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Tom Bates and the Secret Government of Berkeley: Excerpt 3

By John Curl
Friday June 29, 2012 - 01:10:00 PM

Copyright © 2012 by John Curl. All rights reserved.

This is the third in a series of excerpts from John Curl’s long article about Mayor Bates and his effects on the city. The article follows Bates and the progressive movement in city government from its beginnings to today, based on extensive quotes from Bates’ own oral history and interviews with other players in the political events. This excerpt accounts Bates’ relationship with the University of California. You can also download a Full PDF. of the entire article.


Bates as an under graduate joined two secret fellowship organizations at UC, Skull and Keys, and Order of the Golden Bear. Skull and Keys is an honor society primarily of undergraduates involved with friendship and partying. The Order of the Golden Bear is a secret society dedicated to serving the University of California and continuing its traditions. The Order’s membership, kept in strict confidence, is comprised of students, faculty, administrators, and alumni, including members of the California Board of Regents and elected officials in local and state government. All members have the duty to serve the University in whatever way they can. The opinions expressed and remarks made at Order forums are never to be revealed outside that room. They meet every other week during the academic year and discuss pertinent topics, including university-community issues. The latter were of particular interest to Bates. While he was an undergraduate, the UC chancellor—the highest office in the school—would attend and participate. It was here that Bates got his first tastes of an inner circle of power, and was taken into it, a position he would cling to and that would serve as a key axis of his mode of operation. His connection to the university would remain a central part of his career. Undoubtedly he remains a member of the Order of the Golden Bear to this day. 

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One can surmise with near certainty that Bates maintained his alumni membership in the secret Order of the Golden Bear, dedicated to serving the University of California. 

“[UC Chancellor Michael Heyman] and I would meet and have breakfast every month, just the two of us, and his two assistants would come, sometimes Dion [Aroner] would come... [We] worked really very closely, and we had a very common set of goals and objectives we wanted to see happen.” He explained, “The reason that I think they paid attention to me, particularly at the Berkeley campus, was because of my connections with the city government and the local politics. So they saw me as somebody who could… help them navigate…” 

UC set up “a university-sponsored public policy [institute] that would work closely with the legislature around various issues that legislators were interested in.” They would have weekend retreats, paid by Cal: “This would be a weekend, actually, would be set aside where legislators would come from Sacramento to Berkeley, and would be put up at a local hotel, the Durant Hotel. Then they would have a series of seminars that they would organize around specific issues… like, What can we do to stimulate the high-tech industry in California…? But in addition to that, one of the highlights was that they always went to really elegant places for dinner in San Francisco or in the East Bay, and the chancellor would have them over to his house on the campus, where they would also have a chance to talk to him informally. So there was a lot of lobbying and a lot of good will that was built up for the university… So it almost became like a boondoggle… [State Senator] Petris always attended… he would take a very strong pro-university position and, quite frankly, he had much more power than I had because he sat right there on their Budget Committee. So when he did something, wanted something, they did it… immediately, or whatever, as quick as possible… everyone was bending over backwards to do whatever they could for their little demigods, you know, little fiefs running around. Fief is not the right word.” 

“At the Berkeley campus… research money that has come from the federal government has by and large been reduced,… basic research has been reduced. As a consequence, they’ve had to look for a lot of corporate support,… various businesses have come in and made contributions to the university. But then the question was, the research that they were doing, there were a lot of concerns that it would be directed toward things that [the corporation] was interested in. And then questions of patents. Who owns the patent? So there is a lot of sticky stuff that’s come up around corporate coming in and basically giving money, and having strings attached to that money. I mean, it’s just naturally the case… People get concerned that the research won’t be basic applied research, it won’t be allowed to be freely shared with other individuals and other researchers, but it becomes more proprietary and more patented, and so it becomes less in the public interest and more in the private interest and more in the university interest.” 

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On the down side of Mayor Loni Hancock’s administration, a disturbing incident took place, in which Bates apparently played a role, related to UC’s 1990 Campus Plan. I don’t really know the whole story, but here are some fragments. 

The UC system has a unique status as a public trust under California’s Constitution. At the time of its founding, the college in Berkeley had less than 2,000 students. Today the 10-campus system includes more than 220,000 students and over 170,000 faculty and staff. The University of California is somewhat a country unto itself, not subject to state laws or municipal ordinances, such as local building and zoning regulations. UC executives function with little public accountability. Its governing Board of Regents is comprised mostly of wealthy businessmen and lawyers, most of them large donors to governors’ election coffers, chosen more for their political connections than for their expertise in higher education. California provides millions of dollars in funding each year in a lump sum payment, and the Regents and the President distribute this money with few restrictions. 

