Why Did They Riot? Berkeley’s Bellicose Culture

Glynn Custred

NAS member Glynn Custred, professor emeritus of anthropology at California State University East Bay, has written a reflection on the anti-free-speech movement at the University of California Berkeley. His essay combines his conversations with Berkeley students with his wide-ranging knowledge of the historical and political contexts of Berkeley’s February 2017 riot. 

A Case Study in Riot

April 27. The sky was blue, the temperature mild, and the walk under the redwoods along the little stream that runs through the UC Berkeley campus, was pleasant—a day just right for outdoor activities. The outdoor activity I had come to witness, however, was to be far from pleasant. Across the country people expected confrontation, another episode in the eruption of threatening and violent behavior that had appeared on campuses from New England to California.

There had been a demonstration at the University of Missouri in which journalists covering the event were threatened with “muscle.” At Middlebury College in Vermont, Charles Murray had been prevented from speaking and Professor Allison Stanger had been assaulted and injured. At Claremont McKenna College in California a shout-down mob had prevented Heather McDonald from speaking. At Berkeley itself, there had been nationally infamous rioting and destruction.

Berkeley’s riot sparked a train of further events, which are worth exploring in detail. They provide invaluable insight into how one major university system is run today; they form an illustrative case study of the general state of America’s prestigious institutions of higher education.

Free Speech at UC Berkeley

On February 1 some one hundred and fifty masked marauders marched unopposed down the streets of Berkeley to Sproul Plaza, the heart of student activity on the Berkeley campus. The rioters attacked some bystanders with flag poles, pepper sprayed others, broke windows, threw smoke bombs, set a generator on fire, and lit other fires that caused some $10,000 worth of damage to university property. The violent gang was part of a radical faction of the left known as the “Black Bloc,” or “the Antifa” (short for “Anti-Fascist”). Black Bloc is apparently more a tactic than an organization, while Antifa has its roots in Weimar Germany’s Antifaschistische Aktion, a group that was created in 1932 by the German Communist Party (KPD) and used to confront the National Socialist German Workers (Nazi) Party’s rival militants in vicious street battles.

Antifa groups are found today throughout Western Europe and the United States. They are “flat” organizations with no organizational center. Rather, they operate as separate local units that maintain a loose network of communication with one another to exchange information and to co-ordinate activity. Antifa now operates as the coercive wing of a Twitter-facilitated movement, #TheResistance, which coordinates obstruction of President Trump and his policies. Antifa groups hide their faces with black masks which, along with black attire, form a quasi-uniform akin to the brown shirts of the Nazi Storm Troopers and the white sheets and hoods of the Ku Klux Klan. 

The black masked thugs of the Antifa came to Sproul Plaza to prevent a provocative conservative, Milo Yiannopoulos, from giving a speech on campus. Yiannopoulos came to Berkeley at the invitation of the Berkeley College Republicans. The violent tactics of the street fighters worked, for the university cancelled his speech. Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks said publically that he condemned violence and that the university was committed to free speech; but the scheduled speech was cancelled anyway.

Erica West, a graduate student and a member of Berkeley Against Trump, told USA Today that it was “extremely frustrating” that Dirks was condemning the violence “when he had every chance to cancel the event and stop this from happening.” In other words it was the Chancellor’s fault for not following the orders of her hate group, and allied leftist organizations, in their insistence on violating the right to free speech guaranteed by the First Amendment of the Constitution.  

The same threats of violence worked again and again. The Berkeley administration later cancelled successive speeches by conservative authors David Horowitz and Ann Coulter. Coulter persisted, however, saying that the university had violated her constitutional right of free speech. Under pressure, the administration agreed to change the date of her appearance and to move it to some remote location. The new date was May 2, a time known as “dead week,” when students would be distracted by final exams. Coulter interpreted this change of time and venue as a means of limiting the effect of her speech, and she refused to accept the change, saying that she might instead appear on campus informally.

The Berkeley Administration under Fire

After Berkeley cancelled Coulter’s speech, the College Republicans and the Young America’s Foundation brought a suit against both the Berkeley administration and Janet Napolitano, the president of the University of California system. The two plaintiff organizations sought a judicial declaration that the university had violated their rights under the First and the Fourteenth Amendments by “abruptly cancelling” Coulter’s scheduled speech “after weeks of discussion” and by “selectively enforcing” the university’s “High-Profile Speaker Policy” to “unreasonably restrict the time, place and manner” of political speech.  Their attorneys also stated that the university’s decision was made “recently and secretively” in order to silence their clients’ invited speakers, Ann Coulter and David Horowitz, while allowing two opponents of President Trump to speak on campus: Maria Echaveste, a former Clinton administration official, and Vicente Fox, the former president of Mexico. The suit, filed in the United States District Court of San Francisco, also sought an injunction against the application of any policies that would restrict political expression on the Berkeley campus, as well as reimbursement of attorneys’ fees and court costs.

