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University Revisits Controversial California Loyalty Oath

By Cathy Cockrell, Public Affairs
Posted October 13, 1999

"We went to oath meetings, and talked oath and thought oath," Berkeley English Professor George Stewart once wrote of the loyalty oath controversy that rocked the University of California in the midst of the Cold War.

Last week, the campus once again "talked oath and thought oath" in a 50th anniversary commemoration of the historic confrontation between employees and regents of the University of California. The centerpiece of the retrospective was a two-day symposium organized by the University History Project and the Center for Studies in Higher Education. The event featured former UC presidents David Gardner, Clark Kerr, Jack Peltason and David Saxon, emeriti "signers" and "non-signers," and visiting and local scholars.

The loyalty oath controversy erupted in 1949, in the era of McCarthyism and anti-communist "spy trials," when the board of regents, at the request of UC President Robert Gordon Sproul, adopted an anti-communist oath for all University of California employees to sign.

Dispute over the oath soon preoccupied the entire university and attracted the concerned attention of scholars throughout the country. Many faculty and staff objected on principle to a political test as a condition of employment, while several regents came to see the resistance as a challenge to their authority. Deep division was created as other regents sided with the faculty against the oath.

Thirty-one faculty who refused to sign lost their jobs, as did scores of UC teaching assistants, student employees and staff. A group of the professors who had been dismissed sued and won in state court, and were eventually reinstated.

The 50th anniversary symposium both reviewed these events in considerable detail and sought to define their meaning and lasting impact.

Gardner, who wrote the most complete history of the oath controversy, called it "one of the most momentous events of American academia." Twenty-three learned societies advised their members to refuse appointments at UC. More than 1,200 scholars from 40 colleges and universities -- among them Albert Einstein, Robert Oppenheimer and C. Wright Mills -- condemned the regents' action.

In the light of such fallout, Gardner characterized the oath controversy an "extraordinary study in futility" in which "everyone lost and no one won." He noted, however, that studying the oath controversy taught him lessons about university governance that he later applied as UC president.

Other symposium participants sought a redeeming meaning to the conflict. Historian Gordon Griffiths, who refused to sign the oath at Berkeley and later resisted a similar one at the University of Washington, called dissension over the California oath "imminently worthwhile as education ... to the academic community throughout the country." It encouraged others, he said, "to think that to fight against tyranny was not hopeless."

Having witnessed the eventual vindication of UC faculty non-signers by the Court of Appeals, Griffiths later joined a constitutional challenge of Washington state's oath. In 1963, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously declared that oath unconstitutional.

Professor Emeritus Charles Muscatine praised the "tolerance, skepticism and lack of dogmatism" display by UC faculty on both sides of the issue. Fired in 1950 for refusing to sign, he took a position at Wesleyan University, but decided to return to Berkeley when fired faculty were re-instated.

Why come back "into the ruins of the fire?" Muscatine asked. "Because the controversy was possible. This was the place where the violation of the gown was resisted."

Junior faculty were particularly vulnerable to the sign-or-leave ultimatum that the oath represented. Howard Bern, an instructor of zoology at the time of the controversy, opposed the oath but ultimately signed.

"I deplored the oath on civil libertarian grounds," Bern recalled, and felt embittered "that so soon after serving four years in World War II, my loyalty was being questioned."

Bern noted that although the faculty, at mid-century, was almost exclusively male, an "impressive proportion of women faculty opposed the exclusionary oath."

Like Bern, panelist Clark Kerr, a junior faculty member at the time of the events, opposed the oath but did sign. Kerr later became chancellor of Berkeley and then president of UC, and in those roles witnessed personal animosities and regional antagonisms among the regents that he felt were played out during the oath controversy, he said.

Kerr called it a great irony that in firing faculty who refused to cooperate with the oath, the board of regents was "eliminating the most independent spirits, when it claimed to be eliminating communists."

In response to the historical details recollected at the symposium, one former faculty member emotionally urged those present "not to elevate the details of what happened at UC" over the effects of McCarthyism, generally, throughout the country. Symposium participants also questioned whether the polygraph test being considered as a condition of employment at the UC-operated national labs is a current-day stepchild of the Cold War era oath.

An exhibit on the oath controversy is on display in Sather Tower lobby through the end of Fall semester.


October 13 - 19, 1999 (Volume 28, Number 10)
Copyright 1999, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
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