At the head of his class

Jonathan Kirsch, a contributing writer to Book Review, is a 1971 graduate of UC Santa Cruz.

For men and women of a certain age and experience, there's a deep and complex resonance to the name and figure of Clark Kerr, president of the University of California during an era of growth and turmoil. He was avuncular and benign, and yet somehow compromised. To adapt the provocative metaphor of Free Speech Movement leader Mario Savio, he was the man who oiled the machine that produced not only scholars but also bombs.

"[S]tudents must not accept Kerr's vision of the university-factory," wrote one activist in the 1960s, "run by a Captain of the Bureaucracy as a parts-supply shop to the profit system and the Cold War complex." Clark Kerr, now 91, speaks for himself in "The Gold and the Blue: A Personal Memoir of the University of California, 1949-1967," the second volume in his autobiography. He served as chancellor of the Berkeley campus from 1952 through 1958 and as UC president from 1958 through 1967, when he was rewarded for his long, arduous and dedicated years of service by being unceremoniously dumped by then Gov. Ronald Reagan. The first volume, subtitled "Academic Triumphs," focused on the transformation of the University of California from a university to a "multiversity." The second volume is a parallel narrative rather than a sequel, and it focuses on the most controversial and compelling chapters in Kerr's distinguished career, when Kerr was forced to cope with attacks on the university from the left and the right -- Savio as well as Max Rafferty, the Free Speech Movement and the Students for a Democratic Society as well as the FBI and California's Senate Committee on Un-American Activities, the so-called "Burns Committee."

"[T]he years between 1960 and 1967 represent themselves, in almost textbook form, as a scenario for social revolution," explains sociologist Neil J. Smelser in his introduction.

Thus, for example, "The Gold and the Blue" is enlivened by excerpts from the thousands of pages of files that the FBI kept on Kerr, who was regarded by then FBI director J. Edgar Hoover as a man with dangerously liberal leanings. "I am absolutely opposed to this crowd of 'bleeding hearts' at Berkeley," Hoover scrawls in a note that is reproduced in the book. "I know Kerr is no good." Quips Kerr: "I look on this as the equivalent of an honorary degree."

Kerr does his best to explain away the various acts of complicity that were almost inevitable in an era when the University of California was serving as a research-and-development laboratory for the U.S. government. For example, Kerr was appointed to serve as the "contact man" for the Burns Committee -- against his will, Kerr insists, and his better judgment -- but he insists on his "nonparticipation ... and even opposition to the existence of such a position."

Indeed, Kerr allows us to see the ultimate irony in his long and embattled career -- Savio may have condemned him for suppressing free speech on the Berkeley campus, but the Burns Committee did the same for allowing too much of it: "[Because] the gates have been swung wider and written propaganda has been accorded free access to the university and students, it takes very little imagination to determine what disciplined, dedicated, organized subversive groups will be delighted to take advantage of the opportunity."

Kerr does not deny that the University of California was a crucial component of the so-called "military-industrial-scientific complex" that produced, among other things, the first atomic bomb. "World War II was won, to a major degree, and the subsequent Cold War was waged and won, in the laboratories of the research universities," he writes. And he makes no apologies for his own role in encouraging the intimacy of that relationship: "I thought industrialization of economic life was inevitable and desirable, and that the university should be willing and even eager to train skilled personnel to advance it."

Berkeley was seen, not inaccurately, as ground zero of the counterculture, a phenomenon that complicated Kerr's job but one for which he refuses to take the blame. The old function of the university as the enforcer of "in loco parentis rules," as he points out, had withered away, not only at Berkeley but across the United States. But when tourist buses began to roll past the campus entrance at Bancroft and Telegraph to let the sightseers glimpse the local color, the regents were ready to blame Kerr for what they beheld.

"Max Rafferty, state superintendent of public instruction and UC regent, used to proclaim that the University of California gave a four-year course on sex, drugs, and treason," Kerr slyly observes. "This was wrong on two counts. These were separate courses, all extra-curricular. None was given by the university."

Reagan targeted Kerr as the fall guy during his successful 1966 gubernatorial campaign against Pat Brown. He had promised to "clean up the mess at Berkeley," and he echoed Max Rafferty's inflammatory rhetoric by complaining about "sexual orgies so vile I cannot describe them to you." Dorothy Chandler, a member of the UC Board of Regents, was given the task of letting Kerr know the board was ready to follow Reagan's decree that he must go.

"She ... said that telling me this was the second hardest thing she had ever had to do in her life -- the only harder thing was when she had to tell her husband, Norman, that it was time for him to step aside in favor of their son, Otis, as publisher of the Los Angeles Times," writes Kerr. "I decided to accept dismissal rather than resign and recognized that I would carry that stigma the rest of my life, which I have." So ended Kerr's UC tenure and the era of greatest achievement in the history of a great university -- and so ends the ambitious undertaking that his two-volume memoir represents. As one of the leading theorists and critics of educational policy -- Kerr went on to serve as the director of the Carnegie Institute of Higher Education -- he cannot resist the temptation to summarize and generalize in the pages of "The Gold and the Blue," often in bullet-pointed paragraphs that punctuate the longer stretches of recollection and reminiscence. But these asides take nothing away from the urgency and intimacy of the memoir itself, which is always lively and often funny.

"These two volumes are tales of two Berkeleys -- one the academic Berkeley and the other the political Berkeley -- joined together like Siamese twins but with separate minds and mostly separate bodies; quarreling but sharing some of their life support organs," he sums up. "The great mystery of the University of California, and particularly of its Berkeley campus, is how it could achieve so many academic triumphs while being subject to so much political turmoil."

Kerr is too decorous to say it aloud, but the mystery is solved in the pages of "The Gold and the Blue." The triumphs were achieved precisely because Kerr was there to play the role for which he was condemned by so many of his adversaries on the left and the right -- he was the classic liberal, committed to the highest ideals but always willing to compromise in service of those ideals. A president with more modest aspirations, or one who was willing to sacrifice himself on principle, would not have accomplished nearly as much.

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