Berkeley recently—and rightfully—celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement. But news coverage of the events barely mentioned the heavy-handed role the university played, in first causing the movement by curtailing speech, and later in ratcheting up the violence that accompanied subsequent protest activities. Today UCB basks in the glow of the FSM, but don’t forget: UC was the oppressor that made Berkeley radical. And still does.
The FSM—along with the anti-war, civil rights, women’s, and environmental movements—attacked a damaging status quo, changing power relations and moving us closer to our ideal of “government of the people, by the people, and for the people.” UCB is the de facto “government” of much of Berkeley, much more powerful than City Hall. But unfortunately it’s a feudal government, an unwarranted anachronism in the 21st century.
Unlike municipal government, UC is not answerable to those it impacts most. We the people have no constitution to defend our rights or powers in relation to this institution; quite the contrary, our state constitution and legal structure make California’s universities unconstrained overlords over their host cities and their residents. This is a corrosive flaw in our democracy that must now be corrected.
Berkeley’s grievances against its overlord are little changed in 50 years. In the 1950s UCB initiated its takeover of Southside. After ousting homeowners by threat of seizure through eminent domain, UC demolished block after block and replaced vibrant neighborhoods with gruesome, Soviet-style dorms. UCB shamelessly attempted to demolish the Maybeck Church on Dwight Way, a building of national architectural significance; although the elegant church managed to avoid UC’s bulldozers, much more of our history has fallen before the expanding university population. In the 1960s UCB brutally destroyed the community located on what is now People’s Park. In the 1970s UCB illegally installed a high-intensity satellite campus on a small seminary property in Willard neighborhood. And today, UC construction projects, like the designer prisons being stuffed into Units I and II, are conducted in a way designed to drive long-term residents from the campus area. Can Berkeley really take 2.2 million more square feet of this?
No. UC’s relentless expansion is as destructive as ever. UCB maintains its park-like “core campus” by tossing its problems over the castle wall. Neighborhoods near UC suffer from overcrowding, parking and traffic intensity, excess noise, and nuisance crimes and quality-of-life problems created—but neither acknowledged nor repaired—by UC. The entire city is damaged by the skewing of Berkeley’s demographic toward young, short-term residents, the erosion of the property tax base, and uncompensated use of city services. UC spews out detriments like an angry volcano—but where is the moral voice of the University assuming responsibility for the damage it causes? Maybe I just can’t hear it over the sound the jackhammers.
UCB is not just randomly gobbling up a little property here, a little livability there. It is engaged in a systematic, uncompensable taking of the commons (roads, parking, views, open space, history, demographic balance, business diversity)—in other words, the taking of an entire city. And for what? Apparently to attract ever more corporate sponsorship for prestigious research facilities at this, UC’s flagship campus. But UC’s educational mission would not be compromised if UC expanded elsewhere; in fact, Berkeley is an expensive place to build, live, and work, and California would benefit if both research and reputation were more evenly distributed among campuses. Nor would UCB compromise its ability to educate by conforming to local land use visions and procedures, and it should do so.
People might argue that UC is no different than governments or other public agencies with eminent domain or sovereign immunity. But the usual system of checks and balances is missing from UC—the Regents and their local appointees are so far removed from the affected citizens that there is no effective electoral check on UC’s power. In fact, it was this very distance that fueled the street wars of the later 1960s, as decisions were removed from local control and imposed from the state level through the Regents.
The FSM expanded public speech. But UCB has no more use for speech now than it did in 1964. Speech enables us to communicate, solve problems, build community, and collectively shape our destiny. But UCB steadfastly refuses to engage in meaningful communication with Berkeley residents, or even City Hall. Flimsy pretenses of interaction, through pro forma exercises like LRDP scoping sessions, are staged not to solve problems but to deflect anger and meaningful action. UC decision makers, including former chancellor Berdahl, Vice Chancellors Mitchell and Denton, and Dean Sherwood of UC Extension, have all refused to speak with neighborhood leaders to resolve problems created by UC, but we cannot vote them out of office. Likewise Berkeleyans had no voice in selecting the new chancellor; we can only hope, like eager subjects awaiting a glimpse of our new sovereign, that the new regime will be kinder than the last. “The king is dead; long live the king!”
Berkeleyans more than most are willing to sacrifice for the public good, but enough is enough. So to whom shall we petition for redress of grievances? Even when the people have defined rights, “the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.” But neither vigilance nor any legal action can protect us from the university until we have meaningful rights in relation to it. Berkeleyans must assert our right to maintain and protect a livable community and healthy urban and natural environment around the university.
Berkeleyans fight to bring human rights, democracy, equity, and self-government to others. But what should they mean for us in the 21st century? No less than this:
1. The right to a healthy urban environment, free from expansion and activities by the university and associated institutions that damage the quality of life in the City of Berkeley and its neighborhoods.
2. The right to a healthy natural environment in the Berkeley area.
3. The right to guide, through necessary and appropriate municipal powers, decisions and actions by the university and associated institutions that affect us, our environment, and our quality of life.
4. The right to participate in the selection of Regents and chancellor.
5. The right to be informed about all decisions and actions by the university and associated institutions that affect our environment and quality of life, who enacts them, when, and through what mechanisms.
6. The right to receive compensation, both monetary and non-monetary, for costs and damages to the city and its neighborhoods created by the University and associated institutions.
How do we get these rights? Perhaps by lobbying our representatives and winning them from the State Legislature, which has the power to limit UC’s sovereignty. Or perhaps by lobbying the people and winning them in the street, as happened in the 1960s. But history proves that Berkeleyans will never save their city from UC by “negotiating” within such a power imbalance. We will have to change the rules, or change the game. And eventually these rights will become the status quo, as natural and self-evident as free speech on campus. The only question is: “When?”
Sharon Hudson is a 23-year Berkeley resident who lives ever closer to the expanding southern front of the UC campus.