Forty-five years after the founding of the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley, we learn from the New Yorker that the campus protest movement is dead. Oddly, however, the author of the article in question, “Protest Studies: Berkeley Rebels Again,” failed to notice he was writing about a corpse. Recounting the recent controversy at Berkeley, writer Tad Friend proved unrelievedly earnest.

The controversy began last year. Faced with a budget crisis, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger cut state funding for the University of California by one-fifth. This in turn forced the regents to raise annual in-state tuition at the ten UC campuses to just over $10,000. (This excludes campus fees, housing, and books.)

Since students at Berkeley, the oldest and most prestigious of the UC campuses, are still receiving an education that ranks with those at Stanford, Harvard, Yale, and other elite private institutions, and since they are still being asked to pay only about one-quarter as much, you might have supposed that they would have offered a quiet word of thanks for their good fortune and gone on with their studies. You would have been mistaken.

In October, some eight hundred Berkeley students attended the “Mobilizing Conference to Save Public Education.” As they debated, Friend writes, “a student facilitator summarized each idea on a projection screen: ‘rolling strikes’; ‘nationalize all universities’; ‘socialist revolution’; ‘a tent city in Sacramento’; ‘create a shadow Board of Regents’; ‘occupy Wells Fargo bank in downtown Oakland’; ‘worker-student control of the university,’ and so on.”

Then, in November, a group of protesters pulled dozens of fire alarms around the campus while a second group occupied Wheeler Hall, a classroom building. As the occupation continued, some two thousand students gathered outside Wheeler Hall, waving placards and chanting. Police eventually cleared the building, but not before the university had been disrupted for an entire day and violent incidents had taken place. “Skirmishes kept breaking out as groups of students . . . surged toward the stanchions,” Friend writes.

If students worked themselves into a frenzy, surely at least Berkeley faculty and administrators must have demonstrated a modicum of circumspection. So, again, you might have supposed; so, again, you would have been mistaken.

Since Berkeley students still receive an education that ranks with those at Stanford, Harvard, Yale, and other elite private institutions, but pay only one quarter the cost, you might expect them to offer a quiet word of thanks and go back to studying.

Faculty and administrators joined the protests. Advocating a march on Sacramento, Robert Birgeneau, the Berkeley chancellor, compared the student movement with the civil rights movement. “I hope that this [march] will match the March on Washington,” Birgeneau said. Professor Ananya Roy became a particular champion of the protest movement. Addressing students one day, Friend writes, Roy “began to voice . . . [their] dismay in sharp, sloganeering phrases. . . . In her piping voice . . . she repeated, elegaically: ‘We have all become students of color now.’ ”

We have all become students of color? A march on Sacramento that possesses the same moral dimension as the March on Washington? Let us remind ourselves just what the Berkeley protesters were demanding: not racial equality but money. For the poor and dispossessed? No. For themselves. To place the protesters’ demand in perspective, a few figures:

  • Despite the cuts it made last year, the state of California will spend nearly $3 billion on the University of California this year, an expenditure of $13,000 per student. Contrast this with the $10,000 per student the state of Illinois spends on the University of Illinois system or the $6,000 per student the state of New York spends on the SUNY system.
  • The salary of Chancellor Birgeneau: $445,716. The salary of a typical full-time professor at Berkeley: $127,300. The average starting salary for the holder of a Berkeley undergraduate degree—I repeat, the average starting salary: $59,900. The median household income in California: $61,154.
  • The number of Berkeley professors who have been laid off as a result of budget cuts: zero. The proportion of California workers who are now unemployed: one in ten.

“One afternoon just after the spring semester began at the University of California,” Calvin Trillin wrote in the New Yorker some forty-five years ago, “I paused on my way to the Berkeley campus to make a tour of the card tables that had been set up that day by student political organizations.” Visiting a few months after the establishment of the Free Speech Movement, Trillin watched students distributing materials on behalf of the Congress of Racial Equality, the Committee to End Discrimination, the Young Socialist Alliance, and the Student Committee for Agricultural Labor. Trillin came across a student wearing a button that read “One Man, One Vote.” He found another student whose button said “Get Out of Vietnam.”

Civil rights, economic justice, an end to the war in Vietnam. No doubt many of the student organizations at Berkeley in those days proved naive. Yet the causes for which they stood all displayed a certain selflessness and idealism. At Berkeley today? The only cause is self-pleading.

“Risen again,” Friend writes, concluding “Protest Studies,” are “the rebel students and the flailing nightsticks, the days of rage.” As the earnestness of this prose suggests, good liberals such as Friend and his editors at the New Yorker appear to have lost the ability to distinguish between high-mindedness and crassness. Something may have risen again at Berkeley, but it’s not the campus protest movement. It’s a zombie.

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