Sunday, October 6, 2013

Berkeley's Beginnings

I thought that the following lines from Gray Brechin’s Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin wonderfully captured not only the unearthly physical beauty of the University of California’s flagship campus, but also the dilemma of the twenty-first century University:
“The fortunes of the University of California were tied from the beginning to those of San Francisco’s financial district.  The connection is not immediately evident, since the founders of the College of California chose to locate their campus in the East Bay in 1855.  There, in the new town of Oakland, they hoped to safeguard the students from San Francisco’s ‘brutalizing vulgarity’.  As Oakland grew briskly, however, it soon offered temptations to rival those of the city across the bay.  The college trustees therefore sought a more rural site conducive to studious virtue.  They found what they were looking for five miles north of the first campus and far out in the countryside.
“The farm chosen occupied an elevated position at the base of a range of hills that forms the backdrop to the East Bay plain.  The trustees favoured it for its commanding outlook as well as for a stream that promised sufficient water for the college and adjacent town.  Where Strawberry Creek issues from the constricted mouth of an amphitheaterlike canyon carved into the hills, it has built a long alluvial ramp sloping gently to the bay.  From the top of that ramp, the site affords a splendid panorama of San Francisco Bay and of the cleft in the coastal hills ten miles to the west, which John C Fremont had named ‘Chrysopylae’, for the harbour at Constantinople.  The Gate was then bridged only by the horizon line of the Pacific beyond it.
“The town site remained to be named, but the view provided the necessary inspiration.  Standing at what was later dubbed Founders’ Rock, San Francisco lawyer and mining magnate Frederick Billings suggested that his fellow trustees name the town for the author of the well-known line ‘Westwards the course of empire takes its way’.  Billings’ colleagues readily agreed, and thus, by naming the town Berkeley, they linked it via England and Spain to the conquering empires of the classical age.  It was to Athens that Berkeleyans would most often liken their town, but as Rome had once depended upon Greece for a ready supply of intellectuals, so would San Francisco’s capitalists increasingly rely upon the academy at Berkeley to provide managers and engineers for their Pacific imperium”.*
In the popular culture of the twenty-first century, the University of California in general and Berkeley in particular are associated with civic idealism and a disdain for worldly things.  Berkeley, after all, is at least partially responsible for launching a low-grade actor with ambitions which outstripped his talents into the Governor’s seat in 1966.  In running against Berkeley, Ronald Reagan used the campus as a foil for the hard-hearted evolutionist doctrines he and his handlers espoused.
But just as the University served as a reservoir of intellectual talent for those who in the nineteenth century saw San Francisco as the seat of a new Pan-Pacific empire, today it is caught between moral commitments to a civic community and material obligations to the corporate world which sees the university as a training ground rather than an intellectual community.  So too are students torn, between the idealism with which they pass under Sather Gate, and the harsh demands of an immoral market that summon them from the Greek Theater four years later. 
Capital and markets have always loomed over the University, whether in the shipping, mining, or money-shifting interests that helped to found the University; in the corporate powers which today seek to deface its curriculum to meet remorseless market demands; or in the persons of the University’s Regents, who represent a plutocratic caste, ever more removed from the institution which we rightfully expect today to serve public rather than private masters.
The coming decades will be critical, as the University—comprising the people within it, the interests managing it, the state which gives it its name—determines its place in our polity on the edge of the Pacific.
* Gray Brechin, Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999): 280-81.

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