How 'no' inspired great US minds

The Gold and the Blue
August 9, 2002

The stage was set in the early 1950s for an important chapter in the history of public higher education in the US. The protagonist was Clark Kerr, a Quaker and a graduate of Swarthmore College. From the former, he inherited tenacity and from the latter, a highly developed sense of public service. In 1952, Kerr was appointed chancellor of the University of California. The university had been founded as a land-grant college in 1868 to serve agricultural and liberal arts needs. By 1951, with six campuses - Berkeley, Davis, Los Angeles, Riverside, San Francisco and Santa Barbara - its original purpose had long been left behind.

The catalysts were the flood of second world war veterans entering college, the astonishing growth of California's economy and population, and the decision by the university regents to cap enrolment at Berkeley and Los Angeles to avoid uncontrolled growth. To guarantee higher education to all who were qualified became the postwar challenge, and California's answer, its Master Plan of 1960, became a widely imitated model in the western world.

Kerr was chancellor until 1958, and president until 1967. By 1962, two-thirds of the Berkeley faculty was new, and the future for at least a generation would depend on the quality of appointments and the willingness to dismiss those who were not performing.

Determination, even-handedness and toughness (the chancellor with the fastest "no" in the west) made it possible to build the most distinguished faculty of any public university in the land, dotted with Nobel prizewinners.

The cap on enrolment at Berkeley meant a need for new campuses: San Diego, which in a few dizzying years would earn international recognition; Irvine, not far behind; and Santa Cruz. Designed to be a cluster of small colleges along the lines of Oxbridge or the Claremont Plan, and to improve the worth of undergraduate teaching, Santa Cruz became one of Kerr's disappointments as it turned into a centre of deconstruction in the midst of what had been and still is a model of construction in all senses of the word.

The Los Angeles campus had long been complaining of playing second fiddle to Berkeley, and Kerr set about trying to balance the needs and aspirations of UCLA while dealing with the desire of all campuses to be "Baby Berkeleys".

Kerr's cheerful, straightforward prose makes it sound easier than it was. Faculty are assiduous guardians of turf and difficult to lead in curriculum matters, although during the unrest of the 1960s, they often proved willing to give in to student demands.

The board of regents, supportive of the loyalty oath that Kerr opposed, looked with suspicion on faculty clubs as hotbeds of subversion, tried to force General Mark Clark on UCLA as its chancellor and refused Kerr's suggestion of Ralph Bunche. Undaunted, Kerr carried on until governor Ronald Reagan fired him in 1967.

Volume two will treat the political context of Kerr's administration. Meanwhile, Kerr is a striking example of the right man at the right time.

Howard Young is professor of Romance languages, Pomona College, Claremont, California, US.

The Gold and the Blue: A Personal Memoir of the University of California, 1949-1967. Volume one, Academic Triumphs

Author - Clark Kerr
ISBN - 0 520 22367 5
Publisher - University of California Press
Price - £24.95
Pages - 540

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