Conservatives criticized the university’s denial of free speech to invited guests—but so too did prominent figures on the other side of the political divide. One was Robert Reich, formerly labor secretary in the Clinton administration, now professor of Public Policy at Berkeley. A student member of the College Republicans said that Reich once mentioned Trump in class and was answered with boos. Reich then told them that booing had no place in that class. Other critics of the university’s actions included Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, as well as left-wing political commentator Bill Maher. Reich, Sanders, Warren, and Maher disagree vehemently with the positions held by Coulter, but they too were disturbed by Berkeley’s suppression of free speech.

Maher himself has been a near victim of this censorship. His often expressed views are similar to those of the Berkley left, but when he was invited to speak in Berkeley in 2014, a student committee vetoed it on the grounds that he had once said something disrespectful about Islam. Dirks overruled the students and allowed Maher to speak as planned.

A prominent journalist in California, Peter Shrag, former editor of the Sacramento Bee, wrote that the university, in cancelling, then rescheduling Ann Coulter’s speech, “in effect…allowed itself to be taken hostage by the anarchist ‘antifa’… mob.” He also wrote that one clearly sees by reading the law suit and from the remarks of the attorney for the College Republicans “how intimidated UCB was.” Shrag concluded that Berkeley’s chancellor Nicholas Dirk’s attempt “to wipe some of the egg off UC’s face with a ‘poor us’ New York Times op-ed piece … only managed to reinforce the conclusion that UC and the city of Berkeley had helped bring the troubles on themselves.”

Sproul Plaza and the Militant Left

April 27. The campus of UC Berkeley. A free speech demonstration was planned for nearby Martin Luther King, Jr. Park. I walked beneath the redwoods to Sproul Plaza to see if anything was going on at the campus. The Plaza is usually a busy place where student representatives of campus clubs and off-campus organizations set up tables and display signs. A lone lay preacher usually wanders around preaching, although nobody pays any attention to him. People stand in little groups and talk freely about anything on their mind.

Sproul had been peaceful the last time I was there. That was on February 2, the morning after masked leftists had rioted to prevent Milo Yiannopolous from speaking. The debris already had been cleared away and students moved about as usual. One group of students danced to World War II music. Representatives from a Latino group chatted in Spanish, and I stopped to talk with them for a few minutes. There was a table of student supporters of Trump. No one molested them—at least not at that time. That was exactly as it should be on that celebrated plaza, which has symbolized free speech on campus for more than fifty years. Here, in 1964, the New Leftist Mario Savio set in motion the Free Speech Movement. Everyone in Berkeley is still proud of the movement that started in Sproul Plaza.

Well, not everyone. That February morning I stopped and listened in on one conversation where students repeated the left’s current catechism: People like Milo Yiannopolous shouldn’t be allowed to appear on campuses.

One student by-stander looked at me and smiled. He shook his head and said, “And this is supposed to be the center of free speech?”

The Plaza looked very different on April 27. There were barricades filled with water everywhere. People were allowed to pass, but there were no tables or groups of students talking, only police with riot gear. And parked along Bancroft Way on the south end of the plaza were trucks and vans from television stations.

Near Bancroft Way small groups listened to speakers who railed against “racists” and “fascists”—apparently, anyone who does not enthusiastically affirm the party line. One older woman gave me a leaflet that read “The Fascist Invasion of Berkeley: The Issue is Not Free Speech, the Issue is Fascism”. “Humanity,” I read, “faces an extreme emergency with Trump’s rise to power… draconian attacks on immigrants, women, Black and Latino peoples and even the LGBT community.” 

A column in the San Francisco Chronicle on the thirtieth of April reveals one strain of thought typical of many in the coastal counties of California. The article was written by Chronicle columnist Joe Mathews, who played the victim card by depicting California as the “scapegoat” of the nation, a state whose” exceptionalism” makes it a “sacrificial lamb” because California is “the protector of many vulnerable people” such as—now an alliterative flourish to the identity politics mantra—“migrants, Muslims and Mexicans.” California is a noble state whose poor beleaguered flagship public university has to “absorb so much abuse” on account of that “right wing diva Ann Coulter,” simply because Berkeley “couldn’t guarantee her safety.” The victim of it all thus becomes the university, a “punching bag for angry people” both left and right.

Gavin Newsom is the former mayor of San Francisco, now the Lieutenant Governor of California, and he is running for governor in 2018. He also echoed the leftist chorus on Sproul Plaza, and laid the blame for violence in Berkeley on—Donald Trump. This is because Trump hurts people in the Democrat Party’s client groups—“students, immigrants, women, the LGBT community.” In his official statement, issued from the Lieutenant Governor’s office, Newsom stated that Trump is “either too weak or too ignorant to stand up against white supremacists and others who spew hatred. That’s why the president and his extremist acolytes like Yiannopoulos need to hear from the resistance, loudly and repeatedly. We must continue to step up and resist reckless rhetoric in a peaceful and forceful manner.” 

