B is for Berkeley


“I knew I’d been living in Berkeley too long when I saw a sign that said ‘Free firewood’ and my first thought was ‘Who was Firewood and what did he do?'”
~ John Berger

“There are two major products that came from Berkeley: LSD and Unix. We don’t believe this to be a coincidence.”

~ Jeremy Anderson

For those who live in the Bay Area it’s a well-known fact that Stanford, the private university in Palo Alto, and UC Berkeley, or “Cal”, the public university in Berkeley are arch rivals when it comes to college sports, and especially football.

When I used to teach at UC Berkeley, I liked to play up this rivalry by telling my students that while everyone in The Netherlands has heard of Berkeley, fewer people know about Stanford.

The pride students have, or should I say, the sense of ownership and kinship US students feel with the schools they attend is quite extraordinary and a particularly American phenomenon. Or, as one of my Dutch nephews remarked when we walked over the Berkeley campus one day: “It’s insane how many students are wearing Berkeley gear: in the Netherlands you would never do that…”

But naturally Berkeley is more than just a university, even though the university is older than the city which is unusual: mostly, universities are named after the cities they’re located in and not the other way round.

Geographically, Berkeley lies across from San Francisco and at the foot of some very steep Berkeley hills that smell like eucalyptus groves, jasmine and rosemary.

The first Europeans who set foot on land in Berkeley, which was then no more than a couple of undulating hills with the typically majestic California oaks, were part of the Spanish DeAnza expedition in 1776, the year America became independent.

One of the soldiers in that expedition, Luis Peralta, was rewarded by the Spanish king with an enormous piece of land on which he built de Rancho San Antonio. That was the beginning of Berkeley’s European roots: the Ohlone Indians had at that point been driven out already.

Almost one hundred years later, there was a small private university in Oakland (College of California) which was looking to expand. From the Berkeley hills and with a view on the Bay, Frederick Billings surveyed the land and quoted the Irish bishop George Berkeley as his gaze rested on the ships in the bay: “Westward” he said, “the course of empire takes its way…” which is how Berkeley got its name, although I am not sure that story is really true.

Ask any Berkeley student who George Berkeley was and they probably can’t tell you, but Berkeley has developed its own identity since and that’s what matters.

In 1868, the school opened its doors to its first students. At that point, the campus consisted of a building here and there amidst lots of grazing cows. Ten years later the city was incorporated and in 1909 Berkeley was, besides an official university, an official town.

The big earthquake of 1906 hardly touched the city of Berkeley but a great number of people fled San Fran and settled in Berkeley across the bay. Berkeley grew again during WWII, which mostly had to do with the war effort and the subsequent job growth in the wharves nearby.

Today, Berkeley has more than 100,000 people and on campus there are about 36,000 students which obviously endows it with a so-called “town and gown” feel. The university employs about 3000 professors (although that number must be higher if you include lecturers and gsi’s) and 130 academic programs.

The main library (Doe Library) was donated by Mr. and Mrs. Doe, who remained childless themselves and therefore gave the library to “the children of California” in a gesture so grand that it could only have happened in the nineteenth century. Apparently, Doe is one of the largest libraries west of the Mississippi. A library intern from Austria once told me that the National Library of Austria in Vienna fitted four times inside of Doe, so this is impressive. In fact, it used to make me mad when students told me that in their 4 years of study at UC Berkeley, they never once set foot in the library. For the Dutchies among my readers, Doe Library has one of the largest Dutch-language collections, including an impressive Frisian collection.

About 25% of students who apply to Berkeley get accepted: this means the student population is a joy to teach and while I have left Berkeley after having taught there for 10 years, I still miss teaching, and especially teaching students who are engaged, motivated and willing to stand up for their opinions and rights.

Aside from Berkeley’s reputation as a top public university and premier research institution, Berkeley put itself on the world map during the student protests of the 1960s. The so-called Free Speech Movement may even overshadow Berkeley’s scholarly reputation, including the fact that several faculty have won Nobel Prizes and that there were chemistry profs at Cal who added 97 Bk (Berkelium) and 98 Cf (Californium) to the periodic table.

As for the Free Speech Movement and the Vietnam protests, we should not forget that these movements were the extensions of a long history at Berkeley with regard to the protection of freedom of expression. In the 1950s already when McCarthy-followers pursued their witch hunts, professors at Cal refused to open the Berkeley campus to McCarthy’s investigations.

