October 7, 1999

Chancellor Robert M. Berdahl

Some of you, I know, have come a great distance to be here, indicating thereby not only your interest in the subject, but the important role that this controversy perhaps played in shaping your perspectives and your values within the Academy. I see, for example, my former colleague and my predecessor is Vice Chancellor at the University of Illinois, Ned Goldwasser, who is here; as is my former professor from my days in Graduate School at the University of Minnesota, Ralph Giesey. We welcome both of you and all of the rest of you who have come to return to Berkeley, in some cases, to be reunited with colleagues that you knew in those days, in others to perhaps, we hope, come home again in a very real sense of the term. And a special thanks is in order for the sponsors of this event, the UC History Project, the Center for Studies in Higher Education, the Berkeley Division of the Academic Senate, the Bancroft Library, the Townsend Center for the Humanities, and the Hewlett Foundation. I believe this promises to be a very fascinating retrospective.

It is my task simply to welcome you, not to offer a lengthy commentary on the Oath controversy itself. But as a historian, at least in a previous incarnation, it is difficult to resist the temptation for some commentary. And I would cast that commentary in the form of a question or a challenge, if you will, for the discussion. The most extensive history of the controversy is that offered by David Gardner, written over thirty years ago. Presumptuous as it is of me in the face of that expertise and in the face of the participants who in many cases lived through the controversy, I would focus a challenge to some of the conclusions that Gardner reaches and see how the participants and the panelists react to those conclusions and/or to my challenges of them. And so, Professor Gardner, President Gardner, with all due respect, now a colleague at Berkeley, a former President of the University of California--and I stress 'former' because he is no longer a person, therefore, to whom I report--I'm going to take issue with some of your conclusions. This discussion is, after all, about academic freedom, a concept that may even extend on occasion to chancellors and presidents.

Gardner's thorough history reaches a rather melancholy conclusion of what was admittedly a very sad affair, a conclusion that states 'the controversy had been mostly a futile interlude in the life of an otherwise highly productive intellectual community.' He sees the conflict as 'a story of the failure of educated competent and allegedly rationale human beings bound together in a good cause in the service of truth and knowledge, their inability to resolve their differences without injury to the University as a whole.' In his view, everybody lost--the 'non-signers,' whose principled stance came to be seen as intractable, and he writes 'rather than being able to generate massive support from their colleagues, they discovered themselves to be for their irreconcilibility the object of resentment and criticism. President Sproul, the Regents, and the University as a whole lost much in the dispute,' and most depressingly, Gardener concludes, 'the controversy abetted more than it constrained public suspicion of free inquiry and independent thought, and in the end won no victory for intellectual and academic freedom.'

It's this last conclusion, in particular, that I would like to put to a challenge here today. While it is clear that much was lost in the controversy, including some very distinguished faculty, was the loss so complete, so unredeeming as Gardner suggests? Did all of the principles dissolve, as Gardner suggests, into 'personal hostility, stubbornness, pride of opinion, ill manners, and bad faith...'? I'm not certain so melancholy an analysis is warranted. Is it not possible that something important was learned, even by a relatively unthinking public or a politically charged Board of Regents from the compelling eloquence of Ernst Kantorwicz, who clearly defined the University in a manner that commands our allegiance and respect today: 'Teachers and students are the University, regardless of the existence of gardens and buildings, or caretakers of gardens and buildings (his reference, I presume, to University administrators)...'? And he concluded, 'the constant essence of a University is always the body of teachers and students.'

It is undoubtedly true that the controversy became a struggle for power. Most controversies between governing bodies and those they claim to govern do. But the struggle for power as Gordon Griffiths said was over the question of whether the faculty has the authority to determine the qualifications of its own membership. This is a sacred principle, the principle of any guild. And its statement is important even if it is stated in the midst of a struggle for power. We may be disturbed in our universities today by the demands to be politically correct, whether those demands emanate from the right or the left ends of the political spectrum, but even that, disturbing as it is, is qualitatively different, I submit, than a governing board seeking to define what thought is thinkable and what thought is unthinkable within a university. Regents might be tempted on occasion to think of faculties as employees, but none that I have known would be tempted to go so far today as Regent Ehrman, in suggesting that faculty have no vested rights in their position, other than the right to a paycheck during the duration of an annual appointment.

Principles are frequently defined in the midst of conflict, perhaps most often in the midst of conflict. And they may even be lost sight of in the course of that conflict. But that makes them no less valid or worthy of our allegiance. Statements of conscience, the Declaration of Independence, for example, may be borne in the midst of a dispute that arguably could be resolved, or could have been resolved, and the rights that it articulates, that all men are created equal, may be forgotten in the course of the struggle or even neglected for three-quarters of a century after, but the principles embedded there still form the core value of the American conscience. Even if the promise of that principle remains unfulfilled, the principle itself has no less claim on our sense of justice.

I submit that that is the case with the Oath controversy. I submit that it was not merely a futile interlude. I see it rather as a defining moment in the history of the University, a point of reference for defining principles. That is not to say that the definitions of the University that emerged did not portend future difficulties in the life of the University, for I suspect the Free Speech Movement was in some fundamental ways related to the struggle over the Oath. And that is also not to say that as a defining moment in the history of the University, that political motives or political interference on the part of the Board of Regents would never again invade the University. They clearly have. But say that it was a defining moment is to say that the Oath controversy would serve as a point of reference for the principles essential to a free university for the past half-century, however costly. That is not an insignificant contribution to the life of the University and to the life of the mind.

Thank you. And now on with our program. David.

Chancellor Berdahl.


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