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The Operation of the Machine: UC Then and Now

This is the first of several papers that Remaking the University blog, by Michael Meranze and Chris Newfield, is  publishing  on the implications of the Free Speech Movement.  Colleen Lye kicks off the week with these questions.  More are explored by Leigh Raiford, Wendy Brown, Chris Newfield, and Amanda Armstrong, whose talks will also be published this week on the http://utotherescue.blogspot.com/

THE OPERATION OF THE MACHINE: UC THEN AND NOW

By Colleen Lye, English Department, UC Berkeley, and Co-chair, Berkeley Faculty Association.

This fall marks the 50th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement (FSM) at UC Berkeley, a student movement that since Mario Savio’s death in 1996 has gained increasing institutional acknowledgement as part of the campus’s celebrated history. The 50th anniversary commemorations, however, got off to an unexpectedly rocky start with Chancellor Nicholas Dirks’s campus-wide message on civility. The free speech rights won by students in 1964 became the basis for time, place and manner regulations governing student conduct. It appeared to some that Chancellor Dirks’s comments suggested a misunderstanding of those rights, or a new policy reversal of them. With media attention already trained on campus because of the FSM anniversary, combined with the fact that the Salaita case at the University of Illinois had, over the course of the summer, turned “civility” into a hot-button word in a debate over faculty academic freedom, an avalanche of negative publicity required the Chancellor to quickly drain the force of his initial remarks in a follow-up message. In a meeting with the staff of The Daily Californian, which had run a critical forum on the Chancellor’s message on civility and his subsequent clarification, Dirks talked about how his own scholarship on colonial India had once analyzed the ways in which civility had been used by those in power to restrain the freedoms of the disempowered. Breathing a sigh of relief, Berkeley faculty, staff and students returned to the business of commemorating the FSM, in light of which a large number of events have been planned for the fall. From the perspective of the Berkeley Faculty Association, FSM-50 represented an opportunity to take stock of the distance traveled since the time when the co-author of the Master Plan and the avatar of student free speech had once been primary antagonists in a drama that kicked off the Sixties as that period in which universities came to be conceived as a base from which to organize for broader social change. Is the increasing sympathy many feel for the position of Clark Kerr—as embattled liberal caught between a reactionary Sacramento and an insurgent student demand for their First Amendment right to express politically consequential speech on campus—indicative of the extent to which we are still fighting the battles of the Sixties but on ever weakening ground? Racial segregation is still with us, feminist reproductive rights are under siege, corporate power has seized extensive control of our democracy, preventing even modest government amelioration of growing economic inequality. The dismantling of the notion that higher education is a public good rather than a consumer choice, and the degradation of the link between democracy and education that follows from that, is something that our UC administrators—scrambling to patch public deficits by all available means on a short-term basis—seem unwilling or unable to combat. Thus since 2009 it has fallen largely to UC students, staff unions and faculty to diagnose our structural situation from the standpoint of the public interest, with this blog serving as a primary outlet for expression. As part of this tradition, the Berkeley Faculty Association organized a teach-in entitled “The Operation of the Machine: UC Then and Now” on Oct 1, in commemoration of the day that thousands of students surrounded a police car on Sproul Plaza that held FSM activist Jack Weinberg, and refused to allow his arrest and removal. At our event last week, UC faculty and student speakers addressed a packed audience on some of the most crucial topics relating to the question of the changed relationship between freedom and the university since the 60s. How does the heavy burden of tokenism placed upon the few African American students left at Berkeley since Prop. 209, and the fact that student athletes are constrained by their scholarships from participation in political protest, combine to rob underrepresented minority students especially of their freedom of speech?  How is the conservative seizure of a therapeutic discourse of a safe campus climate functioning to regulate academic and campus debate in a way that fundamentally departs from an understanding of the university as a place of intellectual provocation and challenge?  How is it that a free university education for Californians can seem so far-fetched when our current high fee/high aid model is contributing to relentlessly increasing student debt, and persists because of a lack of political will rather than an economic necessity?  How is UC Berkeley’s increasing privatization of its real estate holdings likely to raise the cost of student housing and diminish campus community access to facilities and resources previously understood to belong to a university commons?  Finally, what is to be done?

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