Reckless Rhetoric and Perverted Language

“Reckless rhetoric,” however, is exactly what Newsom was uttering. “Reckless rhetoric” is what one hears from radicals gathered to protest in Sproul Plazas across the nation, in liberal circles everywhere, and throughout the Democratic Party establishment. They speak with what George Orwell described as the “slovenliness of our language” that “makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts,” and which enables “swindles and perversions.” One such swindle is Newsom’s hyperbole when he spoke of the results of Trump’s proposed policies as “carnage.” Another is the old rhetorical device tu quoque, the non-defense defense of “you’re one too.” The supposedly impartial press uses an implicit tu quoque every time it uses phrases such as “rightist and leftist extremists” without distinguishing between non-violent support for Trump and the organized storm troopers of the left.  

Orwell identified a common perversion of language, the use of a word as an instrument of rhetorical assault rather than for precise denotation. The word fascism is a long standing example, a word that Orwell described as having no meaning other than something bad, something to despise, something to hate. Current examples of words the left uses to signify bad-hate, to mobilize true believers and to put their opponents on the defensive against their slanderous accusations, include “racism,” “white supremacist,” “homophobic,” and “social justice.”

This is the language of an ideology that emerged from the counterculture of the 1960s, a variation of Marxism propounded by Herbert Marcuse and others that became the basis of the New Left.  Richard Bernstein describes it as a “yearning for more power, combined with a genuine, earnest, zealous, self-righteous craving for social improvement that is characteristic of the mentality of the post-1960s era in American life.” This mindset is now entrenched in the current generation of the left. Their rhetoric, says Bernstein, “cannot be taken at face value,” for it is “a defense against exposure or criticism,” a defense that also “presents dubious and cranky interpretations and analysis as self evident, justifiable truths.” This tactic has worked so well not because of its consistency or truth, but because “nobody wants to be against multiculturalism” or appear to be for such things as racism, etc. “To put it bluntly,”  says Bernstein, this kind of rhetoric “has the rest of us on the run.” It limits discussion and makes people afraid to say what they think and feel.

That mindset has seeped into higher education either as a background assumption or as an explicit belief. With Ulrich Baer, vice provost at New York University, it is the latter. He wrote in the New York Times that it is perfectly appropriate to censor the expression of any ideas that offend self-aggrieved or previously marginalized groups

The New Left ideology has born fruit: self-righteous suppression of free speech.

The Suppression of Free Speech

The New Left no longer cares that freedom of speech is a keystone of a free republic. Free speech is so important that it takes pride of place in the Bill of Rights, as part of our First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peacefully to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” Nor do they care that the Fourteenth Amendment extended the privileges and the provisions of the First Amendment to all citizens, or that the Supreme Court has extended those provisions to apply not only to state and local governments but also to publically funded universities such as UC Berkeley.   

The New Left now regards the jurisprudence of free speech as an obstacle to be overcome by cunning. When the University of California claims that threats of violence force it to cancel a speech, it is using a specious rationale to allow a “heckler’s veto” to suppress free speech. More insidiously and more chillingly, the New Left uses propaganda and soft pressure to encourage mass complicity in self-censorship—what Matthew Reynolds in his essay on translation refers to as “a complex permeating web of psychological pressure and misinformation as well as explicit rules.” In America this web of censorship, through peer pressure aimed at promoting a cluster of radical political ideas and silence opposition, is known as political correctness.

Victor Davis Hanson describes it as the form of pressure that faculty and students face in the university when they “know precisely which speech will endanger their careers and which will earn them rewards.” This, he says, is similar to the situation seen in Nazi Germany: “As with the German universities of the 1930s, [the] faculty [members] keep quiet or offer politically correct speech through euphemisms.”

The case of Paul Griffiths, professor of theology at Duke University, illustrates what can happen to a faculty member if he steps out of line and challenges the New Order protected by political correctness. Griffiths responded to a faculty-wide email encouraging faculty members to attend a two-day “training” program promoting the politically correct view of “racism.” He responded by saying that what the attendees would hear at that session would be “intellectually flaccid … bromides, clichés, and amen-corner rah-rahs in plenty,” and that the program’s “illiberal roots and totalitarian tendencies will show.” Griffiths was criticized by Elaine Heath, dean of the divinity school, who scolded him for using the campus email for “humiliating colleagues” with whom he disagrees. She repeated the precise litany of bromides and clichés that Griffiths had condemned in her rebuke of “racism, sexism and other forms of bias” that create a “hostile workplace.”

Professor Griffiths’s workplace was certainly hostile. His colleague Valerie Cooper made her own totalitarian tendencies quite plain by saying that to oppose Duke University’s official policy of “diversity” is not academic freedom of speech, but “academic malpractice.”  Eventually Griffiths was forced to resign. This incident, among others, illustrates Hanson’s parallel between American universities now and German universities in the 1930s.