The UC master plan of 1990 proposed a great expansion of the university into the community, over which the city would have no control. Eleven neighborhood groups mobilized, and challenged UC with a lawsuit for greater input on growth and to arrange for fair cost sharing for services. Local residents were infuriated by UC’s refusal to take seriously their concerns about tall buildings, traffic, and uncontrolled growth. They asked the city to participate in the suit, and Mayor Hancock worked closely with the groups. The Council was scheduled to vote on the city joining the suit. Then suddenly, on the night of the vote, Hancock announced that the city and UC had come to an agreement to settle their differences. The public never even knew that negotiations were going on. 

The word leaked out that Bates and UC Chancellor Heyman had gotten Hancock to go with them on a secret boat trip, where they convinced her to go along with the agenda. Surely Bates’ membership in the secret Order of the Golden Bear played a role. 

The neighborhood groups vowed to continue on with the lawsuit, but without the city it fell apart. 

* * * 


In 2005 Bates staged a rerun of Loni’s 1990 secret negotiated deal with the University. Once again, his membership in the Order of the Golden Bear, the secret organization sworn to serve the University’s interests, must have played a role. 

When he was running for mayor in 2002, Bates spoke of his concern about the impact of UC expansion on the city. With his Sacramento connections, he could bring pressure on UC and create a relationship in which the city’s concerns would be addressed. Then when UC put forth their Long-Range Development Plan in 2004 he publicly stood up to them and demanded that they deal fairly with the city. UC was planning to build up to 2.2 million square feet of new administrative and academic space, mostly in the downtown, requiring over 2,000 new parking spaces, with no city input. Bates talked tough at first, in a newspaper article quoted as vowing to “fight tooth and nail.” The city filed a lawsuit against UC, and Bates announced, “The university asked us to sign the equivalent of a blank check that would allow it to build wherever, whenever, and however it would like. The lawsuit firmly states that we are not signing anything until we know what we are buying.” 

UC has a huge negative fiscal impact on the city. A 2004 independent fiscal analysis estimated the annual fiscal impact on the city for providing services to UC was then $10.9 million a year, and the projected expansion would drive it up to $13.5 million. 

The lawsuit was moving ahead in 2005 when suddenly Bates announced that he had negotiated with them in secret and they came to an agreement to settle. The deal was quickly rammed through the City Council behind closed doors, with no public review or input. “This is a deal that will live in infamy,” said Councilmember Dona Spring, who represented the downtown area. “The city gave up everything and the university gave up nothing... [The plan] is a violation of public trust… We’ve ceded sovereignty to the university and given up our ability to set our own zoning code.” 

The city made almost all the concessions. Under the agreement, UC would increase their payments for police, fire and sewer services, but nowhere nearly enough to cover their impacts. Before the city filed the lawsuit, the university had offered $1.1 million; the lawsuit sought $4.1 million; and the settlement was for $1.2 million. The shortfall would continue to be paid by the city. The agreement made no mention of lessening the impacts of campus growth on surrounding neighborhoods, and also ignored traffic, the single biggest impact of the university on the city. Worst, it surrendered to UC veto power over planning for the future of the city’s downtown. The agreement did not commit UC to even following the plan, so they could continue to buy downtown land and build whatever they choose. The Council explicitly signed away any rights the city might have in the future to demand increased payments. 

However, Bates spun the deal as a victory for the city. 

* * * 

Some say that Berkeley is a company town, and UC is the company. UC leans on its financial support from the city of free land and services, and obtains perks for private business under its umbrella, because it’s tax exempt. The university’s influence over the city has accelerated under Bates. At the same time, UC’s mission has changed. Education and basic research are no longer its primary goals. A determination was made that the only way to keep the University alive is by pandering to corporations. Now the federal government, through the Department of Energy and big corporate funders, have given it the mission of developing new bio-fuel, bio-tech, and green-tech industries. The contract between UC and BP (British Petroleum) is part of that. The East Bay may become the center of the future’s synthetic biology breakthroughs, but many people think that in the process it’s raping the town financially and environmentally. Is it really green? Is it really worth it? 


John Curl is the author of For All The People: Uncovering the Hidden History of Cooperation, Cooperative Movements, and Communalism in America, with a foreword by Ishmael Reed.