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Free Speech Movement Activist Finds Tarnish On Clark Kerr's Legacy

[Published as a letter in the Berkeley Daily Planet
Edition Date: Tuesday, February 17, 2004]

By MICHAEL ROSSMAN Special to the Planet (01-23-04)

Public events are mirrors through which we may read ourselves. I'd like to say brazenly that the wave of eulogies following the death of the noted liberal educator Clark Kerr reminds me of what happened to the Democratic Party during his lifetime - the long slide from reaching for popular spirit to abject "centrism," shamelessly greasing the gears of late-stage global capitalism.
But my bravado leaks like a punctured lung. I wince with shame at how petty and mean-spirited I will seem to go against the general tide of good feeling about Kerr and his accomplishments.

How can my grumble not be in bad taste, revealing me as a pinched creature, an old hippie still trapped in attitudes of youth, fixated on a few things that happened 40 years ago, as if they still mattered?

In this age of Ashcroftian terrorism, every good liberal's instinct is to bow to the story told so eloquently by the patient FOIA researcher Seth Rosenfeld. As a leading liberal reformer and president of the world's greatest multiversity, Kerr was targeted not only by then-Gov. Reagan's wrath, but by J. Edgar Hoover's FBI, which secretly derailed his career and his chances for greater national influence. Kerr was thus a hero, worth remembering and mourning in a time when basic civil liberties and liberal values are again so threatened.

All this is true enough, in its own terms; I can scarcely quarrel. Even so, some other truths should be recalled.

For I remember what it was like, down there at Ground Zero, in the actual trenches of making history, during the Free Speech Movement in 1964. The eulogies credit Kerr with "saving us" from assault by 600 armed police, as our thousand sat around the police car we had trapped, with the civil rights worker inside, arrested for daring to set up an informational table in the plaza, right in front of the administration building.

They don't mention that Kerr himself had been the key architect of the prolonged despoilment of student civil liberties that brought us to this desperate gesture and condition. From 1957 on, as student activism emerged in the New Left, Kerr liberalized certain features of campus governance while overseeing increasingly strict regulation of key activities - essentially thrusting student activism off-campus just as its energies were rising.

Caught between his younger liberal values and the business and governmental pressures to which his administration increasingly responded, Kerr's policies were riddled with contradiction. So was the agreement he signed that night with Mario Savio as our representative.

Every term beside our own agreement to withdraw was a betrayal: the charges weren't dropped, the "fair" committee was completely stacked, and so on. Under pressure of the crisis, but along natural faultlines, Kerr had argued and signed in condescending ignorance and ultimately in bad faith.

A deeper form of bad faith soon became apparent. It was bad enough that the higher administration adamantly opposed our struggle for basic civil liberties on campus. Beyond, in the eyes of the larger community, we were at the mercy of the media, which sensationalized us even more than we invited, without much bothering to report on the serious and intellectual content of our protest.

In this inflammatory milieu, so shortly after the wane of Congressional Red-hunting, Clark Kerr was quoted in the metropolitan news as saying that nearly half of the FSM's leaders were "followers of the Mao-Castro line," i.e.: dirty Commies.

Of course, this was a dirty lie, though we did treasure the one Commie highest among us, Bettina Aptheker, because she was righteously conservative and wise. But though Kerr later privately claimed he had not said this, the damage was well done, and he never bothered to retract his statement before the Public in whose name eight hundred of us eventually were arrested and many sent to jail.

I must note that during our subsequent trial - for the first sit-in to paralyze a university's administration - Kerr's lawyers had to take him out into a corridor to explain the key technical point about advocacy speech, which had been a center-post of our argument since early on, but which Kerr had never clearly understood until seven months after our jailing swung the faculty decisively to support us. In this ignorance - born ultimately of distance from and contempt for students - Kerr's manner of governing as well as a personal dereliction of duty were revealed.

But my deeper bone to pick with him, then and since, is as an educator.

