One man's pursuit of paradise

April 27, 2001

In his forthcoming memoirs, Clark Kerr recalls the years he spent in California trying to create the perfect campus. Sadly, as Sheldon Rothblatt discovers, social unrest and Ronald Reagan were to conspire against him.

If any American academic leader adheres to Thomas Arnold's stricture that no one ought to criticise universities who does not love them well, it is Clark Kerr, president emeritus of the nine-campus University of California. And he has loved them longer than most and under unique circumstances.

Some 34 years have elapsed since a new governor of the state of California, Ronald Reagan, cynically engineered Kerr's dismissal by the regents of the university, blaming him for the student disturbances of the 1960s. Kerr turns 90 in May and will be honoured at Berkeley by a two-day symposium. Not once, not even in the darkest days of his removal from office, has either his integrity or his reputation suffered.

Kerr has thought long and hard about the role of university presidents, especially those who head "multiversities", a neologism he made popular. He concluded that the age of the "heroic" campus leader was over. Past institutional builders might deserve the accolade. But the massive intrusion of public money into universities from the 1940s onwards permanently altered the conditions of leadership. Presidents and trustees no longer shaped institutions at will. Huge service obligations, manifold constituencies, mass access and large bureaucracies meant that universities really could not be led, only managed.

These sentiments were first expressed in the famous Godkin lectures delivered by Kerr at Harvard in 1963 on the eve of the "expressive student politics" of the civil rights and Vietnam war periods. The president was a persuader seeking consensus, a mediator among rival interests. It was natural that Kerr would search for a new and modest role description. His self-effacing manner derived from liberal or Hicksite Quaker beliefs and from a plain, careful upbringing on a Pennsylvania farm. By academic training he was a student of industrial relations and already, well before he assumed office, the leading West Coast arbitrator in labour disputes. He remains unhappy with the role definition provided in the Godkin lectures, now in their fifth print edition. This is typical of a man who remains glued to the cycles of academic fortune and who knows universities and their past too well to be content with words of so little emotive strength.

Yet, however university leaders are described, it is certain that Kerr belongs to the category that he once consigned to the dustbins of history. He is the last American university president of the heroic age of university building. This will be apparent to all readers of the first volume of his memoirs, scheduled for publication by the University of California Press in early summer.

The memoirs are an autobiography, written with the assistance of two associates - Marian Gade and Maureen Kawaoka - but only in the sense that J. S. Mill's anatomy of his education is autobiography. They are more an account of ideas, policies and personalities, a portrait of an age rather than an introspective recounting of the personal details of a significant life.

The first volume is called Academic Triumphs ; the second Political Turmoil . The titles introduce the memoirs' central paradox. Given California's notoriously contentious and unstable social and political environments, how could a university system of global reputation arise and flourish? The paradox continues to baffle today.

Central triumphs of US higher education in the postwar period are detailed, and all intimately involve Kerr. The building of a multicampus public-research university system, unique in not having an official flagship campus, is one of them. The fascinating development of that system, the politics of it, and regional and personal conflicts are quietly explained with all the lumps left in.

The triumphs certainly include the greatest of all US educational policy documents, the California Master Plan for Higher Education of 1960. Kerr brought his skills as negotiator and arbitrator to a potentially explosive situation. The plan, an astonishingly brief document, called a "treaty" by Kerr, can also be termed a constitution governing the missions and articulation of three diverse public systems of higher education. It has long had hostile critics, especially those jealous of the privileges of the University of California, and is under legislative review. Kerr is disappointed that several of the plan's key provisions have faltered. But no one as yet has shown the slightest imagination that could replace a brilliantly successful policy framework with something theoretically more appropriate to the 21st century.

Despite many remarkable achievements, Kerr feels his life's work is not complete. As a graduate of one of the premier American liberal arts colleges, Quaker Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, he idealised those historic places as sources of the finest kinds of undergraduate instruction. Could the University of California, eminent in virtually every area of graduate research and professional education, provide a similar experience at public expense? After all, the University of California more or less began as a private liberal arts college in 1855, the work of Yale graduates, before becoming the land-grant university of 1868. Many US research universities retain an "old-time college" at their core. The tensions between two conceptions of higher education are part and parcel of America's plural legacies, and they continue to absorb Kerr. They are captured in the general title of the memoirs, The Gold and the Blue , a reference to the colours of the university: the golden hills of California and the gold coin of the technological and agricultural realms that the university serves; the blue of Yale and the ideals of yesteryear.

During the 1950s and 1960s, Kerr vastly improved undergraduate housing, strengthened campus cultural facilities, enhanced libraries, expanded student services and, in a controversial act, banished cars from beneath the campus oaks and eucalyptus that he loves. He fought for freedom of speech in the bitter days of the loyalty oaths, and he set in motion the planning process that led to the creation of the San Diego and Santa Cruz campuses. Each was designed to have some of the qualities of the English collegiate university model or, closer to home, of the grouping of private colleges in the Claremont region of Southern California.

His hopes particularly centred on Santa Cruz - "Swarthmore in the Redwoods" he called it - sited stunningly in a forest overlooking the Pacific Ocean. But history intervened. Lotus-eating and the counterculture were more important to many students than anything resembling the discipline of a neoclassical college. The professors were mixed in their commitments, or unorthodox to say the least. Kerr's labours were rewarded with insults and accusations by activists and malcontents at many campuses. Eventually the Santa Cruz campus adopted the mainline research and professional emphasis of the system as a whole, inevitable given the prevailing reward structure.

