The Editor's Back Fence

UC Berkeley Continues to Embarrass Its Graduates

By Becky O'Malley
Thursday June 19, 2008 - 10:48:00 PM

Thanks to Judge Barbara Miller's decision in the Oaks v. UC case, Wednesday lasted longer than it should have. The weekly Planet was all ready to send off to the printer at 6, when Redwood Mary called me on my cell phone, saying, "we won, we won!'" Reporter Richard Brenneman had already left, because we all believed that Judge Barbara Miller wasn't going to issue her long-delayed ruling, promised for yesterday, after all.  

But the ruling came out at the very last minute, and plaintiffs were overjoyed to discover that she hadn't conceded everything to the ugly U right off the top, as many of them had secretly feared she would. Dick came back to the office and quickly revised his story, the printers graciously gave us an extra half hour to submit a new front page, and our print issue is on the stands today with as much of the last word on the topic as any paper. But nobody's willing to predict what the ruling's going to add up to a month or two from now. 

Ever curious, the publisher and I decided that we'd just swing by the grove on the way home to see what was happening. A press conference was underway, complete with big cameras and lots of reporters.  

The speaker was Steve Volker, the attorney for some of the plaintiffs, and he was a happy man. His take on the decision was that although the judge had rejected almost all of the main claims that project opponents had put forward, the key victory was her acceptance of their contention that the University of California is bound by the Alquist-Priolo earthquake safety act, and that a key part of the gymnasium as designed was linked to the existing stadium. This, he thinks, will eventually cause the whole project, perhaps even the stadium renovation, to grind to a halt.  

"It's dead," he said. 

His remarks were delivered with a Mr.-Smith-Goes-To-Washington fervor that was contagious. Protesters cheered. Reporters asked a few probing questions, but the mood was festive. 

Someone asked me if I was going to the UC press conference at 8. What press conference? I asked. Since I'm not a reporter in this life, I don't usually go to press conferences, but I was curious about how the university would explain itself. An incredulous protester said she'd heard that the spin would be that UC won, which seemed impossible in the context of what Volker was saying. So I went to the press conference. 

I'd been told that it was in a special conference room in Haas Gymnasium, and that it was only open to the media, not the public. Here I must confess that even though I'm a UC alumna I didn't really know which of the huge and hideous Mussolini Modern athletic buildings next to Zellerbach Hall was Haas. By the time I figured it out I was a bit late for the event.  

In the lobby a security guard tried to stop me from going in, but when I forcefully identified myself he let me pass and directed me down a hall where hastily printed signs pointed to a "media event". After a long series of twists and turns thru a Kafkaesque labyrinth of dark underground corridors, I found the room, passed through another set of screeners and joined the press conference. 

The speaker at the podium was a quintessential Old White Guy, impeccably dressed, with perfectly groomed white hair, obviously a partner in a big law firm . At first I thought he might have been pale from the shock of losing his case, but I realized that he's probably always so pale that you can't tell if he's pale for a reason—one of those really really white White Guys. He was saying that he'd just gotten the opinion at 6:45, so though he was sure it was a victory for UC there were still some points he wasn't quite so sure about. 

What might those be? Reporters asked if the judge's injunction for UC not to make changes at the oak grove still stood, as protesters claimed. He waffled a lot, but ultimately didn't deny it. He said his team would soon be checking with the judge to find out if she really intended that to be the outcome, since her latest decision didn't mention it one way or the other.  

On the podium with The Lawyer were three others. Two, male and female, had the kind of no-neck conformation that identified them as The-Jocks-in-Charge, and from time to time they said enthusiastically that they were raring to go on their building project and expected to be able to start very soon now. One opined that construction could begin as soon as the injunction was lifted, but The Lawyer didn't look so sure of that.  

The female Jock gushed that it was a great day for our student athletes, that there was a clear path ahead now, and that safety was at the top of the UC agenda. No one asked if it might not be safer to build both gym and stadium clear away from the Hayward Fault. It was obvious that few if any of the press in attendance had read the opinion, so most of their questions were tentative and basic. 

The fourth person then took over to talk about what was happening in the oak grove—he was surely The Flack, one of the ubiquitous clan of Public Information Officers whose job it is to convince credulous newsies that his client is firmly on the side of truth, beauty and the American way of life. Most of this crowd seemed persuaded. 

Isn't it dangerous to go after the treesitters like that? Someone asked. So far no one's been hurt yet, the Flack answered. Oh, swell. 

One sharp fellow with a hand-held video camera and a five-o'clock shadow, probably from Indymedia or some other outpost of the real world, did ask what precipitated UC's Tuesday push to clear the treesitters out of the grove on the day before the opinion came down. The Flack pretended that he didn't know what "precipitated" meant, and launched into a defensive spiel about how unhappy UC has been with the situation, cleverly avoiding answering the excellent question of what precipitated the latest crackdown.  

He reminded me, as flacks always do, of the fellow in My Fair Lady: "Oozing charm from every pore, he oiled his way across the floor." But then, that's his job description.  

UC's press conference ended with most of the attendees still looking confused. The headline writers today reflected their confusion. Associated Press: Both sides Claim Victory in Calif. Stadium Ruling. New York Times: Judge Gives a Victory to Tree Sitters in Berkeley Oaks.  

Planet reporter J. Douglas Allen-Taylor emailed three more headlines with this message: "Cal Wins! Cal Loses! Cal Ties! I guess this is called splitting the difference."  

Judge rules in UC Berkeley's favor to build sports facility (Oakland Tribune) 

Judge Halts UC Memorial Stadium Gym Project (Berkeley Daily Planet) 

Cal, tree-sitters both happy after judge rules (San Francisco Chronicle) 


The last shoe hasn't dropped yet.  

Tonight the oak grove is ringed with police and the protesters have had their food, water and support lines cut. One was arrested when he came down willingly. 

The University of California at Berkeley, still the home of Bad Professor JohnYoo, continues its downhill slide. 

Brad Delong, one of its few remaining Good Professors, should start a UC Berkeley Death Spiral Watch like the one he's currently conducting for the Washington Post.