The Marxist Antonio Gramsci once said that the long march through the institutions was a better way than violent revolution to achieve the Marxist transformation of society. Capture the institutions and you capture the culture. This is what has happened in higher education today. The long march by the New Left  has created a politicized curriculum and a politicized faculty, as well as part of the student body, which uses political correctness to defend and to advance their cause.

 A Different Crowd, a Different Language, and a Very Different Mood

People around the country responded to UC Berkeley’s pusillanimous unwillingness to defend free speech. The unchecked antifa violence at Sproul Plaza on February 1, the administration’s fainthearted forfeiture of its students’ right to hear Ann Coulter speak—these could not be allowed to stand. The word went out over the internet and through social media, and several hundred Americans rallied to Berkeley from as far away as Detroit and Alaska. They came (to borrow some of California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom’s words) to “stand up” against the suppression of free speech, “loudly and repeatedly … in a peaceful and forceful manner.”

But would they be received in peace? That was not certain, given the prior capitulation to left-wing violence by both the campus and city authorities of Berkeley. Many free-speech demonstrators, therefore, came prepared. Some wore helmets, even bullet proof vests, and two young men had gas masks ready in case of need. There was also a stack of hard hats offered at no charge to anyone who wanted one. One demonstrator told me that they hadn’t come looking for trouble, but that they were ready to meet violence if it should come.

The demonstrators assembled a few blocks from the campus in Martin Luther King Jr. Park, across from the Berkeley City Hall and in front of Berkeley High School. There were men and women, the young and the old—but mostly they were young. American flags were everywhere. Some demonstrators wore shirts with flag motifs and some were draped in the flag. The mood was upbeat and collegial.

Four middle aged men wore jackets from the California chapter of a motorcycle club called “Sovereign Nation.” A woman asked if she could photograph them, and I asked about the name. One member said they had given the club that name because they were advocates of national sovereignty, too much of which, he said, had already been given away. He went on to tell me that he was there for the future of his son. We exchanged first names and handshakes, and I went on to talk with other demonstrators.

One was an older man from Sonoma County, in the wine country north of San Francisco. Two others were young men, one from Monterey and the other from Los Angeles. The Angeleno had traveled several hours on a Greyhound bus to stand up for free speech in Berkeley.

A middle aged man watched me as I walked by. He wore only shorts and was tattooed from his ankles to his neck. He asked why I was there. “As an observer,” I told him. “Me, too,” he said. I sat down next to him on a low wall and we talked. He told me he was from Berkeley. He pointed to the high school and said, “That’s where I graduated.” He told me that he had voted for Bernie Sanders and he wanted to hear what the opposition had to say.

Just then two young men came by and started a conversation. One of them said that he had voted for Trump, but that’s not why he had come to the rally. The cause he represented, he told us, was freedom of speech. The Berkeley man said he agreed. Then we had an interesting chat about fairness, and why the electoral college is indeed an equitable way of dealing with elections. It wasn’t so difficult to have an open and friendly exchange of ideas between two Americans with different politics.

Someone said, “They’re coming” and several young men wearing helmets moved forward. Some of the crowd also began to move in that direction. Then we heard that it was a false alarm. High school was out and some students were coming to see what was going on.

Several free-speech protestors made some speeches. They didn’t vilify any one. Instead they affirmed their ideals.

Otis Taylor’s article in the San Francisco Chronicle the next day confirmed my impressions from my own conversations. He also had interviewed several demonstrators who had come from other towns. He framed his questions to them in the same rhetoric as one heard a few blocks away on Sproul Plaza. Yet the responses that Taylor reported were not hostile or defensive, but positively affirmed the principle of free speech.

Twenty-seven year old Tyler Fisher said that he was not a supporter of Trump, but that he was was there because free speech was under fire. “You got to take a stand somewhere” he said. Another young man joined them, saying that they were all working people. He then hugged both Fisher and Taylor, a white American and a black one. The gesture and the sentiment stood in sharp contrast to the left’s propaganda that only racists oppose their agenda. Indeed, other speakers also emphasized that we are a single nation, whose solidarity transcends race.

About a hundred counter demonstrators assembled with signs and slogans. One said that their intention was peaceful, in the spirit of free expression. A small number of Berkeley city police made sure that the two sets of demonstrators remained separated. A woman asked one policeman to pose with her. He complied, and they stood together smiling as their picture was taken. The day ended as peacefully as it had begun. The Black Bloc thugs chose not to appear.

An Adequate Response At Last

The authorities had finally provided an adequate show of force. A large number of UC Berkeley police, augmented by officers from other UC campuses, guarded Sproul Plaza. Some lined the steps of Sproul Hall, while others watched the Plaza—some in riot gear. A large contingent of California Highway Patrolmen had also assembled along Bancroft Way, while policemen from next-door Oakland were stationed on Center Street, along the stretch that connects the campus with Martin Luther King Jr. Park. A large contingent from the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department, some eighty officers, waited not far away, ready to come to the scene if needed. I later read that police from nearby San Leandro were also present.

