialist or Communist, with whom you did not agree and whom you wished to injure. The real targets were the liberals ... After I became chancellor at Berkeley (the equivalent of ‘president’ for a local university in the California system; confusingly, the grand panjandrum of the whole system was called ‘president’), I was interviewed by a whole line of investigators ...”

These pages (63–80) are a valuable record of Kerr’s clever and utterly persistent demand that investigating committees (of which there were droves) should come to him only if they had evidence of Communist infiltration. Otherwise, the committees need not bother subpoenaing him. Kerr played a game, a holding strategy, but in the end did fire people because they were Communists. He shows sincere regret at having fired people, often on the basis of innuendo and mere association with older liberal causes.

On the FSM and the student movements of the 60s, Kerr II gives us a well-organized potted history of world student movements leading up to the events in fall 1964 at Berkeley. He deals with the prehistory (pp. 77 to 89), then describes the connections between civil rights and anti-war movements and the appearance of Students for a Democratic Society. (pp. 89 to 97) He rightly describes the sharp divisions between socialist and anarchist movements, recognizing that communalist and other similar youth movements represented tiny fragments of American society.

He nicely describes the background of protest in old San Francisco, the labour movements of the previous century and reminds us that these movements were anything but dead in 1964. These older movements gave energy to the likes of Mario Savio. It was he who led the movement to retain physical spaces on campus where political speeches could safely be given and heard by anyone. Open forums, Hyde Park corners, and an end to the ban on Communist speakers were all Kerr’s doing, and for which he earned the American Association of University Professors’ Alexander Meiklejohn Award for 1964.

But when free speech in a “Hyde Park”area of the campus was curtailed, the lid came off. Students massed and began to revolt, and some were punished excessively. (p. 206) One thing led quickly to another, one sit-in to another, each more tense than the one before. Always the students sought to be consulted in university life and to have an assured part in governance, and always they wanted guarantees they could talk of politics in the university without fear of reprisal.

In a remarkable crisis moment, just before Savio resigned from the FSM, the police were threatening another 300 arrests and wanted students to free a police car caught up in the crowds. In the battle to free the police car, Savio was said to have bitten a police officer on the leg.

Fast forward to 1967: Ronald Reagan has been elected governor, but the student movement across the U.S. has strengthened considerably, even as it eased at Berkeley. Reagan saw Berkeley as a hopeless ghetto of crazed pinkos and commies. His recommendation in the House of Representatives was to build a massive wall around the place and declare it independent.

Only Kerr was surprised when he was dismissed as president by UC’s governing board of regents on Jan. 20, 1967, at the first board meeting attended by the newly elected Reagan.

Kerr went on to another rewarding career as chair and director of the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education (1967–1973) and of the Carnegie Council on Policy Studies (1973–1979). As one of his own UC regents said in the 60s, “He (Kerr) could talk the feathers off a bird.”

Kerr’s memoirs show him to have been an arbitrator, an imaginative bureaucrat and a clear writer. He was a devoted manager, a modestly astute politician, a well-informed theorist of organizational structure and a protagonist for institutional differentiation. He wanted and got a “great” research university at the top (Berkeley, and eventually UCLA and San Diego), supported by teaching and vocational institutions below.

Kerr happily notes how well the vast UC empire fared in national university rankings of the 60s, how nice it was to have a dozen Nobel Prize winners on staff, and how impressive the sheer size of its building campaigns. He rightly congratulates the State of California (and himself) for holding the line on tuition fees and guaranteeing that every able Californian would have a place at UC. UC gave the appearance of great “quality,” and certainly it was accessible.

Despite holding these attractive views, the Kerr we meet in this volume of the memoirs, or in his several books and essays on higher education, talked rarely about the pressing demands of a humanizing or liberal curriculum. Philosophy was “OK,” Kerr agreed, but only because one of his strongest supporters came from a philosophy department. He had no sympathy for faculty unions. As for the academic senate, Kerr’s view was remarkably similar to that of Marcus Tullius Cicero, wealthy landowner and elitist in the dying days of the Roman Republic who thought a senate was fine so long as it inhabited a kind of social stratosphere, so long as it retained the principles of due process and the rule of law, and so long as it stuck to what it did best — greasing the wheels of society.

Overall, de la Fontaine might have written Clark Kerr into the fable of “The Raven and the Fox,” where the raven, flattered by the fox’s praise, opens his beak and loses his cheese to the waiting fox.

William Bruneau is a former president of CAUT and a member of CAUT’s academic freedom and tenure committee. He lives and writes in Vancouver.