The Gold and the Blue: A Personal Memoir of the University of California, 1949-1967. Volume 2: Political Turmoil

By Geiger, Roger L. | Academe, July/August 2003 | Go to article overview

The Gold and the Blue: A Personal Memoir of the University of California, 1949-1967. Volume 2: Political Turmoil


Geiger, Roger L., Academe


The Gold and the Blue: A Personal Memoir of the University of California, 1949-1967. Volume 2: Political Turmoil

Clark Kerr. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003

The second volume of The Gold and the Blue recounts the crucial years of perhaps the most consequential career in higher education of the twentieth century, and it stands as both history and document. Its author, former University of California president Clark Kerr, relies not on memory but on extensive research. He quotes liberally from the oral histories of his contemporaries and has compiled publicly available documents to substantiate his case. Consequently, the volume is essential to understanding both the development of the University of California and the university's actions in the first campus battle of the new left, the free speech movement.

The three greatest administrative blunders in the history of the University of California, Kerr writes, were the 1949 loyalty oath proposed by UC Berkeley president Robert Sproul, the decision by Berkeley chancellor Edward Strong to forbid political activity in a campus entryway long used for this purpose, and Kerr's own failure as president to rescind Strong's decision immediately. The latter pair of blunders provoked the free speech movement, to which Kerr devotes two-thirds of this volume.

The oath controversy occurred at the height of anticommunist paranoia. At Sprout's request, the UC Board of Regents adopted a requirement that university employees sign an anticommunist oath; those who refused lost their jobs. Kerr, then a faculty member, opposed the oath but did sign it, and he treats his role in the controversy fairly lightly. The pall of ignorant anticommunism was present throughout Kerr's years at the University of California. Kerr, who had had direct experience with communists as a labor mediator, realized that communists posed no threat to the internal security of the United States, but also abhorred their beliefs and tactics. Yet regents and legislators accused Kerr of being a virtual fellow traveler-even after campus radicals vilified him as a tool of capitalism. He cites a declassified Federal Bureau of Investigation file in which a regent and a faculty member denounce him to agents, and one in which FBI director J. Edgar Hoover scribbled, "I know Kerr is no good."

Kerr kept silent about his role in the conflict over the free speech movement for nearly forty years, although the experience obviously burned in his memory. His memoirs have been long awaited, and do not disappoint. He recounts the tangle of events following Strong's controversial decision from multiple angles, and furnishes numerous new details, revising the historical record on the initial decision, the escalation, and the denouement of the conflict.

The conflict started in September 1964 when chancellor Strong prohibited political activity on a small strip of campus where students set up tables and distributed leaflets. Strong and some in his administration found these activities objectionable, and may have feared exposure by the conservative Oakland Tribune for tolerating them.

Kerr suggests that the prohibition was deliberately rushed through on the day before he returned from two months of travel, and writes that he immediately recognized it as a great mistake-he now calls it "morally wrong . . . politically unwise . . . [and] administratively stupid." Kerr believed in consultation and consensus, and he valued the strip as a safety valve for keeping advocacy off the rest of the campus. But when Kerr asked that the order be withdrawn, Strong refused, fearing that such a move would undermine his own and the university's authority. The refusal left Kerr perplexed. He was a proponent of decentralized campus governance, and to overrule his chancellor would subvert his own policy and invite criticism. He did not even consider nullifying the order, as he later concluded he should have. …

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