This was a far cry from Berkeley’s dereliction of duty during the February 1. Campus authorities have been accused of ordering the UC Berkeley police to “stand down” while the Black Bloc set fires, threw smoke bombs, and attacked people on Sproul Plaza. Moreover, the city authorities have been faulted for permitting the rioters to advance unopposed down city streets. If there was no actual complicity, the Berkeley authorities were grossly incompetent.

Complicity or incompetence: those two alternatives describe a good deal of policing in the Bay Area these last few years. Peter Shrag writes that “California, or even the whole West Coast is in a liberal bubble in the age of Trump” and that “the Bay Area is a bubble within a bubble”—as manifested by its leaders’ politically correct deference to violent mobs from the left. Schrag notes how Oakland’s authorities have “fuss[ed] with their agenda of political correctness” while downtown businesses in the city have been repeatedly vandalized since the Occupy protests of 2011. Rioters shut the Port of Oakland, the nation’s fifth busiest. The Oakland Police department is notoriously undermanned, mostly to the detriment minority neighborhoods, while the city authorities spend $300,000 a year for a department of Race and Equity.

Schrag puts it nicely: “On April 27, when Coulter was supposed to have spoken, and when militants threatened more violence, UC and Berkeley in effect confessed their role in allowing the disturbances of the prior months.”

Their delay in doing their duty, however, is going to cost California taxpayers half a million dollars to reimburse neighboring police agencies. Alameda County Sheriff Gregory Ahern estimated the cost to his department at about $80,000, a sum he expects the University of California to pay. UC, at the time of this writing, does not have an official estimate of the total cost. It says it is working with other agencies for eventual reimbursement. 

This, however, is only one manifestation of the way the University of California mismanages its affairs. Another was uncovered two days before the April 27 demonstration, with the release of a state audit of the finances of the UC president’s office.

The Administration of the University Of California

The University of California, Berkeley denies free speech to selected individuals and groups by deferring to left-wing terror tactics. As a corollary, the university administration has encouraged lawlessness that endangers both individuals and public property. Furthermore, by permitting the metastasizing politicization of the university, the University has both violated its fiduciary responsibility to the taxpaying citizens of California and betrayed its mission as an institution of higher education.

To put the violation of fiscal responsibility in perspective, let’s go back to a case at UC Davis in 2011. Students staged a sit-down protest on campus to protest a hike in fees. When the campus police ordered them to move, they refused to do so. Instead of carrying the protestors away, as has been done in the past, one officer used pepper spray to disperse the crowd. A recording of the incident went viral over the internet, which caused an image problem for the university. To counter the negative effects, Chancellor Linda Katchi used public money to hire a Maryland public relations firm to help scrub the internet of references to the protest. 

This by itself raised ethical questions. An investigation conducted by Melinda Haag, former United States Attorney for San Francisco, uncovered further irregularities, which led UC president Janet Napolitano to describe the chancellor’s administration as “deeply flawed.” It showed “poor judgment”, she said, and “violated multiple university policies, misled, even lied to, superiors, the public and the media.” Katchi offered her resignation, which Napolitano immediately accepted.

At the same time as the free speech and violence issues erupted, a series of audits had uncovered poor judgment in Napolitano’s own office. In 2017, Assemblymen Phil Ting (D-San Francisco, chairman of the Assembly Budget Committee) and Kevin McCarty (D-Sacramento) called for another audit, this time over concerns about increased university spending and rising tuition and fees. Elaine Howle conducted the audit and released it two days before the scheduled demonstration in Martin Luther King Jr. Park. The audit showed that Janet Napolitano’s office used poor judgment and had violated ethical standards. It had also misled the public, the media, and her superiors at the UC Board of Regents. The investigation further revealed mismanagement, waste, and a cover up. State legislators proclaimed their ire in a two-hour grilling of Napolitano the following week.

While the UC system struggled with a $150 million deficit, Napolitano’s office had spent lavishly on perks such as expensive parties. It had also increased spending on cell phones, iPads, and other such devices. Her administration also paid its bloated staff higher salaries than those of their counterparts in the California State University system and the state government. At the same time, Napolitano’s office had been calling for yet another hike in tuition and fees—which had doubled since 2006-2007. Moreover, the president’s office had amassed a hidden slush fund of $175 million.

