Hal Draper


Berkeley: The New Student Revolt


6. The Administration Clamps Off the Safety Valve

The Bancroft sidewalk strip became the first battleground because the administration had designedly left this small area as the sole safety valve for much of student political activity. The explosive forces become concentrated there.

Traditionally the “free speech” arena at Berkeley used to be at Sather Gate, but in 1959 the block between the gate and Bancroft Avenue was turned into a plaza connecting the new Student Union on one side with Sproul Hall (the administration center) on the other. This plaza, called Sproul Hall Plaza (or Upper Plaza), is going to figure as the next battleground of our story; at this point it had definitely become a part of the campus.

The Bancroft Avenue sidewalk, just outside, had been regarded as city property, not under the jurisdiction of the university. Hence all the activities which the “Kerr Directives” had banned from campus could find an outlet only here. Here clubs set up folding card tables, displaying their literature or other publications, collecting funds, and selling bumper strips or buttons and such. Here students might stop to talk with the “table-manners” (who are not to be confused with Emily Post’s subject). In this way tables were used to “recruit” pro-Scranton students for the Republican convention, or to “recruit” for CORE civil-rights actions.

But in fact the Bancroft sidewalk was not all city property. A line marked by plaques separated it into a 26-foot university strip running along the campus and a smaller city strip running along the curb. As mentioned, the administration always acted as if it were all the city’s; as late as the spring of 1964, the dean’s office was directing clubs to get city permits to set up their tables.

To be sure, the administration had in 1962 formally set up an official “Hyde Park” (free speech) area on campus, in the Lower Plaza. It was out of sight of the main line of student raffle in and out of the campus, and, the students felt, this was why the administration found it suitable for the purpose. By the same token, the students generally ignored it, and it was largely unused. The de facto “Hyde Park” was the Bancroft sidewalk.

Then on September 14 the dean’s office announced that even this safety-valve area was going to be closed: tables and their activities were banned. They had fired on Fort Sumter.

It must be said for Dean of Students Katherine Towle that she did not conceal the basic motivation. Speaking to protesting club representatives in the following week, she openly referred to the “outside pressures.” Also, the Daily Cal reported on September 22:

... Dean Towle admitted [Sept. 21] that the question came up in the first place because of the frequent announcement of and recruitment for picket lines and demonstrations going on in the area in the past.

But this was not so much an “admission” as it was an appeal or plea: Please understand our problem with these outside pressures, and don’t push us too hard.

What was supposed to happen from here on was pretty much cut-and-dried: The students would protest bitterly; the administration would explain that rules-were-rules-and-it-had-no-alternative; perhaps some minor concessions would be made; the protests would peter out; and the new setup would be an accomplished fact by the time the students had settled into their new classes for the semester.

President Kerr had articulated this somewhat bored view of student protests in a passage of his 1963 Godkin Lectures which was eliminated from the text when they were published as The Uses of the University:

One of the most distressful tasks of a university president is to pretend that the protest and outrage of each new generation of undergraduates is really fresh and meaningful. In fact, it is one of the most predictable controversies that we know – the participants go through a ritual of hackneyed complaints almost as ancient as academe, believing that what is said is radical and new.

The following January, Kerr was going to tell newsmen: “They took us completely by surprise.” Something went wrong with the predictability of the hackneyed complaints. Instead there was a “protest and outrage” that was “fresh and meaningful” and therefore even more distressful to the president.


Last updated on 27.8.2006