Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Using the University: Ronald Reagan and the Decline of the University of California

I’ve just picked up Seth Rosenfeld’s book Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power.  Relying on FBI records made available thanks to the author’s legal efforts, the book promises to be an engaging read about Ronald Reagan’s ascent to political prominence, based in large measure on efforts to foster distrust in the state’s preeminent institution—the University of California.


Reagan capitalised on a generational divide to turn Californians against their University, and to launch a witch-hunt that extended beyond politically-minded students to attack University administrators who sought to protect the openness traditionally associated with institutions of higher education.

As he had during his tenure in Hollywood, Ronald Reagan worked to crack down on freedom of thought and expression, seeking to make even the remotest sympathy with leftist politics a barrier to participation in civic life.  A practitioner of the ugliest sort of politics, Reagan’s rise came as a result of his willingness to stab colleagues in the back.  His was the contemptible conservatism that bridled at the “cultural excesses” of the 1960s, but thought nothing of spreading murder and mayhem abroad or engineering crippling economic inequality at home.

From the perspective of the FBI, fixated on the supposed “threat” posed by liberal faculty and students, Reagan was a usefully blunt instrument, and the Governor worked hand-in-glove with the law-breaking investigative service.  A later FBI Director called the Bureau’s campus activities in the 1960s “wrong and anti-democratic”, but at the time the Bureau operated subject to little scrutiny.

Its primary enemies were students who spoke from the campus against the economic and political ills of the day, on subjects like free speech, civil rights, the war in Vietnam, and their aspirations to break with what they saw as the stifling straitjacket of their parents’ culture.  And from the FBI’s perspective, those students were protected by two of the century’s most powerful Californians—Governor Pat Brown, who built the state that we know today, and Clark Kerr, the President who created the University of California that emerged out of the Second World War as a centre of research excellence.


His commitment to creating an open climate at the University won him not only the eventual opprobrium of Ronald Reagan, but also the ire of the FBI who set out to smear him by joining with “a right-wing group of University officials who would be in a position to observe Kerr close at hand...The purpose would be to try to get Kerr neutralized in his present job or even removed”.  Attacks on Kerr accompanied those on other faculty members and students with “inappropriate” views.  And anyone who opposed the FBI’s investigations was attacked as a “communist”, a label immediately thrown at the students who protested the San Francisco sitting of the House Committee on Un-American Activities. 


Reagan set out to re-make the “great university” over which he had shed crocodile tears.  He cut funds from UC, introduced tuition, and fired Clark Kerr, the man who more than any other, was responsible for transforming the University of California into what he described—for better or worse—as the world’s first “Multiversity”.   

The students who Reagan hated had not been enamoured of Kerr’s creation, seeing the intense focus on research as detracting from the attention faculty paid to undergraduate education.  Nonetheless, the University of California could not in the 1960s be described as the “medieval fortress”, run by and for the “grand dukes of the plutocracy” who were castigated with great severity by Upton Sinclair at the beginning of the century.  Then, the University educated the children of the state’s elite, who might spend their week-ends volunteering to beat up union workers.

By the 1960s, the University had become a democratic space, accessible to an increasing variety of Californians, and dedicated to the proposition that a well-educated citizenry was essential to the functioning of a complex society with aspirations to collective affluence.  State leaders accepted the idea that investment in successive generations of students made good civic, social, and economic sense. 

Today, the University of California maintains its excellence in research.  It is able to choose from the state’s top students.  International students line up for degrees from Berkeley and UCLA.  But the changes that Reagan ushered in have led to the decline of UC as a public institution. 

To most Californians, the market-based idea of higher education that Regan introduced now looks like a barrier to entering the institution that was supposed to belong to the public.  High tuition has begun the process of returning UC to its pre-democratisation days.  Similarly, the UC Regents—representatives of the state’s plutocratic elite—have begun to find common cause with those interested in the de facto privatisation of the University. 

The Republican Party’s campaign—led by Reagan—to sabotage and thereby undermine public confidence in public institutions is bearing fruit in the form of the state’s steady divestment from an institution which under normal circumstances should be designed to evenly educate a generation of its youth and contribute to its economic revitalisation, but which instead is being steadily bent to serve the economic aspirations of those who already possess spectacular wealth.  The decline in support from the state has shifted the burden to students and their families, made for larger class sizes, fewer class offerings, deteriorating infrastructure, and the shifting of teaching duties to graduate students and underpaid adjunct faculty.

And the University increasingly looks to be run for rather than by a caste of administrators who have blossomed even as the University has decayed as an institution for social betterment.  (One economist recently remarked that he “wouldn’t buy a used car from a university president...They’ll say ‘We’re making moves to cut costs’, and mention something about energy-efficient lightbulbs, and ignore the new assistant to the assistant to the associate vice provist they just hired”. )

When Ronald Reagan went to war with Berkeley in 1966, he was fighting not just the counterculture and its critique of his generation and his politics.  He was fighting an idea about the need to democratise education.  He was fighting against institutions which sought to serve the public.  And he was fighting against the freedom of thought and conscience that—in spite of the devastating changes wrought over the intervening decades—the University of California somehow still manages to represent.

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A “Berkeley Bibliography”, for any interested in reading more about the University of California and its history:
Cohen, Robert.  Freedom’s Orator: Mario Savio and the Radical Legacy of the 1960s.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.
Douglas, John Aubrey.  The California Idea and American Higher Education: 1850 to the Master Plan.  Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000.
Gonzalez, Christina.  Clark Kerr’s University of California: Leadership, Diversity, and Planning in Higher Education.  New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 2011.
Guerrero, Andrea.  Silence at Boalt Hall: the Dismantling of Affirmative Action.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.
Kerr, Clark.  The Uses of the University.  Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001.
Kerr, Clark.  The Gold and the Blue: A Personal Memoir of the University of California, 1949-1967.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.
Newfield, Christopher.  Unmaking the Public University: the Forty-Year Assault on the Middle Class.  Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008.
Rosenfeld, Seth.  Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power.  New York: Picador, 2012.
Seaborg, Glenn T, with Ray Colvig.  Chancellor at Berkeley.  Berkeley: Institute of Governmental Studies Press, 1994.
Sinclair, Upton.  The Goose Step: A Study of American Education.  Los Angeles, 1922.
Starr, Kevin.  Golden Dreams: California in an Age of Abundance, 1950-1963.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.
Stewart, George R.  The Year of the Oath: The Fight for Academic Freedom at the University of California.  Garden City: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1950.
Wolin, Sheldon S.  The Berkeley Rebellion and Beyond: Essays on Politics and Education in the Technological Society.  New York: Vintage Books, 1970.

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