California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, who also sits on the UC Board of Regents, had said that Trump’s threat to withhold federal funds from the university “is asinine” and “showed zero awareness of the real-world,” and that to do so “would only create more innocent victims [the students] and more Trump carnage.” But, then, what had Napolitano and her administration done to students when they spent lavishly and hid money for their own use while raising student tuitions and fees? Newsom, of course, deplored the situation uncovered by the audit, saying that it was “outrageous.” But what else could he say? He also treated Napolitano with deference, blaming the situation not on her but on the faceless bureaucracy. “I remain a supporter of Janet’s and her office,” he concluded. “I still believe in her.” He was still confident, he said, that she “has the political skills to smooth things over with the legislature. The fact that she hasn’t, doesn’t mean that she won’t and can’t.” Newsom found a (nameless) scapegoat, while closing party ranks in defense of his fellow Democrat.

Even more serious than hidden funds, excessive salaries, and extravagant perks was the auditor’s conclusion that the “Office of the President intentionally interfered with our audit process,” which prevented “us from drawing valid conclusions.” The auditor had sent confidential surveys to each of the UC campuses to learn more about the system’s finances and expenditures, and in order to determine if there was any duplicate spending. Napolitano’s office appeared to have tampered with the results. Republican Assemblyman Dante Acosta said, “Often, where there’s smoke there’s fire. Here I think we might have a mushroom cloud.”  And indeed there was, for emails reported by the San Francisco Chronicle revealed that administrators at UC Santa Cruz, UC San Diego, and UC Irvine had removed statements critical of Napolitano and her staff at the direction of Napolitano’s office. Furthermore, her office had arranged a system-wide conference call to co-ordinate responses among campuses, when the surveys were supposed to have been independent and confidential.

Howle said that this “tampering was outrageous and unbelievable,” while Ting compared Napolitano’s office’s actions to those of a professor who “magically … changes the grade [of a failing student] and passes the student.” When some lawmakers at the hearing asked Howle about the possibility of criminal violations, she replied that she didn’t know, because she wasn’t an attorney, but that in her seventeen years as auditor she hadn’t seen “interference of this kind.”  Ting, along other Democratic Assembly members, plans to introduce a bill in the Legislature to create penalties for obstructing the state’s auditor. Some Republican legislators have called for a subpoena of documents from the president’s office, while Democrats want stricter controls over how state money is spent by the university.

Democratic Speaker of the Assembly Anthony Rendon told the Los Angeles Times that he is “frustrated with the lack of communication coming out of the office of the president.” Governor Jerry Brown said that the state would withhold $50 million dollars from the university until it reduces its spending, and Democratic Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva called on Napolitano to resign, saying, “President Napolitano no longer engenders the public trust required to perform her duties.” An ironic echo of what Napolitano herself had demanded of UC Davis Chancellor Katchi.

Assemblyman Ting also said that “the fact that the president already tampered with a state audit is very serious,” and that the Board of Regents should look into the matter. Assemblyman Acosta said of the regents that he is “a little shocked at how out of touch they have been,” for it is their duty to oversee the operations of the sprawling UC system. But Monaca Lozano, chair of the Board of Regents, like Lieutenant Governor Newsom, defended Napolitano. Lozano said that she stands with the president, who has harnessed the university’s size and brain power to take on “great social challenges.” Lozano did not elaborate on what that means, or on why educational and financial challenges seem to take second place in Napolitano’s administration. Lozano instead said that, “we have confidence in [the president’s] leadership,” and called Napolitano “a capable and effective leader.”

What will happen now? Napolitano will probably continue in office. Dan Schnur, a former Republican strategist, now at the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Southern California, told the East Bay News Group that it is understandable why people would want to avoid open conflict with Napolitano. “She might be wounded at the moment,” he said, but “she’s going to recover, and she probably has a long memory, so there’s not much incentive for anyone to get in her dog house.”

In the light of all this uncomfortable publicity, the Board of Regents agreed to hire an outside consultant to investigate interference in the audit. This issue is too big for them to ignore—although they continue to disregard the decline in UC student performance and the increasing politicization of the university.

The UC Board of Regents

The University of California holds a prominent and privileged place within the three-tiered system of public higher education in California, a system of mass higher education that has been described as a model for the world. At its base are community colleges that are conveniently located and affordable, offering courses required for the first two years for the bachelor’s degree, as well as technical and vocational courses of study. The next level is the California State University (CSU) system, which offers bachelor’s and master’s degrees in the liberal arts, the sciences, business, teacher training, nursing, engineering and other technical specialties. At the pinnacle of the pyramid is the University of California, which offers degrees from the BA to the Ph.D., as well as degrees in law and medicine. UC also carries on high-level scientific research on its ten campuses, as well as in the three laboratories that it supervises.

In 1879 the legislature made UC an autonomous branch of the California government, “equal and co-ordinate with the legislature, the judiciary and the executive,” to be overseen by a Board of Regents whose members are appointed from among the citizens of the state. The board of regents thus functions within the state government in a manner similar to that of the boards of directors in business corporations. The Board’s autonomy was intended to insulate the university from the control of politicians. It is obvious from the results of the state audit that the board has failed to exercise either its fiduciary duty to the taxpayers of California or its obligations to its students. As State Senator Cathleen Galgiani (D-Stockton) said, the Board has been “tone deaf” in its approval of decisions by the administration, such as when it raised the pay of its staff while cutting student services and raising tuition. As a remedy, she has proposed a constitutional amendment that would change the status of UC, and bring it more in line with the relationship that exists between the legislature and the CSU.

