With the judge’s decision imminent in the lawsuits over the university’s plan to cut down the Memorial Stadium oak grove and build a gymnasium/office complex at the site, the atmosphere is crackling with tension—or is that just the wind rustling through the leaves? It has been one and a half years since this issue leapt onto the local and national stage with a dramatic Big Game tree-sitting protest, and the conflict remains as compelling to this day. There are some persistent questions that have remained in my mind over this period of time, and I want to present them to your readers in the hope of creating a safe atmosphere to engage in a reasonable discussion of the conflict over the proposed construction in the oak grove.
Have you met any of the tree-sitters?
A number of people seem quite ready to demonize and marginalize the tree-sitters. This causes me to wonder how many of them have spent any time at all talking with these arboreal protesters. I myself have found almost all of the ones I’ve met to be truly gentle and well-meaning people, typically very well-informed about many environmental and political issues. And they have certainly demonstrated the courage of their convictions—and that alone is saying a lot these days! Besides that, it is a tremendous challenge to live in a tree, and I think most of us realize that the tree-sitters have survived in their tree-top homes for this long—and endured two cold winters—only because of the support they get from the community. Countless citizens have continued to come forward to supply them with food, water, and other necessities because they believe in their cause, which, at its heart, is the principle that the community has the right to be involved in critical land use and development decisions that directly impact our lives.
Should the university disobey our local environmental laws?
The particular law relevant in this case is the Berkeley ordinance protecting all the California coast live oaks throughout the city. A private citizen would not be allowed to cut down even a single one of these protected trees—not without an officially-documented need and special approval. Yet the university is proposing to destroy forty-two of them in one fell swoop, along with 60 other mature trees. In order to do so, the university is relying on its blanket exemption as a state institution, which allows it to disobey all local laws.
However, the Berkeley ordinance was passed for important environmental reasons: These oaks are very susceptible to Sudden Oak Death Syndrome, and oak woodlands throughout the state are being cut down as suburban development continues. In short, we need to save all the coast live oaks we have left—and healthy specimen trees such as the ones in the oak grove could someday represent a valuable gene bank for the regeneration of the species. In such a case, recognizing UC Berkeley’s repeated claim to be a leader in environmental stewardship, shouldn’t it choose to obey this law?
Should UC Berkeley still be considered a public university?
And there is a more basic problem with the state legal sovereignty argument. It fails to take into account the fact that U.C. Berkeley is now a public (state) institution in name only. At present, only 20 percent to 30 percent of its funding comes directly from the state. This is important because the allocation of funding is understood to be the most important way—and sometimes the only way—for the public to regulate state institutions, and this democratic control mechanism is almost entirely absent at UC Berkeley now. Because of this new reality, former UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Berdahl himself stated that the university had become a “state-assisted institution” rather than a public one.
Not only that, the university’s governing body, an appointed Board of Regents made up almost entirely of elite business executives accountable to nobody, is virtually impervious to public input. Their operating practices are almost indistinguishable from those of a private corporation—with the additional luxury that there are no shareholders that could fire or discipline them. Somehow, the public got completely left out of this so-called public institution.
In recognition of these facts, I believe that the university should no longer benefit from the many rights and privileges granted to true public institutions. In my opinion, UC Berkeley should now join all the other private entities that must obey local and state laws, including paying their fair share of taxes for the services they use.
Who cares about the safety of the Cal athletes?
I truly wonder about the sincerity of some people who claim to care about the safety of the Cal athletes who continue to work out underneath earthquake-threatened Memorial Stadium. For at least the past ten years, the university has known about the significant earthquake risks posed to athletes who work out in the training rooms below the stadium. In spite of this clear danger, UC officials have neglected to secure a safe alternate site for these athletes to train in. Yet during this same period of time, several other large campus buildings were closed due to earthquake risks and their programs were relocated. Was it an accident that the safety of the Cal student-athletes was completely overlooked?
Whatever the reason, I think the university should get to work immediately on finding a suitable alternate location for a temporary gym for these dedicated student-athletes. What’s more, I think anybody who genuinely cares about their safety would agree that this is a step we can take now that that would be both reasonable and beneficial, no matter which side of the issue you are on. In fact, if I were the parent of a Cal athlete, I would be on the phone today asking the chancellor to get my child out of that stadium into a safe building.
Can the university cooperate with the community?
In essence, this whole conflict is over how much power an institution ought to have over the lives of the residents in its host community. Many people are simply not aware of the many detrimental impacts Berkeley citizens face due to unchecked and unmitigated university expansion. If they are so inclined, they can easily inform themselves by talking with these residents, and I encourage them to do so. A lot of damage has been done to the physical environment and the social fabric around campus—and most of this damage was completely avoidable.
The sad truth is that almost all of the city-university conflicts that have arisen over the past half century were really missed opportunities to initiate mutual cooperation that would have benefited us all. Each group would today be stronger and more dynamic—and certainly more harmonious—if these opportunities had been seized.
In the current situation, it is entirely possible for the university to achieve all of its goals and still operate in a socially and environmentally responsible way. Why not choose this path now? In the complex and precarious world we live in, it is frankly irresponsible for any institution to continue operating in a way that allows it to focus only on its own goals and needs, while neglecting the substantial harm it causes others.
If we really are serious about saving our planet, we all need to begin to work together in authentic and respectful ways. Starting here, starting now. Given UC Berkeley’s international reputation, such an effort in this community would certainly inspire others around the world to take similar cooperative actions. How many more opportunities will we have if we let this one slip away, too?
Doug Buckwald is a Cal Bears fan and an oak tree fan. He is the director of Save the Oaks (www.saveoaks.com).