What’s Going On ‘At Berkeley’?

Thumbnail image for BERK.jpg“What is it about Berkeley that stands out?” asks a woman who appears to be a professor at the beginning of Frederick Wiseman’s new four-hour documentary At Berkeley. She talks about making quality education available to all and transforming the future of both California and the country’s “diverse population.” But she is not identified. At Berkeley does not provide the names of the people it depicts, nor does it use a narrator or a timeline for events it portrays.

To Wiseman, the university’s complex ecosystem is more important than the individuals in it. He is successful on this front, making At Berkeley truly an immersive experience. At one moment, you’re sitting in on a seminar where a professor and his students are discussing Thoreau and Emerson; at another, you’re watching a performance of Sherwood Anderson’s “Our Town”; at yet another, you’re observing biology students dissect and stuff birds. But more than that: you also sit in administrative sessions, seminars on undergraduate instruction, and faculty committee meetings. To that end, At Berkeley provides some insight into how American higher education actually works today–and the ways in which it doesn’t.

Can Administrators Act Responsibly?

Regular readers of this site know that the modern American university is characterized by the growth of administrative services: as Benjamin Ginsburg has noted, colleges are now spending much more on administrators while reducing spending on instruction. Though the film offers many one-shot glimpses of campus personages, Wiseman constantly returns to the administrators.

These administrators recognize some of the Berkeley’s misguided spending priorities. In an early scene, then-Chancellor Robert Birgeneau laments the State of California’s recent “disinvestment” in higher education during the Great Recession. He notes that state funding for “education” deceased 16% in the previous year, while funding for research programs has grown significantly. In another scene, what appears to be another administrator delivers a lecture to his peers about the need to “streamline” administrative spending. He shows charts and figures that demonstrate that a small reduction in administrative spending would allow the University to shore up its endowment, contribute greater resources to student aid, and avert increases in student fees.

This isn’t just talk. According to Inside Higher Ed, during the time period depicted in the film Berkeley cut some 300 administrative positions, leading to yearly savings of $20 million. The cuts were judicious, too: the Wall Street Journal noted that Berkeley fired 125 “middle managers,” a large number of whom oversaw only one or two staff members.

These efforts are certainly consistent with Birgeneau’s wish for Berkeley to be a “model for operations” in research–so why not in administration as well? It’s reassuring to know that at least one prominent school isn’t deaf to the advocates for higher-ed reform. It’s a shame, though, the only a severe financial crisis could spur Berkeley to eliminate waste. One imagines that the bloated status quo will return once the economy recovers.

Not Your Daddy’s Protest

At Berkeley also devotes considerable attention to the student body, particularly to student activism. One of the film’s longest sequences follows the October 2010 student protest against state cuts in spending on higher-education and the rise in costs to students. Today’s activists greatly differ from their predecessors who took to the quads in the 1960s and 1970s.

The protesters–who number in the low hundreds–exhibit all the trappings of their forebears. We see clenched fists and hear slogans like “Whose University? Our University!,” “No cuts, no peace, education must be free!,” and “This is what democracy looks like!” After a rally and a noisy march through campus, the students “occupy” a campus reading room, where numerous students are studying for their midterms. When they get there, one of the student leaders urges his followers to ignore the police–the “pigs.”

The similarities end there, however. For one, as some administrators and students depicted in the film argue, today’s activists are remarkably unfocused. Whereas their predecessors held concrete, if highly ambitious goals–free speech, ending segregation and the Vietnam War–the Berkeley students issue a list of 22 demands that include big-ticket items such as the democratization of the UC Board of Regents, free public education, full funding for ethnic studies on the campus and smaller ones, such as reducing student fees. It’s a “kitchen sink” list, one administrator says.

Are these students’ scattered demands really what drives them, or are they simply interested in recreating the theatrics of the 1960s? Birgeneau, at least, dismisses the protests as “fun on Sproul Plaza.” One can’t know for sure, but the students’ many invocations of Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement suggest that they’re at least somewhat motivated by a desire to connect with students of the past. To that end, it doesn’t matter that their demands are all over the map. The performance is what’s important.

And interestingly, their performance is pretty tame. After occupying the reading room for a few hours, the students tweet that they’d be willing to leave if the police ask them. Ultimately, they leave the building at around 7 pm–less than six hours since the sit-in began–due to “impossible acoustics.” We shall overcome–if we can hear properly.

Of course, it’s probably a mistake to think that the of the 1960s were any more organized. Observing the unrest at Berkeley in 1968, Nathan Glazer wrote that the student radicals “insist that both [the university and society] must be overturned and transformed to be replaced by what remains vague and to most people frightening.” In fact, the coherence we now assign to those protests is probably a result of bipartisan myopia. The Right wants a monolithic ideological adversary to blame for higher-ed’s current problems, while the Left wants a consistent moral paragon whose legacy can inspire future agitation. Both sides therefore imagine that the student activists were more organized than they really were.

What’s clear, however, is that today’s protesters are far less frightening than predecessors, at least in the eyes of Berkeley’s administrators. The administrators know that boisterous activism is routine; accordingly, they devise a routine response. When the protest starts, they do not capitulate or cower like the administrators of yore. Their response–non-interference, constant communication with the police, releasing a boilerplate statement affirming the students’ right to protest–is rather prosaic.

Wiseman contrasts their tranquility with the commotion of the protesters, who imagine that their actions have singular, world-historical importance. When it comes to student self-righteousness, at least, not much has changed at Berkeley.

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