Controversy Colored Clark Kerr’s Berkeley Reign

Friday December 05, 2003

Friends and colleagues remembered Clark Kerr—the first chancellor of UC Berkeley and the father of the modern public university system—as a man blessed with a spirit as strong as his intellect. 

“He was a very egalitarian person. I never saw him pull rank on anybody,” said Neil Smelser, a UC Berkeley professor emeritus of sociology who worked with Kerr towards the end of his career and wrote the foreword to Kerr’s memoirs.  

Kerr died at his El Cerrito home Monday of complications from a fall. He was 92. 

Born on a Pennsylvania apple farm when fewer than five percent of American 18-year-olds attended college, Kerr devised the University of California’s Master Plan for Higher Education, which opened the state system to every student and served as a model throughout the country. 

Kerr’s concept—which blossomed into UC, California State University and the state community colleges—strove to maintain top-notch research centers, while complementing them with various types of schools to meet the state’s exploding population. 

In his nine years as UC President—before a political rift with Governor Ronald Reagan ended his tenure in 1967—Kerr doubled enrollment to 87,000 students, oversaw the creation of UC Irvine, UC San Diego and UC Santa Cruz, and increased the number of Nobel Prize winning professors from five to 12. 

“He was the most distinguished university president in the history of the 20th century,” said Martin Trow, UC Berkeley professor emeritus of public policy, whose first year on the UC Berkeley faculty was Kerr’s last as chancellor. 

Kerr’s first taste of university life came as an undergraduate at Swarthmore, where he studied labor economics and became a committed Quaker. 

“He was always able to see other people’s point of view,” Trow said. “At his heart he was interested in peaceful resolution of conflict.” 

Kerr’s diplomatic skills served him well through most of his career. During World War II, he served as a labor mediator in the Pacific Northwest and later belonged to a group that sought a diplomatic settlement to the Korean War. 

As UC Berkeley chancellor, Kerr nudged the campus to the left, making the ROTC voluntary, and relaxing speaking prohibitions against communist sympathizers. 

“He was painted by the left as an antagonist to free speech, but on the Berkeley campus he was a liberalizing force,” Smelser said. 

During his early years as UC president, Kerr found fertile legislative ground to lobby for his master plan. In 1960 legislators desperately wanted new local colleges to supplement UC Berkeley and UCLA, Smelser said. The master plan provided a framework to manage the growth and won near-unanimous support. 

But a vastly changed political dynamic cut short his presidency. With UC Berkeley students protesting restraints on political speech and state conservatives calling for Kerr to clamp down on demonstrators, Kerr found himself targeted by both sides. 

When Gov. Ronald Reagan assumed power in 1967, he allied with Kerr’s conservative opponents on the Board of Regents, which voted to oust him.  

“That’s the fate of a middle-of-the-road leader,” Smelser said. “He was a negotiator coming up against social movements that had an absolute quality to them.” 

Kerr quickly moved on to head the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education through 1979 and continued to write scholastic papers well into his retirement.  

“He was an absolute miracle in that he could write new and fresh papers well into his late 80s,” Trow said, adding that on visits back to the Berkeley campus he always remembered faces of people he had met and was quick to strike up conversations. 

In his final days, Smelser said Kerr feared for the university system he spearheaded. “He was worried that the state wasn’t going to continue to give the university financial support.” He knew it was vulnerable.” 

Kerr is survived by his wife, Catherine, three children, Alexander, Clark and Caroline, half-brother Bill, seven grandchildren and one great grandchild.