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Chapter 21: Student Unrest
The 1960s brought the coming of age of the huge Baby Boom generation; the passionate drive of minority groups for full citizenship; a prolonged, unpopular war in Vietnam; and years of political and social ferment. In an era of widespread social protest, the academic community would at times become the main vortex of events.
In the fall of 1964, the new era of student activism was dramatically inaugurated in a clash between Berkeley students and University authorities over on-campus volunteer recruitment and fund-raising for off-campus political activities, most involving civil rights. The ensuing controversy, known as the Free Speech Movement—the FSM—was led by an intense, cerebral philosophy student named Mario Savio. Although the spark that ignited the FSM was a dispute over the limits of political activity on campus, the movement's broader message of rebellion and social protest struck a responsive chord among thousands of students. As President Kerr himself had pointed out, for many of these students, the University—despite the exciting opportunities it offered—was a large and lonely place.
Before a crowd assembled in Sproul Plaza, Savio made the instructions on class computer enrollment cards—"Do not fold, bend, spindle, or mutilate"—the slogan of a generation. In another memorable metaphor, Savio urged students to "throw their bodies on the gears and the machinery" and bring the University to a halt.
The student revolt that began at Berkeley quickly spread, with varying intensity, to other UC campuses and ultimately to many other universities as well. Similar student movements broke out in Europe and Japan. Frequently, demonstrations at UC and other American universities were triggered by off-campus causes—civil rights in the South, capital punishment, U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia, and others.
Widespread student unrest was an unprecedented and polarizing phenomenon in American higher education. Some saw the student movement as the front line of the fight for social justice; others saw it as a profoundly threatening repudiation of public order and the rule of law. Opinions were as divided within the University as in society at large. Disagreements within and beyond the UC community ripened into warfare as the University became the issue in the politics of the state.
As student protests over the war and other issues escalated, so did criticism of President Kerr, who quickly became the focus of public and legislative anger as campus turmoil dragged on. Some Regents were openly critical as well. Kerr was an internationally distinguished educator and had led the University during pivotal years in its history. Nonetheless, the Regents voted to dismiss him in January 1967, a little over two months after the election of Governor Ronald Reagan, who as a candidate had promised to "clean up the mess at Berkeley." Kerr's response was that he would be leaving the presidency as he came—"fired with enthusiasm."
The passage of time has brought new judgments and perspectives on the drama of student unrest. Clark Kerr, who went on to head the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education, was named President Emeritus by the Board of Regents in May 1974 and was hailed as "one of the giants of American education"; today he is recognized as among the most distinguished of the twentieth century's educational leaders.
And three decades after the Academic Senate voted to support the students in their conflict with Kerr and the Berkeley administration, the Berkeley campus dedicated the Sproul Hall steps—the stage from which Mario Savio delivered his fiery calls to dismantle the University—to his memory and to the spirit of the Free Speech Movement. One of the speakers at that dedication expressed the hope that "each generation of Berkeley students will produce its share of dissidents, rebels, and disturbers of the peace, that they will continue to provoke, that they will try the University's patience and tolerance. . . . The very health of this university, the very sanity and survival of our nation, depends on it."17
That is not the way it looked in the early months of 1967, when the University was without a president and close to a state of siege. Harry Wellman, a respected agriculturalist and administrator under Kerr, agreed to serve as Acting President for a year while the Regents searched for a new president.
Their choice was Charles Johnston Hitch, a quiet, brilliant economist who had been a Rhodes scholar and, for thirteen years, an Oxford don. A leader in applying economic principles to problems of management, he founded the economics division of the RAND Corporation and, under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, rationalized and revolutionized planning and budgeting at the Department of Defense. In 1965 Kerr had persuaded Hitch to leave the Department of Defense to take the job of Vice President for Finance and University Comptroller.
Hitch became the University's thirteenth President on January 1, 1968. In his inaugural address, he called on the University to bring its intellectual resources to bear on the plight of the nation's cities, whose long-festering problems of housing, transportation, pollution, crime, poverty, and discrimination had burst into public consciousness as a result of the urban riots earlier in the decade. Later he established an ambitious part-time degree program, called The Extended University, to put a UC education within the reach of working adults, older citizens, and other groups that traditional academic programs did not reach. Both initiatives, visionary and pioneering though they were, fell victim to budget cuts in Sacramento.
Hitch was more successful in his efforts to apply the planning principles he had first developed at RAND to managing the University. He reorganized the planning process to create, for the first time, explicit and consistent links between academic and budgetary planning.
But his two most important goals arose out of the conflicts of the time—to protect the University from both internal and external threats to its autonomy and academic freedom, and to start the process of healing the wounds inflicted by years of student dissent, particularly the divisions on the Board of Regents generated by differences over the handling of student protest and the Wring of Clark Kerr.
Neither task proved easy. During the Hitch years (1968- 75) campus turmoil rose to a crescendo in the struggle over People's Park, three acres of unused University-owned land near Berkeley's Telegraph Avenue that students and street people transformed into a community park in the spring of 1969. When the University put a chain-link fence around the property (which had been intended for much-needed student housing), rioting erupted. One person was killed and scores injured. Governor Reagan ordered the National Guard into Berkeley; over the next ten days, almost 1,000 people were arrested.
In the turbulent years from 1964 through the early 1970s, demonstrations and protests became a routine part of academic life. Incidents at Santa Barbara, San Diego, and UCLA were marked by violence and caused a growing rift between campuses and their communities. Students protested what they saw as the University's complicity in the war and its inaction on pressing social issues; faculty on just about every campus deadlocked in acrimonious debate; legislators demanded harsh action against rebellious students. As controversies piled up, public disenchantment with the University mushroomed. "I sometimes feel as if I am surrounded only by angry people," Hitch once sadly observed.
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The Regents of the University of California. All rights reserved.
Last updated 09/29/05.