The only objection to such a measure is the one that led California to grant UC autonomy in 1879:  weaken the university’s autonomy and it will become vulnerable to political meddling. Yet, as demonstrated at length in the National Association of Scholars’ (NAS) report Crisis in Competence: the Corrupting Effect of Political Activism in the University of California (2012). the university has already become steadily politicized: not by meddling politicians, but by its own faculty and administrators.

Crisis in Competence’s lead author was John Ellis, a former dean of Graduate Studies and Research at UC Santa Cruz, and then president of the California Association of Scholars, the California state affiliate of the NAS. Crisis notes the fall in measurable skills among students, along with reduced study-hours by students and reduced academic expectations by the faculty. Crisis stated that as the general public becomes increasingly aware of that slippage, it will recognize that college increasing lacks the capacity to improve reading, writing, or reasoning skills much less to provide the general knowledge necessary for success. Adding insult to injury, this collapse of UC’s academic quality has been accompanied by ever-rising tuition. 

Crisis then states that the collapse of college education in California has come about in large part as a consequence of politicized teaching, which has led to a shift in instruction from how to think to what to think. The report extensively substantiates that claim, and recommends that the University of California take a different direction in its teaching. The report was addressed to the UC Board of Regents, the body responsible for the quality and the reputation of the university.

Rather than placing the points made in the report on the agenda for discussion, Ellis says that the regents were evasive, “ducking and weaving” to avoid the evidence, acting not as watch dogs in the interest of the university and the public, but rather as lap dogs of the administration that they are supposed to oversee. The regents can’t avoid addressing their failure in respect to financial problems and the way the administration has deceived them, but they can and will dance away from the question of politicization and its effects on the educational quality and the reputation of the institution for which they are responsible.                

UC’s ideological conformity, appeasement of leftist violence, bloated administration, left-leaning faculties, political correctness, censorship, and self-serving administration are all connected to one another as part of a general decline of higher education at the University of California. But UC is not alone. As Stephen Hayward puts it, UC is just “a microcosm of an American higher education archipelago of ideological intolerance and detachment from reality,” in which the university “can’t control its spending and won’t control its kooks.”

The Ideal and the Real

Robert Gordon Sproul, after whom the UC Berkeley administration building and the plaza are named, was the president of the University of California from1930 to 1958. During that time the university transformed itself from a regional university to a nationally respected institution of higher education. UC then exemplified the ideal of what a first-rate university should be. Since the 1960s, however, UC and its peers across the country have abandoned that ideal. Universities today, says Victor Davis Hanson, are Potemkin villages: “their spires, quads and ivy-covered walls are facades” that mask a crisis not only of free speech but also of university finance, plummeting test scores, grade inflation, and student debt. UC is scarcely worth attending any more.

R. R. Reno, editor of First Thingswrites that, “American elite universities today are cold, soulless places” because “they’re run for two purposes, both of which treat students as means, not ends in themselves.” One of those purposes is to “provide legitimacy to the American ruling class,” and the second is to “promote the greater wealth and glory of the university itself.” At one time the best American universities were quite explicitly for the social elite. During a brief meritocratic interlude these universities sought out and welcomed the most qualified students, regardless of their background. After the 1960s, the elite universities returned to group consciousness in the form of affirmative action admissions—a policy designed to legitimate the university on the grounds of “social justice.”

Elite universities continue some meritocratic recruitment; if they didn’t they couldn’t maintain their status as premier academic institutions. They also continue to serve America’s elite, recruiting their less stellar children via the rubric of legacy admissions. The extension of meritocratic recruitment to foreign students now helps these universities to brand themselves for the global marketplace. Publicly funded universities also often give preferences to out-of-state and foreign students, since they pay higher tuitions than in-state students.

The problem with racial and ethnic preferences, however, is that far too many minorities have been brought up in conditions where education is not emphasized and where schools are poor, thus putting promising minority students at a disadvantage in the faster paced elite institutions. Thomas Sowell coined the term “mismatch” for such policies, policies which assert the social virtue of the university at the expense of students. Professor of law and economics at UCLA Richard H. Sander and legal journalist Stuart Taylor conducted a study that showed that mismatch indeed very often works in that way.

Reno says that admissions, therefore, serve the university’s purpose, not necessarily that of students and the public, by ensuring that “the establishment’s power remains legitimate,” and that the elite university itself remains “supereminent”—and well funded. Universities, he says, are thus on a trajectory to “becoming rigid, mechanical and artificial communities dominated by rent-seeking faculty, populated by alienated students, and governed by administrators,” and thus unable to “attract loyalty” or to “create a culture for the future.”    