Clark Kerr never understood that the key reason we white kids involved ourselves in the civil rights movement was not simply compassion, but our desire for learning how to be citizens, for learning democracy by exercising it. This was a species of education beyond his effective comprehension. He spoke and planned in other terms.

Our complaint was not only that he would never meet with us directly, never talk with us nor listen to us; it was that he had no center, that he was a technocrat of the depersonalizing institution. Already his book had established him as the leading theoretician of the modern multiversity. We mocked him in song for proclaiming that  - "the Knowledge Industry now accounts for 29 percent of the G.N.P."

In retrospect, it is even clearer that during his rise and regime from chancellor of the Berkeley campus to president of the whole state university system, Kerr presided over a key transition of elite higher education - from an institution having some of the liberal and Ivory Tower qualities that we simultaneously derided and respected, into one geared increasingly and shamelessly into the dominant mechanisms of capitalist society and culture.

I can scarcely count the ways in this brief piece, nor mourn properly at the depths to which humanistic education is being sacrificed from lower levels up in a mélange of testing, pre-professionalism, "standards" and technology. But of course, all this takes office space, and I chuckle wryly whenever I pause at the stop sign outside the main entrance to the satellite Clark Kerr Campus, only half a mile from the main quads. I used to read to blind students, and grew accustomed to them on campus.

Long before sidewalks were first ramped here to allow wheelchair mobility, Berkeley was already a national leader in mainstreaming the handicapped. A unique 58-acre campus for blind and deaf students offered them unrivaled, direct access to the full resources of the university for half a century - and oh, my, how time does fly! Midway between the FSM and now, a cruel trick was played on the deaf and blind: Their precious buildings and grounds were judged uninhabitable due to earthquake danger, far too vulnerable and too expensive to repair.

Too bad; and whisk! off went the deaf and blind, trucked to some facility forty miles away, tucked away out of contact, out of sight, out of mind. Maybe every mind but mine?

Who knows who remembers? No one ever talks about what happened and why. It's not mentioned in the glossy promo lit for the Clark Kerr Campus, which houses international students and visiting scholars, and rents its facilities to endless varieties of corporate conferences and educational affairs, in gracious surroundings well-braced against temblors. Turned out to be cost-efficient after all, once the defenseless were cleared away.

I doubt that Kerr had anything to do with this personally. His name is simply enshrined there, over a pit of silent shame. In somewhat the same style, his name is burnished now in public eulogies as a symbol of liberalism, above unmentioned pittings of shame.

Another involves then-Chancellor Edward Strong, whom Kerr left at safe distance - without saving guidance or restraint - to complete the mishandling of the FSM affair all the way to the final dramatic assault on Mario Savio before ten thousand in the Greek Theater, which Kerr the experienced labor mediator mishandled on his own. The whole experience was ruinous to Strong, who emerged a broken man, in fair part from his abandonment by Kerr.

Such personal costs are so far outside the usual calculus in which Kerr's institutional accomplishments are measured, that they'd seem unsporting to mention, if abandonment were not a deep theme here. "Joy to UC," we sang in early carol that year, "Clark Kerr has called us Reds!"

What we could not sing was our longing for who he might have been, other than our newspaper assassin. We could hardly imagine a university president who could lead constructively, who could read the Constitution and our careful explanations for himself, and help teach the public: - "Yes, these are student rights; this is how learning to be citizens makes sense."

There was no vision of learning, geared to deep values; only the same waving and bowing to pressures, to power. And so it was in a larger frame too. Clark Kerr's response to our awakening in the FSM was an earnest of his response to the entire predicament of the university during a deep phase of historical transformation. He will not be remembered for promoting visions and values of education that might balance its increasing corporatization. Indeed, his failure will pass beyond mention, invisibly, for no one expects the head of a major public institution to provide this sort of leadership now. And that's a genuine, deep shame.

Copyright 2004 by Michael Rossman.  This text may be republished in any form accessible to the public without charge and not supported by advertising. All other rights are reserved.

To contact Michael Rossman by email:  [replace the -at- with @ for email]


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