In 1960, this triggered a visit by HUAC delegation (congress members of the American House Committee of Un-American Activities) who were meant to track down commies in the San Francisco Bay Area. They were welcomed by a delegation of protesting Berkeley students and professors (these were Berkeley’s glory years– it’s hard to imagine professors joining students’ ranks in recent protests over fee hikes…)

Four years ago, on May 13, 2010, this protest action which was known as Black Friday, was commemorated. At the time, it was the first mass student demonstration in years: 64 people were arrested after they had sat down in San Francisco’s City Hall to sing We Shall Not Be Moved (a song of the Civil Rights movement). The protesters were removed with water from fire hoses and even though the American government tried to stereotype the protesters as communists, people praised the students for their action unanimously. It put Berkeley on the map as the birthplace of an unrivalled protest movement for young people. From that time, the West Coast also earned its nickname “Left Coast”.

The Free Speech Movement (1964) that grew out of this protest action lasted much longer and was far more intense than this initial demonstration. Ronald Reagan, who was California’s governor at the time and who had no sympathy whatsoever for the students sent the National Guard to campus where a fight ensued between protesting students who had occupied Sproul Hall while singing psalms: 800 were arrested.

Yet the FSM proved victorious and was backed by a faculty resolution (824 professors were in favor; 115 voted against). The resolution essentially outlawed the fact that the university interfered with freedom of expression or censored the different political groups on campus. And thus Berkeley became the center of a new radical left which, since the 1930s, had not had a distinct voice or political influence. It may have come as no surprise that the student leaders of the FSM had been the offspring of the radical left of the 1930s. For that reason they were also called the “red diaper babies”.

This group wanted to start a Free University which alongside actual classes at Berkeley, offered free classes taught by volunteers who otherwise taught regular classes at Cal. These classes would include a curriculum that was harder to find at the regular universities, like for instance classes on the history of civil disobedience. That free university never took off and you can hardly call Berkeley “public” anymore as it costs you a pretty penny to attend these days. When I told my students once that I had done a BA, MA and a PhD in Europe for the cost of one semester at UC Berkeley, they realized how overpriced education has become in this country, even at a so-called “public” school like Berkeley.

In the 1960s, student leaders at UC Berkeley received such notoriety that the FSM also became an important voice in the Vietnam protests and civil rights marches in the South. However, in spite of the success of the FSM, public opinion in California was divided: 75% of the California population did not agree with the demands of the students.

In the meantime, times have changed. The student population at Cal is not as left-wing or radical as it used to (now people say that the electorate of Berkeley is actually more progressive than the student body at Cal). While demonstrations still take place not all of them are popular on campus. For example, when a number of students (and non-students) occupied a number of beautiful trees during the Oak Grove Protest (2006-2008), which fought against the building of the new stadium, the majority of the students were negative about the tree sitters (and the trash they dumped from their trees). The tree sitters themselves, however, compared their fate to that of the hippies, who at the end of the 1960s occupied university land. This triggered another raid by the National Guard, but the hippies held out and got a piece of land. This land is now known as People’s Park where, these days, you won’t see hippies, but mostly homeless people in sleeping bags and cardboard boxes, smoking weed.

It’s interesting to see how the FSM coincided with flower power, free love and peaceniks who were all centered around the Bay Area. Not all hippies were politically engaged but by the end of the sixties, Berkeley had become the turbulent center of the hippie movement overall and left-wing students. That atmosphere is not completely gone, especially when you walk down Telegraph and see former hippies selling tie-dye and jewelry. Yet the homeless seem to dominate this particular area and this has led to a certain impoverishment of the neighborhood and a sense that Telegraph may not be so safe, especially at night. Cody’s, one of Telegraph’s greatest bookstores, closed its doors because of the neighborhood’s decline. Homelessness is a problem on campus too, and my next story will feature an encounter with a homeless man who wandered into my office in Dwinelle Hall one morning, when I was still working in the Dutch Studies program.

If you wonder why I am not working there anymore, please read my post “Why I Left Academia”, which I probably should have titled “Why I Left UC Berkeley”– UC Berkeley used to be the brand for political activism and students’ rights but with the Title IX offenses that Berkeley, like so many other college campuses has dropped the ball on, I have been disappointed by the administration AND faculty who, unlike in the sixties, refuse to stand shoulder to shoulder with their students. Berkeley can and ought to do better. Much better.

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One Response to B is for Berkeley

  1. Melanie says:

    I liked this story — as long as i have lived here and known about Berkeley’s roots, it was still fun to read about it….. but I just love the two quotes – they really capture it all in a “nut”shell.

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