Berkeley Accepts Rebellious Past, $3.5-Million Donation


Embracing a tumultuous time in its history, UC Berkeley announced Wednesday that it has accepted a $3.5-million gift enshrining the Free Speech Movement that ushered in an era of student protests.

The university that once arrested and kicked out movement leader Mario Savio will use the money to set up a book fund in his name, computerize its archives of student protests and build a Free Speech Movement Cafe.

“It sounds like a wonderful place to plot righteous rebellions,” said Nadav Savio, the son of the protest leader, who died 18 months ago.


The cafe, which will serve espresso and double lattes--along with morsels of nostalgia--will be built as part of the Moffitt Undergraduate Library using the donation from Stephen Silberstein, a 1964 Berkeley graduate who once worked in the university library and went on to make a fortune in software.

Silberstein said he made the gift because he wants current Berkeley students--most of whom were not yet born in 1964--to understand the significance of the events of that year, when Savio leaped atop a police car to address thousands of fellow protesters.

Berkeley Chancellor Robert M. Berdahl accepted the gift and unveiled an artist’s sketches of the cafe, saying that it was time for university officials to “reconcile ourselves with history.”

Standing next to him was a gray-haired Jack Weinberg, who as a young man was arrested for the crime of handing out civil rights leaflets on campus. When police put Weinberg in a squad car, thousands of students surrounded it, rendering it immobile for the next 32 hours.

Savio, a philosophy student, was among those who climbed on top of the car to rally the crowd.

Weinberg, who spent four months in jail and was booted out of graduate school, called Wednesday’s event “a personal homecoming for me” and quipped that he may even “be officially readmitted to the alumni.”


“I graduated from the university with a degree in math, but my higher degree was in activism,” he said. “I got the best education in the world here, and I’ve proudly practiced activism one way or another for 35 years.”

Weinberg now works in the Chicago office of the environmental group Greenpeace.

Berdahl, a historian who became chancellor last year, said the fall of 1964 provided one of “few crystalline moments” in history.

“No one would disagree that the Free Speech Movement had a significant role in placing the American university center stage in the free flow of political ideals, no matter how controversial,” he said.

The official tributes to the Free Speech Movement culminate a radical change in the stance that campus administrations have taken over the years.

It took years for local artists to get permission to install a five-foot circle of granite dedicated to free speech in Sproul Plaza, outside the administration building. And even when the monument was built in 1992, officials insisted that it not include the words “Free Speech Movement.”

Only after Savio’s fatal heart attack in 1996 did the administration show a willingness to honor the most famous protester. Last December, it allowed a small bronze plaque to be embedded in the steps leading to Sproul Hall, with the words, “Mario Savio Steps, Dedicated 1997.”

The liberalized policies result partly from the retirement of campus administrators and faculty who long disapproved of glorifying Berkeley’s rabble-rousers.

In addition, a new generation of Berkeley graduates are moving into influential roles as alumni and potential donors, a fact not lost on administrators in the midst of a $1.1-billion fund-raising campaign. Berkeley has raised $757 million so far.

Dan Mote, vice chancellor in charge of fund-raising, said Silberstein’s desire to link his gift to celebrating Savio and free speech generated much discussion among administrators--but ultimately there was no hesitation in accepting it.

“Time heals all wounds,” Mote said. “The real important point is not to focus on individual acts, but the underlying principles. If you do that, the Free Speech Movement was very soundly positioned. That has become more clear in time.”

Effect of Movement

Silberstein, 54, said his donation fulfills a longtime dream of sharing the ideals of the movement that “had a tremendous effect on me personally and on every student on campus.”

“We take freedom of speech for granted,” he noted. “But there used to be a university-wide policy that denied people the right to speak on campus for political reasons.”

Silberstein described himself as a witness, not a participant, in the nine-month movement that included a sit-in in the administration building, resulting in nearly 800 arrests.

He graduated with an economics degree a few months before the movement began and was working for IBM in Oakland at the time. He went on to work at the university library from 1970 to 1980 and earn a master’s degree in library science in 1976. He left to become full-time president of a software company he co-founded in nearby Emeryville.

The company, Innovative Interfaces, now provides electronic card catalogs and other software to 700 city and university libraries worldwide. Silberstein declined to reveal his net worth, but noted that the company he co-owns has annual sales of $60 million.

His gift to UC Berkeley’s library--the fourth-largest in North America--will be divided into three components.

The largest portion--$1.6 million--will build the cafe that will feature rotating exhibits of Free Speech Movement materials. An additional $1.4 million will be used to purchase books in the name of the Mario Savio/Free Speech Movement Endowment.

The remaining $500,000 will be used to preserve the Free Speech Movement archives at the campus’s Bancroft Library and make them accessible around the world via the Internet.

“Mario Savio and the leaders of the Free Speech Movement symbolize the very best of Berkeley, surely just as our top researchers, scholars and athletes,” Silberstein told a group of 1960s alumni who came to witness the event. “They are inextricably part of Berkeley history and the Berkeley tradition and we are proud of that.”