Fifty years after Cold War suspicions spawned a university loyalty oath, UC Berkeley hosts gathering on topic

By Janet Gilmore, Public Affairs

BERKELEY-- Four former University of California presidents and several professors, historians and other experts will gather this week to reflect on a bitter and emotionally-charged time in the university's history.

The year was 1950, the subject was Communism, and all UC employees were required to sign a loyalty oath to the California Constitution or face dismissal.

Memories and analyses of that painful period will be exchanged during an October 7-8 symposium at UC Berkeley called "The University Loyalty Oath: A 50th Anniversary Retrospective." The original loyalty oath documents will be on display at the event.

Imposed by the University of California Board of Regents in 1949, the oath required all UC employees - including tenured faculty - to not only affirm their loyalty to the constitution but to state they were not members of the Communist party and did not support organizations advocating the overthrow of the U.S. government.

The controversy began in 1949 and reached a dramatic climax in 1950 when 31 University of California faculty members and more than 100 other UC employees refused to sign the oath and were fired.

In 1952, the California Supreme Court struck down the loyalty oath and ordered the reinstatement of the fired professors.

Before the court ruling, and for many years later, divisions remained between those who chose to sign the oath and those who did not; between those who backed the UC administration and the majority of the Regents and those who did not.

"The symposium examines a very painful and significant era in American history," said John Douglass, director of the UC History Website Project, which is organizing the event with UC Berkeley's Center for Studies in Higher Education.

"The battle at UC over the loyalty oath was one of the epicenters of the national debate over freedom and national security in the Cold War world," he said. "The repercussions of that debate set the stage for other controversies, including the Free Speech Movement and, now, the status of academic freedom in an era of increased university-business collaborations."

Among the symposium panelists on Thursday will be:

· UC President Emeritus Clark Kerr, a UC Berkeley professor of industrial relations at the time of the oath;

· UC President Emeritus David Saxon, who, as a member of the UCLA physics department, refused to sign the oath and was fired, and;

· UC President Emeritus David Gardner, author of "The California Oath Controversy," which is considered the definitive history book about that period.

On Friday, UC President Emeritus Jack Peltason will speak about politics in higher education. He will be joined by five distinguished faculty panelists - from UC Berkeley, UCLA and the University of Washington - who each resisted the oath.

The university loyalty oath occurred during an era of Senator Joseph McCarthy's House Un-American Activities Committee, controversial spy trials and what some have termed "anti-Communist witch hunts."

At the time, many UC Regents believed the central issue involved university governance and authority, said UC Berkeley historian Carroll Brentano, one of the organizers of the symposium. In addition, she said, some wanted to rid the university of suspected Communist influence.

Others feared the university would lose public support and that public funding would decline if the University of California was not seen as aggressively anti-Communist, said Brentano.

For the faculty who refused to sign, and their allies, the central issues were the rights of tenure, academic freedom and "shared governance" of the university.

This week's symposium primarily will be held in Booth Auditorium in the UC Berkeley School of Law (Boalt Hall).

In the lobby of the Townsend Center for the Humanities in Stephens Hall, the paintings of Margaret Peterson will be displayed through Oct. 20. Peterson, once a member of the UC Berkeley Art Department, refused to sign the oath and left the university.

In the Campanile lobby, visitors can view an oath controversy exhibit including original documents, artifacts and photographs. That exhibit will be on display by Oct. 7.


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