Clark Kerr Memorial

Clark Kerr Memorial
Zellerbach Auditorium
February 20, 2004

Clark Kerr Memorial

By Robert M. Berdahl
University of California, Berkeley

Good afternoon. Welcome to this service, commemorating the remarkable life of Clark Kerr, Chancellor of the Berkeley campus from 1952 to 1958, President of the University of California from 1958 to 1967.

For this University, and above all for this campus and several generations of its faculty and certainly for all of the chancellors and presidents who have succeeded him, the loss of Clark Kerr is the loss of a thoughtful counselor, gentle mentor, and kind friend. As the father of the modern University of California, he was, for all who love the University, a patriarchal figure, a reserved man whose love for the University was unreserved. To his last breath, he was, to use his famous phrase, "fired with enthusiasm," about the University.

For a quiet pacifist from a Quaker college, who first came to California on a "peace caravan" in the 1930s, a man who never sought or enjoyed conflict, Kerr often found himself in the midst of conflict. First as a labor mediator, then as a University administrator, he retained the conviction that all problems have solutions, that all conflict can be resolved. In his oral history, he commented on his approach to conflict: "You have to have -- I don't know whether you want to say optimism or conviction, or a combination of the two. But you have to feel, Well, this is just another problem, and we can solve it."

Kerr emerged to lead the Berkeley campus in one of the most conflict-ridden moments of American history. The period from 1952 through 1967 was a period marked by McCarthyism and anti-communist hysteria (of which he himself was a victim), the Cold War, the Civil Rights movement, the student revolt of the 1960s, and the anti-Vietnam War dissent. Never before or since have university presidents and chancellors faced such overwhelmingly difficult and unprecedented problems. Kerr always sought solutions based on principles. When he encountered criticism for lifting the speaker ban on campus, he responded: "The University is not engaged in making ideas safe for students. It is engaged in making students safe for ideas. Thus it permits the freest expression of views before students, trusting to their good sense in passing judgment on these views. Only in this way can it best serve American democracy." He was the staunchest advocate of free speech on the campus.

Kerr was sometimes seen by students as cool, distant, a corporate executive of the multiversity. This is how he was often viewed during the FSM. And he was, for a public man, a very private person. Responding to the criticism, Kerr commented that university presidents tend to insulate themselves so "they don't bleed to death publicly," as he put it. He illustrated it with a story:

The first year I was chancellor at Berkeley, in 1952, I thought it would be nice to have Christmas tree on campus. There never had been one. So I ordered a tree, and it was cut from way up Strawberry Canyon and brought down to the plaza in front of Dwinelle Hall. And an hour after it was decorated, a professor was at the faculty club carrying a bough and calling me a murderer. I was desecrating specimen trees and our beautiful Strawberry Canyon. I was a villain. So I didn't do anything about a Christmas tree the next year, and the Daily Californian called me a villain for breaking one of Berkeley's oldest, most honored traditions. The third year I thought I had the problem solved. I had a big evergreen near the plaza decorated. And the campus called it the Sophie Tucker tree, not the right shape at all. The fourth year, I found the answer. One of our alums owned lumber interests far away, and from then on, he donated a Christmas tree.

The fact is, the author of the term "multiversity" cared a great deal about students, especially undergraduates. Of the many changes in the University which are associated with his tenure, one of which he was inordinately proud was his transformation of the Berkeley campus from the German model to the British model, as he refers to it in his memoirs. He made Berkeley into a residential campus in ways it had never been before. He led the construction of student facilities -- residence halls, dining halls, student service buildings, and recreational sports facilities.

About his great achievement, the development of the Master Plan for higher education in California and the creation of the nine-campus system of the University of California, little needs to be said. It is an achievement that has never been duplicated in any state in the union. It could never be duplicated today even in California. But it became the gold standard for public higher education in America, the envy of the nation. Without Clark Kerr, it would never have happened.

The question we all face today is: Can Clark Kerr's bold vision for the University of California and higher education in California be sustained? It is a question Kerr asked himself at the end of the first volume of his memoirs. He wrote:

As goes education, so goes the future of the state of California.
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 in California and what it implied . . . . Peter Schrag . . . of . . . the "Sacramento Bee" has written that this was the great vision and that it has already been lost . . . . I respect his judgment. But I do not, as yet, concede his conclusion . . . . If paradise is really lost, will it ever be regained?

As we remember Clark Kerr today, let us remember his legacy. But let us also remember that haunting question that he posed in the final years of his life about this University which he loved so dearly: "Has paradise already been lost or is it in the process of being lost?" Our memorial to this great man should be to see that his creation is sustained. We should resolve to do so, and in doing so, let us be "fired with enthusiasm."