Saturday, March 22, 2014

When Tuition Came to the University of California

Last week, the Regents of the University of California announced that they will contemplate a tuition increase for already-beleaguered students in the country’s preeminent institution of higher education.  At such a moment it is interesting to look back at the moment when the first tuition bills were levelled at students attending the hitherto-free University, which by the 1960s had already become one of the foremost institutions of learning in the country.  This is a somewhat longer piece on the historical context for the introduction of tuition at the University of California.
The University of California's greatest proponent...

The backdrop to the introduction of tuition was the restive campus of the 1960s.  Berkeley had its first brush with the right-wing politics engendered by the Cold War when faculty resisted being forced to sign a loyalty oath in the 1950s.  Nor was “riotous” behaviour new on campus.  From its inception, the campus had been subjected to regular and frequently destructive outbursts by the economically privileged students who initially dominated the student body.  John Kenneth Galbraith recalled that the sound he most associated of the Berkeley of the 1930s was “the most evocative and nostalgic of all the sounds of an aristocracy at play, the crash of breaking glass” (52).

But it was the series of politically-charged protests of the 1960s, rather than the outbursts by earlier politically-apathetic students, which rocked the state.  The socially- and economically-conservative state elite only began to worry about the University when students at Berkeley began to criticise restrictions on free speech, protest the Vietnam War, and question the conservatism of the culture from which they emerged.

California Governor Pat Brown and University of California President Clark Kerr—both men fervent believers in a grand vision of California and its Universities—adopted a liberal, paternalistic attitude toward the students.  They sought to bring them gently to heel while respecting the just nature of many of their demands, and also made an effort to shield them from those in the state who, shocked at being criticised, wanted the police unleashed on students.

Because in questioning market forces and U.S. policy abroad, students had made powerful enemies.  J Edgar Hoover of the FBI sent his spies to the University of California, where they sought to smear students and undermine the administration.  In its investigation into widespread abuses by the FBI and other agencies through its COINTELPRO programme, the U.S. Senate concluded that “too many people have been spied upon by too many government agencies and to [sic] much information has been collected”. 

...and the man who used its degradation as a stepping stone to high office
The report continued, “The Government has often undertaken the secret surveillance of citizens on the basis of their political beliefs, even when those beliefs posed no threat of violence or illegal acts on behalf of a hostile foreign power....Groups and individuals have been harassed and disrupted because of their political views and their lifestyle.  Investigations have been based upon vague standards whose breadth made excessive collection inevitable.  Unsavory and vicious tactics have been employed—including anonymous attempts to break up marriages, disrupt meetings, ostracize persons from their professions, and provoke target groups into rivalries that might result in deaths” (Intelligence Activities and the Rights of Americans 5). 

Clark Kerr, predisposed to a gently inoffensive liberalism particularly infuriated Hoover.  When President Lyndon Johnson wanted to make Kerr the Secretary of Health and Human Services, Hoover ordered his agents to concoct a series of baseless allegations about Kerr’s nonexistent “Communist” connections in the background check, leading to the termination of the President’s offer.  Specifically, Hoover “[included] damaging allegations against Kerr—without telling Johnson that the bureau had investigated each of the charges and found them baseless” (Rosenfeld 230).

But Hoover could only do so much damage from the shadows and, determined to crush the campus, backed Ronald Reagan in his gubernatorial bid, covering up the activities of the candidate’s son and hiding Reagan’s illegal omission of former affiliation with then-proscribed political groups, an omission which constituted a felony by the newly-elected Governor (Rosenfeld 299, 362-64).

Ronald Reagan launched a 1966 gubernatorial campaign against Pat Brown pledging to crack down on the “beatniks, radicals, and filthy speech advocates”.  Untroubled by fact-checks, Reagan’s campaign spouted a series of lies about the decline of the campus in the same year that admissions and applicants rose with the University’s national reputation (Rosenfeld 336).  He chose the University as his target after being told by Spencer and Roberts, a “firm of Republican political advisers”, that “he would have to run from the right in his efforts to get the Republican nomination [and] the right was where the money was.  Reagan then asked Spencer and Roberts what issues he should pursue” to get a lock on the political right, and their pollsters listed “welfare queens”, “mental health malingerers”, and the “student revolt at Berkeley”.  Reagan’s political advisor later told Kerr that “Reagan knew very little about the University of California and had no animus against it” (Kerr 288-9). 

Reagan cynical use of the University as a punching-bag for his campaign found new life with his proposal to introduce tuition for the first time.  Having used a well-honed PR machine, oiled by falsehoods churned out by the FBI and a former CIA Director, to convince Californians that political expression at their University was dangerous, Reagan tapped into the manufactured anger of voters.  In a dishonest campaign built around getting people of the same class to resent one another—a common theme of Reagan’s politics—he swept Brown from office.

Then as now, California was a wealthy stage, with no shortage of resources on which to draw for the support of its public institutions.  But Reagan, insisting that “we just simply have a shortage of dollars”, whined that he was “tempted to suggest a cut in the University’s approximately $700,000-a-year public relations budget since it would seem a good share of it is being spent publicizing me”. 

Reagan mulishly argued that loans were a good substitute for free tuition, and claimed that UC policy of only admitting the top 12% of students somehow meant that introducing tuition would not introduce a barrier to poorer students.  But his earlier remarks had made it crystal clear what the introduction of tuition was actually about.  “It is no denial of academic freedom”, he proclaimed, “to provide this education within a framework of reasonable rules and regulations.  Nor is it a violation of individual rights to require obedience to these rules and regulations or to insist that those unwilling to abide by them should get their education elsewhere.  It does not constitute political interference with intellectual freedom for the taxpaying citizens—who support the college and university systems—to ask that, in addition to teaching, they build character on accepted moral and ethical standards”.

