The Cautionary Tale of Clark Kerr

Seth Rosenfeld is a San Francisco Chronicle reporter. His report in the Chronicle, based on documents released as the result of his 17-year fight under the Freedom of Information Act, is available at

As president of the University of California during much of the tumultuous 1960s, Clark Kerr was confronted by students who reviled him as a symbol of the establishment and conservatives who vilified him for not cracking down on demonstrators. But he never suspected that his worst enemy was the FBI.

Kerr, who died Monday at 92, seemed an unlikely target for FBI dirty tricks. He was a soft-spoken economist, an advisor to both Democratic and Republican presidents and an avowed anti-communist. He underwent repeated background investigations and, because of UC’s participation in military research, held a top-level “Q” security clearance.

But Kerr also was a staunch defender of academic freedom and individualism. He believed vigorous debate was crucial to the university’s search for knowledge. And as a federal court later ruled in ordering the FBI to release its files on UC to me, the bureau mounted a covert campaign to destroy Kerr’s career because FBI officials “disagreed with his politics or his handling of administrative matters.”


In other words, J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI abused its power by punishing one of the greatest educators of the 20th century for campus dissent. Kerr’s case is a cautionary tale -- just last week members of Congress called for hearings into an FBI bulletin that urged authorities to keep an eye on peaceful antiwar protests and report any “potentially illegal acts.”

Kerr came to Berkeley to teach labor economics in 1945, as World War II ended and the Cold War began. Russia seemed bent on world domination. Fear of nuclear war spread. The American Communist Party was seen as a Soviet tool. Operating in a crisis atmosphere with little oversight, the FBI began misusing its powers to target law-abiding citizens engaged in dissent.

Kerr was soon on Hoover’s radar. In 1949, the university Board of Regents voted to require all UC employees to sign an extra loyalty oath -- in addition to a state employee allegiance oath -- swearing they did not belong to any group advocating violent revolution. Kerr signed the oath and backed a university policy declaring Communist Party members too biased to teach. But he also defended professors who refused to sign on principle. Kerr made his priorities clear when he was appointed chancellor of Berkeley in 1952. “I shall be eternally vigilant to preserve freedom of inquiry and freedom of expression for the students and for the faculty,” he said in a campus speech.

In 1958, Kerr was named UC president, prompting the head of the San Francisco FBI to report that Kerr “has always given the impression that he is a ‘liberal’ in the education field” and “at best is a highly controversial figure in California education.”

Hoover’s concern about Kerr turned to rage when he learned that UC’s 1959 English aptitude test for high school seniors asked, “What are the dangers to a democracy of a national police organization, like the FBI, which operates secretly and is unresponsive to public criticism?”

And when UC students joined a protest against the House Committee on Un-American Activities at San Francisco City Hall in May 1960, the San Francisco FBI chief wrote to Hoover: “Undoubtedly of special interest to you, is the fact that much of the manpower ... was provided by students of the University of California at Berkeley. Since Clark Kerr has become president, the situation on all campuses has deteriorated to the point where the so-called academic freedom has become academic license.” Kerr’s refusal to block a 1961 student request to have HUAC opponent Frank Wilkinson speak on campus led Hoover to scrawl a note for the file: “I know Kerr is no good.”


Then came Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement in the fall of 1964, the first major campus protest of the era. Mario Savio and other FSM members portrayed Kerr as a hypocrite. Conservatives portrayed him as weak-kneed.

And later that year, when President Johnson was considering Kerr as secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, the nation’s most powerful education post, the FBI knowingly portrayed him falsely in a report to the White House as having disloyal associations. As a U.S. district court later ruled, Hoover used the background investigation process as a pretext to sabotage Kerr. Johnson withdrew the offer, and Kerr never got a White House appointment.

As campus antiwar protests grew in 1965, Hoover secretly met with CIA head John McCone and agreed to leak FBI reports to Regent Edwin Pauley in what another court called an FBI “campaign to have Kerr fired.” But with Kerr’s ally Gov. Pat Brown in office, Pauley couldn’t muster the votes.

Ronald Reagan was inaugurated as governor on Jan. 5, 1967. Within days, he requested a secret FBI briefing about the Berkeley situation, FBI memos show. On Jan. 20, at the first regents meeting attended by Reagan, Kerr was fired by a 14-8 vote that hinged on the new governor’s appointees to the board.

Kerr may well have been fired without the FBI’s involvement, but the bureau’s campaign against him -- ruled unlawful by a federal appeals court -- stands as a reminder that excessive secrecy and power on the part of government poses its own dangers to democracy.