In the buzzing, vibrant center of the beautiful UCSB campus sits a squat concrete box. This is Kerr Hall. Simultaneously cube-like and angular (not an easy combination to effect), the building looks like an enormous post-modern bunker, or an Iron Curtain edifice meant to make a statist comment. Which is fitting. To add to the atmosphere of gaiety, Kerr is windowless on three sides, its gray pebbled carapace textured with roof-to-ground vertical grooves, reportedly not molded in a cycle of prefabrication but deafeningly gouged out with jackhammers once the building was completed, in 1977. A demure little plaque at the bunker’s east end, gone tastefully green over the years, bears an innocuous inscription
“Clark Kerr – President of the University of California 1958 – 1967. For Encouraging a Better Quality of Teaching”.
What the hell does that mean? Who is this Clark Kerr guy? You wouldn’t know it from that bland little encomium, but Clark Kerr was UC Berkeley’s embattled first Chancellor, and not incidentally a prominent Free Speech piñata who the Commie-frightened Establishment would beat till the candy came out, to our common detriment. Clark was also Ronald Reagan’s springboard into politics in the go-go sixties. He would be invoked with contempt as a limp, liberal communist sympathizer in The Gipper’s galvanizing 1966 campaign speeches.
Kerr was, more lastingly, the architect of what came to be known as the California Master Plan for Higher Education, the nationally and globally venerated public education model that layered California’s institutions of higher learning – community colleges, the California State College System (today’s CSU), and the vaunted University of California system (the UC) – into a parfait of academic upward mobility. The Master Plan’s holy mission was to codify a promise from the State of California to her citizens: any student who aspired to an empowering education would have one, and practically free of charge; a compact that wove into the state’s cultural fabric a social and class mobility that was limited only by an individual’s desire to rise through learning. This didn’t sit well with everyone, particularly Reagan, a guy (like many during that period) to whom the word “State” summoned the Red Scare, Stalin, and Siberia’s chain of Best Western gulags. In 1966 Reagan would enlist the delighted assistance of the FBI and step lithely into the governor’s mansion on the mud-smeared back of Clark Kerr, and three weeks later Reagan would loudly fire Kerr as UC President. A couple years after that, in 1969, the Governor would formally begin California’s climb-down from investment in public higher education by placing more of the burden on the University students themselves, whose socialist ingratitude for the education they were receiving had gnawed at him since the days of Berkeley’s student protests and what he considered Kerr’s insufficiently iron-fisted response. Reagan’s convincing of the UC Regents to impose “education fees” on the UC students was comeuppance for Kerr’s Master Plan, and is considered by educational historians to be the introduction in California of a little something called Tuition. Heard of it? You can blame it on the commies.
In 1949 the United States was aflame with the Red Scare, which sounds like a rash and did indeed result in pustules and weeping sores, many of them holding public office. That year the UC had instituted a requirement that all employees, present and future, sign an Oath of allegiance foreswearing ideas and institutions seeking to overthrow the U.S. government, a thinly clad reference to Communism. Clark Kerr, since 1945 an Associate Professor of Industrial Relations at UC Berkeley, grudgingly signed the oath but would take it no further, and continually pushed back against the singling out of colleagues and staff on campus. Kerr’s pugnacity earned him the nervous respect of his colleagues in the academy, and it was Kerr the UC Regents chose to appoint as UC Berkeley’s first Chancellor in 1952. During his time as Berkeley’s head honcho Kerr proved a rock star steward of “Cal”, such that by 1957 UC Berkeley was ranked third in the nation behind Harvard and Yale. That year an impressed Board of Regents chose Clark Kerr to be president of the entire UC system. Just ahead lay UC Berkeley’s explosive Free Speech Movement, Ronald Reagan (and his girlfriend the FBI), and the meat grinder that would pulverize Kerr and make pâté of his Master Plan.
In late 1964 a bunch of Berkeley student activists set up some tables and information booths on the Berkeley campus. Most of these kids had just returned from Mississippi, where’d they’d spent an adventurous summer registering as many African-American voters as possible in a well-orchestrated effort that came to be called The Freedom Summer, or in the movies “Mississippi Burning”. The thousand-strong army of volunteers that poured into Mississippi that summer had braved beatings and harassment and arrest. Several of them had been murdered. Now the returned Berkeley student contingent, lives changed and eyes opened, wanted to talk about it. From their rickety card tables and benches and booths they disseminated info on campus and collected donations for civil rights causes.