Those “moral and ethical standards” mandated that students cease their political criticisms.  And it failed to take account of the moral gains associated with civil disobedience elsewhere in the country, although these gains were unlikely to move Reagan, a staunch opponent of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.  Knowing that students were unlikely to give in to these attempts to curb their civil liberties, Reagan supplemented his demand for tuition and launched a punitive attack on the University, demanding a devastating 20%  reduction in funding at the very moment that the University was expanding its mission on behalf of the state. 

The man who would claim to have faced down the Soviets then dodged the UC’s President, repeatedly standing Kerr up although he took time to meet with the FBI from the bed of his gubernatorial mansion to plot Kerr’s ouster (Rosenfeld 369-371).  At a special committee meeting, Reagan disclaimed any knowledge of why the University needed money for research or expansion, saying that it “should be taking the bottom 12.5 percent; that it should be taking ‘the Mexicans’” (Kerr 298). 

Reagan convened a Regent’s meeting at which he engineered the firing of Kerr, although he scuttled out of the building before the President re-entered to be informed of his dismissal.  At a press conference later, Reagan tried out various lies on reporters, first claiming that he had not attended the meeting and then claiming that Kerr had demanded a vote of confidence and lost (Rosenfeld 375; Kerr 307, 312).  Some Regents had sided with Reagan in the hopes that removing Kerr would satisfy the new Governor’s vindictive campaign against the University and cause him to retract his threats of cuts and tuition.  But they underestimated the mean-spirited nature of Reagan’s scorched-earth politics. 

Reagan “thrust the governor’s office into areas traditionally left to campus officials, such as monitoring student activities, checking teachers’ classroom conduct, and screening faculty appointments....he continued his campaign practice of making broad charges of campus misconduct, heightening public outrage, damaging morale on the campus, and generally undermining support for the institution....He complained about ‘subsidising intellectual curiosity’, and his auditors suggested the university sell its rare books to generate state revenue”.  Outlandishly, Reagan blamed Berkeley students for Robert Kennedy’s assassination (Rosenfeld 379, 416).

Reagan’s attacks on the campus, and the deployment of the National Guard led to violent backlashes by students and Bay Area political groups, backlashes which were possible because the FBI had armed these groups in the hopes of generating violence which would serve as a pretext for escalation on their end.  Police shot passersby with buckshot, and then lied about it.  On Reagan’s orders they sprayed a powerful CS gas from helicopters flying above the Campanile, and told the media it was more benign CN gas.  Reagan grew increasingly unhinged, shouting at faculty in meetings, and snarling that “We seem to be getting down to the situation that occurs between two nations—of who started the war”, adding that “once the dogs of war have been unleashed you must expect things will happen” (445, 463, 464).

In 1970, the Governor got his wish, and the first tuition was introduced.  In 1980, undergraduates were paying $719 per year.  Five years later it was over $1,200.  By 1991 it had nearly doubled, and in the year 2000 students were paying around $3,400 per year.  The rest, as they say, is history.

Clark Kerr gave a press conference as he left the Regents meeting at which he had been so summarily dismissed.  There, he argued that “the best investment that any society makes is in the education of its young people, and this shouldn’t basically be looked upon myopically as a ‘cost’; it should be looked upon as the best investment that any society can make.  The strength of the society is the quality of its people and their skills and their leadership.  So I hope that there are no tuition barriers in this University.  I regret that I am no longer in a position to help lead the battle against tuition.  I am sure that many others will take my place in this battle.  Perhaps because of this development this afternoon it may become more difficult for those who favour tuition, as a matter of fact to impose it, because I think that where I stood in my opposition there will stand thousands” (Kerr 320).

Today, students subjected to unimaginably high tuition have no powerful advocate in the UC President’s office, the occupants of which have recently seen the police return with brutal force to the Berkeley and Davis campuses when students protested the growing inequality on campuses associated with high tuition; inequities which are a microcosm of our nation’s ills (in the first ten years of the twenty-first century, Californian universities paid $6.5 billion in interest to financial institutions, Eaton 4).  Students have had to stand largely alone when making the case against tuition, and they have been unable to halt its steady rise.

We have another governor—ironically the son of UC’s biggest gubernatorial booster—who is using Reagan’s strategy by casting himself as the man to discipline the wayward University, refusing to restore state funding and referring to money to UC as a “bailout”. 

In the 1960s, students flexed their muscles, but did so at a time of general prosperity when their subjection to a remorseless market logic was a distinguishing feature of their class, and at a moment when they were locked in a generational culture war with their parents and grandparents.  Today, the country at large is experiencing the economic ills once only associated with economically marginal groups like students.  In resisting tuition increases today, students could connect their struggle against tuition with the struggle of most American citizens for a livelihood in the face of aggression by wealthy elites. 

Students did as much briefly in 2011, and I hope that now, when confronted by a hostile Governor, a cynical Board of Regents, and a troubled public, they can act as the conscience of California and help us to remember why public institutions and the public good, rather than “fiscal conservatism” should be at the heart of our political debate.


Clark Kerr, The Gold and the Blue: A Personal Memoir of the University of California, 1949-1967 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013).

Charlie Eaton and Brian Stewart, “Wall Street & California’s Student Debt Crisis” (Berkeley: Center on Culture, Organizations and Politics). 

John Kenneth Galbraith, “Berkeley in the Thirties”, in Danielle La France, ed. Berkeley!  A Literary Tribute (Berkeley: Heyday Books, 1997).

Seth Rosenfeld, Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power (New York: Picador, 2013). 

United States Senate, 94th Congress, 2nd Session.  Intelligence Activities and the Rights of Americans, Book II: Final Report of the Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with respect to the Intelligence Activities (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1976).

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