Kerr still believes that the development of the multiversity with all its singular virtues and departures from historical models meant simultaneously the decline of a commitment to the perpetual dream of an intense undergraduate teaching ethos. In the Godkin lectures, he cautioned that serious consequences would flow from the neglect of students in the multiversity. He continues to argue that the student disturbances of the 1960s were in part attributable to the decline of institutional loyalty by professors and the seductions of outside career pressures. He now realises that, generally, the US public system cannot compete for undergraduates of the highest quality as measured by the controversial standardised tests. Yet, he notes with some surprise that, within the University of California system, the most able undergraduates gravitate to the most famous research campuses.

While Kerr has remained steadfastly optimistic, doubts often break in. Is he perhaps too trusting of human nature, too inclined to believe in happy outcomes? Once, as chancellor, he thought of resigning in a dispute with the reigning president. Yet his mind moves quickly to problem-solving and planning. His unassuming prose and speaking style, his direct intelligence, grasp of policy and special capacity to weigh options are all signs of an exceptional practical intellect.

Undoubtedly, realism is essential for a leader and assuredly one of the ingredients of a heroic presidency. Some wider intellectual understanding of human affairs is also required, and Kerr fits the role of intellectual, an uncommon description of university leaders. As chancellor of Berkeley and then president of the entire university, and afterwards as director of the important Carnegie commissions that produced a library of policy studies, he gathered around him scholars of distinction. Together they established many of the leading ideas of higher education policy analysis. Seymour Martin Lipset, Martin Trow, Burton Clark, Frederick Balderston, Henry Rosovsky, Earl F. Cheit and Neil Smelser - who contributes a preface to the memoirs - were at one time or another part of Kerr's unofficial cabinet. A good listener, he is nevertheless steady in his convictions and has the strong dislike of sycophancy and self-interest that derives from Quaker belief.

Despite his reticence, Kerr remains part of an older tradition of dreamers and idealists whose lasting strength lies precisely in a solid set of principles drawn from political and ethical philosophy. These Kerr first described in an essay of 1992, republished in 1994. In retrospect, what is astonishing about his career is that despite the crushing loss of office at the height of his achievements, he continued, with unflagging devotion to the democratic idea of a university, to achieve a moral authority absolutely rare in the annals of recorded academic life.

Sheldon Rothblatt is professor of history at the University of California, Berkeley. The Gold and the Blue: Academic Triumphs is published in the United States by the University of California Press.

Next week, Neil Rudenstine talks to Auriol Stevens about his years at Harvard University.


A life in education

Born May 17 1911
Stony Creek, Pennsylvania

BA, Swarthmore College, Pennsylvania

MA in economics, Stanford University

PhD in economics from UC Berkeley

Instructor, Antioch College, Yellow Springs, Ohio

Wage stabilisation director, tenth regional labour board, San Francisco, California. Labour arbitrator until 1984

Appointed associate professor of economics and industrial relations, UC Berkeley

Founding director of the Institute of Industrial Relations, UC Berkeley

Chancellor of UC Berkeley

President of the multicampus University of California

The California Master Plan for Higher Education

Delivered Godkin lectures: "The Uses of the University", Harvard

Delivered the Marshall lectures: "Marshall, Marx and Modern Times", Cambridge, England

Chairman and executive director of the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education

Delivered Ghandi Memorial lectures: "Education and National Development", Nairobi

Chairman and staff director, Carnegie Council on Policy Studies in Higher Education

Establishment of the Clark Kerr Campus at UC Berkeley

Received the Harold W. McGraw Jr Prize in Education

Recipient of the University of California Presidential Medal

First volume of the Kerr memoirs published

Recipient of 38 honorary degrees

Extracts from Clark Kerr's The Gold and the Blue:


"Has paradise already been lost or is it in the process of being lost? Paradise for these purposes is defined as the 1960 Master Plan for Higher Education. The master plan contained a vision for the entire state - to spread opportunity to all its young citizens. And it involved raising the skill level of human resources - the greatest renewable resource in the state. It was forward-looking. It was uplifting. It was for everybody. If paradise is really lost, will it ever be regained? The University of California played a major role in establishing the vision of 1960. It may still be able to play a role in renewing this vision as higher education becomes ever more central to the economy and society of the state. Or will we have lost a one-time chance to guide history? I take comfort, however, in Plato's observation: 'When the wheel [of education] has once been set in motion, the speed is always increasing'."


"The 'Santa Cruz dream' was a wonderful dream: that it should be possible to combine in the same public institution the best research and graduate training and the best circumstances for the intellectual and personal development of undergraduates, as at Oxford and Cambridge in the early 20th century or at the Chicago of Hutchins or at the Harvard of Buck and Rosovsky, or at the Claremont Colleges. For the first few years at Santa Cruz, the original highly talented and motivated faculty realised this dream. But then it faded. The time was not congenial: an age of Dionysius and of Che Guevara, and of millions of federal research dollars. The place was not sufficiently compatible with the dream."

Please login or register to read this article

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments