Berkeley Free Speech Movement

Mario Savio, a UC Berkeley student, distributes political material on campus in 1966. (Creative Commons/Mjlovas at the English language Wikipedia)

Institutions, by their very nature, seek stability through the status quo. Every so often, though, the status quo becomes so egregious that our institutions’ consciences awaken, rising to check a government that teeters toward tyranny. In 1964, peaking anti-communist paranoia compelled universities like the University of California, Berkeley, to ban student political activism groups, inciting rageful dissent among students and the birth of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement. The university’s unique response has come to define the institution, even half a century later.  

Berkeley faculty overwhelmingly supported the movement. The administration, too, hired a chancellor solicitous to student activism, sanctioning the demands of FSM. The administration sided with justice.

This became the essence of Berkeley: pedagogical success by promoting student activism. Berkeley became renowned for being America’s radical institution, creating an environment where learning transcended the classroom walls. Its professors, like Sheldon Wolin, are known for rebirthing modern political theory. Wolin’s theory of grassroots democracy, in particular, drew from the FSM movement. Empowering students became a newfound responsibility of the university, allowing the institution to take a stand against the government while engaging both its students and faculty.

Today’s university administrations, in contrast, face catastrophic consequences for speaking out like Berkeley. Research reveals that the likelihood of college presidents being fired increases as boards become “activist or aggressive.” University presidents, like Paul LeBlanc of Southern New Hampshire University, now lament the inability to recreate activist success like Berkeley. While they were “once lions on politics,” he wrote, “[they] are now sheep, sneaking quietly to the top so as to not make enemies.”

What enemies? Why were institutions more able to speak against national issues in the past than now? The main culprit is the corporatization of universities. 

The Berkeley of today is a shadow of the Berkeley of the past. Over time, the state of California reduced its school funding: while in 1974 the state provided 50% of the university’s budget, it now only provides 12%. As a result, “UC Berkeley now functions more like a profit-driven private entity than a public institution dedicated to higher learning.” Rather than basing its success on shaping students into leaders of the future, Berkeley now relies on the commercialization of its scientific research done by faculty and staff. 


UO is no stranger to this phenomenon. In the 1990s, the state of Oregon changed its property tax laws, collapsing UO’s funding model. Then-President Frohnmeyer, desperate for cash inflow, announced that the institution would shift to fund “through private resources the ability to fulfill our public mission.” Phil Knight immediately bought in, birthing the well-known University of Nike. 

Knight’s cash infusion Nike gave UO the funds it needed, but the process corrupted UO’s pedagogical mission. When UO student activists, for example, worked to eliminate sweatshops in 2000, Frohnmeyer came to realize that acting like Berkeley now came at a much steeper price. Their financial partner, after all, relied on slave-like labor. Frohnmeyer conceded to the students’ demands, endorsing the somehow controversial stance that child labor was bad. He, like Berkeley, did the right thing, but UO lost a $30-million donation from a livid Phil Knight. When activism clashes with the wrong-doings of wealthy donors ─ which it inherently always will ─ universities now side with their donors. Relegated to this ‘silent and neutral’ position on issues, the university’s grasp on morality fades. Administration amorality serves the status quo - a mere guise for immorality.


Recent universities’ “moral” decisions to protect international students is the exception that proves the rule. On July 6, ICE announced that all international students would have to return to their home country if they had exclusively online classes. UO has supported MIT and Harvard’s lawsuit against the U.S. government and is the lead plaintiff in their own suit. The explosion of university action, though, arises from the immense financial contributions of international studentsThis does not undermine the fact that universities cooperated against the tyranny of our administration; in fact, it shows the power that our institutions still have, as the government quietly squirmed away from their latest effort to abuse minorities. On the flip side, it reveals how selective universities are when they choose to use their voice, opting to do so rarely if action will threaten their financial stability.

Rarely in America would I say this: we must look to the past as a guide for our future. Berkeley had it right 56 years ago when it decided its primary responsibility was to its students. Decades of state abandonment has allowed the rich to hollow out higher education’s progressive inclinations. Student success requires the exorcism of corporate interests. For the good of the university, we must secure state funding, so that public institutions can return to being that – public. Without it, altruism will only exist when it lines the pockets of the rich.