At Berkeley, directed by Frederick Wiseman

Insight into life in an iconic institution in flux makes Martin McQuillan fear for the future of public universities in the US

September 11, 2014

At Berkeley
Directed by Frederick Wiseman
On limited release in the UK from 12 September 2014

The bathos of compliance with cuts to state funding is a far cry from the tragic drama of the People’s Park riot at Berkeley in 1969

Frederick Wiseman is known for his languid, observational documentaries about institutions and the human interactions that define them. In At Berkeley, his 42nd feature, he deploys his well-honed technique (he directs, produces and edits both sound and visuals) on America’s leading public university. The challenge is always for him to find a human drama amid hours of deep anthropological footage, whether he is embedded within a dance company, a department store or a zoo.

The results are often wordy, even deliberately “uncinematic”, social documents in which all opinions are given a full airing by a patient but unblinking camera. Weighing in at four hours and four minutes, At Berkeley is not the longest film Wiseman has made, although as a cinematic experience it may be enough to try the patience of even the most ardent higher-education anorak.

Wiseman is interested less in contemporary higher education policy than in what the story of Berkeley tells us about the state of wider American society today. The guiding thread that leads us through the film is the senior administrative team meeting chaired by the now retired chancellor, Robert J. Birgeneau. There are no talking heads or narrators in Wiseman’s documentaries; rather, a camera is positioned discreetly to capture the team’s discussions as they struggle to come to terms with a $75 million (£46 million) budget cut.

The film moves between the management group’s deliberations and extended exposition of the rich diversity on offer at Berkeley. We see a millennial development seminar; training for graduate student instructors; blue-sky medical robotics research; a recruitment fair for civil engineering; a lecture on the philosophy of time; a glee club review; a seminar on Thoreau’s Walden; a briefing to deans on tenure applications; a cell biology lecture; a string quartet; a class led by Robert Reich, the former US Secretary of Labor; a poetry reading; undergraduates dissecting a chicken; a meeting of the Cal Veterans Club; a lecture on John Donne; and a presentation on inter-planetary travel, to name but a few instances. These episodes are intercut with long shots of the manicured north California campus and scenes of construction for a new building. At one point we spend a good minute literally watching tar dry.

Devotees of Wiseman’s style will be captivated by this visual sedimentation. They might suggest that it is well suited to the topic of the university, which works on a different timescale from mainstream media, taking four years to graduate a student and many more to produce advanced knowledge and research. On the other hand, those to whom the wonders of publicly funded teaching and research might be news are unlikely to sit through a four-hour art-house documentary about university administrators. Here it forms a striking contrast to Andrew Rossi’s magnificent documentary film Ivory Tower (2014), which follows human stories of first-years’ aspiration and graduates’ crippling debt while providing a rigorous, accessible critique of the tuition fee bubble in US higher education, all in a digestible 90 minutes.

The drama kicks in for Wiseman watchers around the three-hour mark with a once-a-semester student walkout to protest against the funding cuts. The administration is in dialogue with the City of Berkeley police about how to manage the anticipated protest. The student demonstrators occupy a library and demand a response from the chancellor, who is wisely nowhere to be seen. His press office prepares a statement supporting the students’ “attempt to raise your voices to inform the Californian public of the need to invest in public education”. The occupation dissolves amid the inchoate demands of the protesters and the library closes as normal at 9pm. The film returns to lectures on Renaissance poetry and administrators discussing international recruitment.

University of California, Berkeley students sitting in campus corridor

The bathos of compliance with cuts to state funding is a far cry from the tragic drama of the People’s Park riot at Berkeley in 1969, when governor Ronald Reagan declared a state of emergency, flooding the streets with more than 2,700 National Guard troops after an attempt to clear a protest camp got out of hand. This resulted in live ammunition being fired, killing one student and sending hundreds to hospital. One police officer was stabbed in the chest. Reagan, who ran for election on the promise “to clean up the mess at Berkeley”, is reported to have said of this “Bloody Thursday” incident: “If it takes a bloodbath, let’s get it over with. No more appeasement.” This history goes a long way to define the role that Berkeley plays in the American cultural imagination, and it sits like an unavowed, subterranean beat beneath Wiseman’s film. It also marks the beginning of a journey in Western higher education policy that leads to Wiseman’s present object of study.

The University of California is the poster child for the disinvestment of the state in public higher education. Once, the visionary Master Plan of founder Clark Kerr promised free higher learning for all Californians qualified to benefit from it; but now, as the film tells us, state funding accounts for only 16 per cent of Berkeley’s total budget, with tuition fees comparable to many private universities. The University of California has stopped growing to serve the needs of the Californian population and economy. Instead, almost all of the expansion in higher education provision in California in the past two decades has come from for-profit, private providers underwritten by access to the federal loan book. Higher education spending in California has fallen from 7 per cent of the state budget in 1960 to just 3 per cent, with the funding gap filled by increased tuition fees, staff furloughs, efficiency savings and out-of-state students who are charged nearly double in tuition.

The regents of the University of California have become players on the bond market, selling an investment in the university’s debt potential on the promise of the guaranteed income projection of tuition fees. The rise in tuition fees is directly related to the university’s defence of its position in the international bond market. On 23 February 2013, the University of California Board of Regents issued $1.7 billion worth of bonds rated AA+ by Fitch. In contrast, the state of California is rated only A by the same agency, one of the lowest credit ratings it attributes to a state of the union (only Illinois has a lower rating). This bond sale is effectively a remortgage that has allowed some breathing space from relentless cuts, while University of California president Janet Napolitano (previously US Secretary for Homeland Security) works out what to do next.

All this is absent from Wiseman’s account of the meaning of Berkeley. The chancellor presents as a generally sympathetic technocrat caught on the horns of an impossible dilemma. He states that “the US has many great private universities such as Harvard, Yale and Stanford; what it needs is great public universities”. His team are committed to retaining the public identity of the university in the face of political intransigence and dysfunction in the state capital, Sacramento. We are reminded that a two-thirds majority in the state senate is required to pass legislation or a budget, with a minority Republican Party making a solemn pledge not to raise taxes under any circumstances, while all states are required by federal law to pass a balanced budget. One hopes that Birgeneau and what the film repeatedly refers to as “the Berkeley community” are up to the challenge of simply surviving as a public university.

As an on-screen protagonist, the likeable Birgeneau contrasts with Jamshed Bharucha, president of the Cooper Union in New York, who introduced tuition fees for the first time after the appalling mismanagement of a $175 million loan by his predecessors. In Ivory Tower, we see him in his office surrounded by occupying students. When faced with the eloquence of a final-year student speaking on the historic significance of the decision on fees, he sinks down into his chair, speechless, without a response and we see a $750,000 a year manager, as Angus says of Macbeth, “feel his title/Hang loose about him, like a giant’s robe/Upon a dwarfish thief”. In the US, they speak of institutions such as Spelman College in Atlanta as HBCs – historically black colleges; the risk for Berkeley is that Wiseman’s film might soon become a document of an HPC – a historically public college.

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Reader's comments (1)

Prescient. The reviewer is himself presents as a generally sympathetic technocrat caught on the horns of an impossible dilemma.

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