Student alienation manifests itself in several ways. One is when the doctrine of permanent victimhood and identity politics (which the university promulgates) leaves many minority students seething with resentment rather than focused on the advantages that American society offers. This doctrine orients minority students towards divisive race-based identities rather than towards a unifying identity as Americans. Since these alienated students know quite well that university administrations will yield to their demands because of their privileged position within the institution, many have banded together in organizations determined to impose their will on compliant institutions. The latest example at UC took place this April at UC Santa Cruz.

There, the African Black Student Alliance (ABSA), a racially defined organization, occupied the administration building, while accusing the university of fostering “a hostile climate.” The protesters locked the doors and plastered the windows with posters, saying that they would disrupt university administration until their demands were met. Those demands centered on segregated campus housing and ABSA-designed mandatory propaganda sessions for all incoming students. Chancellor George Blumenthal was willing to negotiate. He was afraid, however, to go near the occupied administration building. Instead he met with ten representatives of the group in another building, where he submitted to all of ABSA’s demands. 

Press interviews of students revealed other forms of alienation. Some who supported the protesters identified with their cause, saying in essence that the climate on campus was indeed hostile, no matter what the administration, faculty, and students did to make them feel welcome. And some white students who agreed in principle with diversity ideology were puzzled by the fact that certain groups wanted further special treatment when so much is already being done for them.

In sum, universities have become institutions run by the administration for the administration’s own purposes, much as corporations are run by their managers and boards of directors, while the politicization of the faculty and the resultant student alienation remain unaddressed. The high costs of college education and rising student debt also remain unaddressed. With every passing day the taxpayers of California are given further reason to doubt the value of a UC college education—for which they pay so dearly.            


April 27 was a pleasant day in Berkeley: pleasant not only for the nice spring weather, but also because a peaceful rally in favor of free speech had taken place in a center of political correctness. In a place where free speech is routinely suppressed, the forces of violent censorship had finally been discouraged by a belated and reluctant show of force on the part of the authorities. I hope that such days may be repeated in Berkeley and on other campuses, but the prospects are slim. The long march of the authoritarian left has succeeded in capturing the institutions of higher learning, and they have imposed their anti-liberal and anti-intellectual agenda upon institutions that once supported a free market place of ideas. Illiberal administrations and boards of directors disregard the missions of the institutions they are charged with governing. These institutions are financed by student tuitions and fees, by donations from alumni, businesses, and philanthropic organizations, and by taxes, government subsidies, and tax-funded grants. Perhaps it is time to rethink our unquestioned support of institutions that are failing to fulfill their missions in so many ways.


The events reported here were taken from first-hand observation in Berkeley and from reports published from February to May 2017 by The East Bay Times and the San Francisco Chronicle. Sources cited in the text are:

Bernstein, Richard. 1994. The Dictatorship of Virtue: Multiculturalism and the Battle for America’s Future. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. Pp. 7-8.

Ellis, John. April 2012. Crisis in Competence: the Corrupting Effect of Political Activism in the University of California. National Association of Scholars. https://www.nas.org/images/documents/A_Crisis_of_Competence.pdf.

Hanson, Steven F.. May 15, 2017. “The Crisis at Berkeley: The Rot Goes Deep.” The Weekly Standard.

Hanson, Victor Davis. 2017. “Potemkin Universities.”  https://townhall.com/columnists/victordavishanson/2017/05/04/potemkin-universities-n2321705.

Newsom, Gavin. 2017. “Statement: Lt. Governor Newsom Regarding Free Speech at the University of California.” http://ltg.ca.gov/news.2017.2.2_Yannopoulos.html.

Orwell, George. 1984. “Politics and the English Language”. I, The Orwell Reader: Fiction, Essays and Reporting. New York: Harcourt Brace and Company. Pp. 355-366.

Reno, R. R. 2016. “Liberalism’s Future.”  First Thingshttps://www.firstthings.com/article/2016/01/liberalisms-future.

Reynolds, Matthew. 2016. Translation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Rossman, Sean. February 2, 2017. “What is a Black Bloc? The Tactic That Unleashed Violence in Berkeley.” USA Today.  https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation-now/2017/02/02/what-black-bloc/97393870/.

Sanders, Richard H. and Stuart Taylor. 2012. Mismatch: How Affirmative Action Hurts Students It’s Intended to Help, and Why Universities Won’t Admit It. New York: Basic Books.

Shrag, Peter. May 7, 2017. “Berkeley and Free Speech Lose as Agitators Dance”. East Bay News Grouphttp://www.anarchistagency.com/in-the-news/east-bay-times-peter-schrag-berkeley-and-free-speech-lose-as-agitators-dance/.

Taylor, Otis R., Jr. April 28, 2017. “A Civil Discussion Where Some Expected Rioting.” San Francisco Chronicle.

Image Credit: BrokenSphere.

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