History of UC Berkeley

Activism: A tradition of engagement

Long before the renowned Free Speech Movement, the UC campus at Berkeley attracted a number of iconoclasts and free-thinkers who challenged conventional assumptions about science, society, culture, and politics. "Muckraking" journalist Lincoln Steffens studied at Berkeley, as did Progressive-era novelist Frank Norris and Robert Merriman, a commander of Abraham Lincoln Brigade volunteers in the Spanish Civil War (on whom Ernest Hemingway modeled a character in For Whom the Bell Tolls).

The 'faculty revolt' at Berkeley in the early 1920s secured for the Academic Senate an unprecedented role in 'shared governance' of university affairs — one that persists to this day.

In the early 20th century, independent-minded faculty included Alfred Kroeber — who thoughtfully researched indigenous cultures at a time when American Indians were widely considered "primitive" — and economist Paul Taylor, who advocated for the rights of migrant workers during the Great Depression.

Collectively, Berkeley professors came together in the early 1920s to instigate a "faculty revolt," which ultimately secured for the Academic Senate an unprecedented role in "shared governance" of the Berkeley campus. That tradition has kept the Berkeley faculty independent, outspoken, and powerful in the formation of academic policy for nearly a century.

1930s through '50s: from peace strikes to the loyalty-oath controversy

By the 1930s, small student organizations at Berkeley protested totalitarianism and fascism and organized annual "peace strikes." Campus-associated institutions, such as Stiles Hall (the University YMCA) and International House, meanwhile worked to promote interracial and intercultural understanding in what was then a largely Caucasian and American-born university and community.

Student anti-conscription rally, 1940
Student anti-conscription rally, 1940

The Cold War era of the 1950s, despite its reputation as a quiet decade, saw several waves of organizing at Berkeley — targeting, respectively, a campus administrative ban on socialist or communist speakers, the use of capital punishment by the state, and a loyalty oath for UC employees statewide. The oath, approved by the regents in 1949, required each faculty, staff, and student employee to declare in writing that he or she was not a member of the Communist Party.

A number of faculty, rejecting the use of coercive oaths in a democracy, organized to resist. Ultimately, the regents rescinded the oath and the State Supreme Court, in 1952, sided with those employees across the state who had lost their jobs for refusing to sign.

The Free Speech Movement

Free Speech Movement activists, 1964
Free Speech Movement activists, 1964

These events were precursors to the Free Speech Movement of 1964, in which students at Berkeley protested limitations on their political activities on campus. Inspired by the Civil Rights movement, students asserted, as part of their Constitutional right to free speech, that they should be able to use Sproul Plaza and other campus facilities for political discussion and the dissemination of political literature.

Their protest gathered force throughout the fall of 1964 and climaxed with a December sit-in in Sproul Hall; more than 800 students were arrested. In the days following, Berkeley faculty voted to drop campus restrictions on students' political activities. (Most other U.S. campuses followed suit.)

Fresh from their FSM successes, students lost no time in exercising their free-speech rights. In May 1965, they organized a major campus anti-war teach-in, featuring Dr. Spock, Dick Gregory, and other prominent critics of the War in Vietnam. Campus students also held anti-war and anti-draft protests in the community beyond campus.

Together these well-publicized student protests played a key role in Ronald Reagan's 1966 election as California governor, on a campaign promise to "clean up" the student unrest at UC Berkeley. As governor, he moved to make good on his promise during the spring 1969 "People's Park" controversy — sending in National Guard troops to quell the confrontation between law enforcement and "flower children" over the fate of a 3-acre lot near campus owned by UC.

Disability rights, Ethnic Studies, South-African divestment

Ed Roberts, founder of the Physically Disabled Students Program
Ed Roberts, founder of the Physically Disabled Students Program

While the FSM and anti-war protest took the lion's share of the headlines, Berkeley students were at the forefront of other social movements in the '60s, as well. Early in the decade, a group of students with disabilities began organizing to gain recognition and full access to community life, on campus and in the broader community.

In 1970 they founded the Physically Disabled Students Program, offering comprehensive services designed and provided by people with disabilities themselves. Two years later, some went on to found, in the city of Berkeley, the Center for Independent Living  — a first-of-its-kind self-help organization, modeled on the principles of the campus program — and to play a key role in efforts to enshrine their civil rights in federal legislation, such as the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act.

A nine-week strike by campus students in fall 1969 led to the creation of an ethnic-studies department. Student organizer Jean Quan, who in 2011 became mayor of Oakland, taught the first class on Asian women. Related calls for curriculum reform, dating to this period, eventually led to the establishment, in the early 1990s, of the American Cultures breadth requirement, unique in the nation at the time (under which every undergraduate must complete at least one course comparing different ethnic groups' experiences in and contributions to U.S. culture).

Students at Berkeley were also key players in a nationwide student movement to end apartheid; in 1986 they scored a victory when the UC Board of Regents voted to divest UC holdings from South Africa.

Breaking down gender barriers

Barbara Christian
Barbara Christian, pioneering scholar of African American literary feminism, the first black woman to be granted tenure at Berkeley (1978) and the first in the UC system to be promoted to full professor (1986)
(Jane Scherr photo)

In the 1970s, campus feminists of the "second wave" of the women's movement sought childcare for student and faculty parents. In response to these demands, the ASUC student association began providing student parents with space for an embryonic daycare facility; the University later institutionalized that service with childcare programs for student parents, faculty, and staff.

Student organizing at Berkeley by 'second wave' feminists led to the creation of a campus women's center and, in 1976, of a women's studies program.

Feminist organizing led to the 1972 launch of a campus women's center and, in 1976, of the UC Berkeley Women's Studies Program (now the Department of Gender and Women's Studies). Legislation prohibiting sex discrimination in federally assisted education programs, passed in 1972 and known as Title IX, meanwhile paved the way nationally for increased participation of women in college athletics. At Berkeley, the women's intercollegiate athletics department was launched in 1976 and the campus's first women's athletic scholarships were awarded the following year.

The 1970s were also the era when all-male campus institutions such as the California Marching Band and the Faculty Club began to admit women, and when stirrings of the gay and lesbian rights movement were felt at Berkeley.

In response to student interest, an innovative program of student-initiated courses — today known as the Program for Democratic Education at Cal (DeCal) — was launched at the end of '60s. Students also won an expanded role in university governance; today they participate regularly in certain Academic Senate committees and have a seat, albeit non-voting, on the UC Board of Regents.

Volunteerism and community service

Cal students volunteering in Tijuana during spring break
Cal students volunteering in Tijuana during spring break

If political activism has a long tradition at Berkeley, volunteer service has been a parallel avenue — increasingly popular in recent decades — by which campus students have sought to engage with the larger world. Shortly after the founding of the U.S. Peace Corps, President John F. Kennedy spoke to a crowd of 80,000 at UC Berkeley's California Memorial Stadium, in 1962, urging young people to join the Corps. That appeal to service abroad has been enthusiastically received: since the organization's inception, nearly 3,300 Berkeley graduates have enlisted in the Peace Corps — more than from any other college or university in the nation.

Volunteer work and formally recognized service-learning, while studying at Berkeley, are also popular. In a 2007 survey of Berkeley undergraduates administered by the campus, nearly half said they participate in some form of community service or volunteer activity — mostly in tutoring, mentoring, or outreach.


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