UC Berkeley rules at the time prohibited any campus political activity outside the student Democratic and Republican clubs there, and the dean asked the students to please strike their tables and stand down. The bloodied Freedom Summer students would have none of it. There commenced over the coming weeks a swarming wave of sit-ins and angry marches, with a charismatic grad student named Mario Savio becoming the leader of the movement, one of the first American university protest conflagrations of the sixties. Kerr was caught squarely in the middle (to the delight of many), pissing off the Berkeley students for not acquiescing immediately and wholly to their demands, and enraging Edward Pauley, head of the UC Regents, for refusing to expel and otherwise punish the wild-haired socialist student rebels. Bewildered and poorly directed peace officers helplessly followed the “frightened mistakes” template, arresting and nervously clubbing kids who were, after all, only agitating for a Constitution they’d been bored by as jug-eared fifth graders just a few years before, but which had now become a precious thing which the Civil Rights struggle had burnished to a fine luster, and whose purity they felt exalted to be beaten up protecting, this tattered cousin of the Magna Carta. The bland wallpaper of ubiquitous freedom doesn’t become dear till it’s being torn down by often well-meaning morons.
Watching the goings-on at Berkeley were two birds of a feather; future CA governor Ronald Reagan and his bulldog on a long leash, J. Edgar Hoover, the dyspeptic and perennial pugilist-king of the FBI. Hundreds of thousands of pages pried from classified FBI files by the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) show that Reagan had been going to second base with the FBI since his film acting days the 1940s, routinely flipping Hoover and the boys the names of supposed Communist subversives in Hollywood, Ronny in one recorded instance dutifully reporting on an actress who’d had the temerity at a cocktail party to complain about the Hollywood witch hunts. The relationship with Hoover would prove fruitful.
In 1966 Reagan ran for governor of the Golden State, and wasted no time colluding with the FBI to smear both the Berkeley student leaders and UC President Clark Kerr, with whom both Ronny and Edgar were furious for not cracking down on the seditious, unshowered hippies. The Berkeley students would soon enough fold an anti-Vietnam War theme into their riotous campus protests and enrage Reagan and Hoover even more. FOIA documents describe in detail the nighttime break-ins and personnel file fingering of the FBI in Berkeley neighborhoods during this period, much of which largesse showed up as fodder for Reagan’s gubernatorial campaign. In his public rhetoric Reagan vowed to send “the welfare bums back to work,” and “to clean up the mess at Berkeley.”
The student unrest at Berkeley, and the public disaffection he managed to whip into a politically helpful shit storm, got Reagan elected governor in a landslide. Once in office he went unabashedly after Berkeley, slashing the school’s budget, and, when they complained, recommending Berkeley raise money by selling their library’s rare book collections. Ray Colvig, the Chief Public Information officer for UC Berkeley during the period of Reagan’s rages, has said, “He thought if you wanted a world-class university, let the students pay for it. The idea of selling rare books went along with that.” Three weeks after his election, in the new governor’s first meeting with the UC Regents, he fired Clark Kerr.
Today there are four Kerr Halls in the University of California system; one at UC Davis, one at UC Santa Cruz, this grooved bunker at UC Santa Barbara, and most tellingly, one at UC Berkeley. Why? Providing the disenfranchised the means, not the capital, mind you, but the means, to move freely about the class system is not everyone’s cup of tea, mission statements and impassioned dais-thumping to the contrary. The metastatic growth of tuition as the defining feature of higher ed is the proof in that pudding. But it was Clark Kerr’s cup of tea. What Kerr had attempted to make an Individual Right is now an increasingly exclusive clubhouse. And Kerr? He seemed to accept his fate with good humor. When Reagan fired him, Kerr did indeed refer to himself as ‘fired’. “I leave his institution as I found it; fired with enthusiasm”. Kerr laid the foundations for a common beneficence through education and got bitch-slapped for it. And in that light the gray concrete box that is Kerr Hall doesn’t look half bad after all. It may even be the sweetest spot on campus. If you think of it, stop by and leave Clark a flower.