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An Analytic and Autobiographical Account (2008)
IN JANUARY 1965, in the wake of the turbulent Free Speech Movement on the Berkeley campus and the demise of its chancellor, Edward Strong, the new acting chancellor, Martin Meyerson, asked me to join his staff as a special assistant in the area of student political activity. This was the hottest seat in the chancellor's office at that moment, given the political fragility of the campus. I served eight months in that capacity until a new chancellor, Roger Heyns, was appointed and I took a scheduled sabbatical leave. Those months were a tense and uncertain period that resulted in an unsteady but palpable restoration of authority on the Berkeley campus and a few steps toward campus "normalcy." They also constituted a period of rapid and mandatory political learning on my part and one of the most demanding seasons of my life.
Over the years many colleagues have asked me to write about this important transitional period, both because it has received less attention than the historic Free Speech Movement days of late 1964 and because I had an "insider's" point of view; now, in 2008, I have finally acceded to those requests. I have returned to the archives of the chancellor's office, to accounts of the events in the press, and to my personal recollections.
The staff of the Bancroft Library were very helpful in supplying materials relevant to the Meyerson administration from the files of the chancellor's office. I also benefited from the research assistance of Ziza Delgado and Catherine Shepard-Haier.
I have decided, for better or worse, to make the account both institutional/political and autobiographical, with the thought that my story will provide a more vivid account of those heady days.
On Sunday, January 3, 1965, I was in Washington, D.C., attending a meeting of the Council of the American Sociological Association. About 5 P.M. I was pulled out of the meeting for an urgent phone call. It was from Erving Goffman, my colleague and friend in sociology at Berkeley. He told me that my two children, a son, six, and a daughter, four, had been dramatically rescued from a fire that raged through their apartment in San Francisco the night before, but he assured me that they were unhurt and safe.
It was beginning to snow in Washington, so I dashed to the airport and was able catch a plane to the West Coast that night. I contacted my estranged wife and my children early the next morning and arranged for the children to stay with me in Berkeley until new lodgings could be found in San Francisco. A picture of them appeared that morning on the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle. That unusual publicity resulted from the fact that one of the firemen, during his heroic rescue work, fell backward from a ladder, broke his neck, and died.
As I was making arrangements to cope with this near-tragedy, my home telephone rang. It was Martin Meyerson, the new acting chancellor of the Berkeley campus, asking to see me that day. I arrived at his office a few hours later. Though he was a colleague on the Berkeley campus (dean of environmental design), I did not really know him. When we met, he offered condolences and best wishes for my children. Then he went straight to the point. He asked me to join his staff right away and become assistant to the chancellor for student political activities. I was blown away by the request, but within a matter of moments I accepted.
THE INSTITUTIONAL CONTEXT OF MY APPOINTMENT
As of the beginning of January 1965, the Berkeley campus was in an institutional shambles. In September 1964, the Berkeley administration invoked a rule prohibiting political advertising and soliciting on a thin strip of land at Telegraph and Bancroft Avenues. Students had enjoyed informal use of this strip for years. The action occurred in the context of a history of extensive political activism during the preceding years (Heirich and Kaplan 1965) and in the context of the heated 1964 presidential campaign. The revocation triggered the Free Speech Movement, which involved massive rule violations, demonstrations, vacillating and ultimately unsuccessful efforts to discipline students, a giant rally and sit-in in Sproul Hall on December 2, and a decisive faculty resolution on December 8 that rebuked Chancellor Edward Strong and called for granting some of the students' demands. (A detailed history is given in Heirich ). The protesters and many others regarded December 8 as a decisive and heroic victory. Discredited, Strong was excused from office on January 2, and Meyerson was named acting chancellor for an indefinite period. A side issue was the presence of Alex Sherriffs, vice-chancellor for student affairs, who had been stridently anti-activist during the previous months and had been, like Strong, largely discredited; however, Sheriffs did not leave that office when Strong resigned, and was still formally in charge of student affairs. Kitty Malloy, a steadfast supporter of both Strong and Sherriffs, also remained in a key position on the chancellor's staff.
At the moment he took office, Meyerson faced a situation in which campus authority was more or less nonexistent; the protesting students were exuberant and hopeful, although without a unified program; the faculty was divided and confused; and nobody really knew what to do. That was the situation Meyerson faced in early January and the situation into which he brought me.
MY PERSONAL CIRCUMSTANCES AT THE TIME
The year 1964–65 was my seventh year at Berkeley. I was in good academic and professional standing, having been promoted rapidly up through the ranks to full professor in 1962, mainly in response to several attractive offers from other major universities. My main points of professional reference in those years were my department and the national community of sociologists. I could not really have been described as a citizen of the campus, even though I had been a member of a chancellor's committee on campus discrimination and had kept abreast of campus affairs.
My professional life in spring 1965 was, if anything, overloaded. I was scheduled to teach large required courses in social theory at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. I was in my third and last year as editor-in-chief of the American Sociological Review, a very demanding enterprise, and was active nationally in the American Sociological Association. I was also in the early phases of a research training candidacy at the San Francisco Psychoanalytic Institute, where I was undergoing analysis and preparing to begin courses at the institute. The only relief I got for taking the position in the chancellor's office was from the graduate course in theory. There was no supplementary stipend for my new duties.
My personal life was emerging from chaos. I had separated from my first wife in bitterness, conflict, and unhappiness about a year earlier (an event that triggered my entry into the Psychoanalytic Institute), and I was beginning the painful path toward divorce. My children lived in San Francisco with their mother, but I cared for them in Berkeley on Wednesdays and weekends. As I sketch these details of my professional and personal situation at the time, I return to a question I have never been able to answer: why did I say yes to Meyerson? All my efforts to address the question have resulted only in what I regard as superficial and post facto half-truths: this was my first taste of real institutional power; my home institution, which I liked but had not yet come to love, was in deep trouble and needed any help it could get; and the assignment promised to be a thrilling if difficult one. Oddly—especially in retrospect—I do not remember experiencing any fear that accepting his invitation to step into the political cauldron might damage my career. This was odd, because I had seen numerous administrators and faculty colleagues scalded for their past politics—for taking the wrong stand at the wrong moment, for making the wrong decision, for being in the wrong group. Why should I have been immune? In all events, failing to ask that question meant that I approached the assignment with few apprehensions and with a quiet but false confidence that, in the end, probably served me well in the job.
The other question was: why did Meyerson ask me? I have not been able to answer that question either. I had not been active during the Free Speech Movement, beyond sporadically joining temporary groups of faculty members who were seeking ways to ease the campus situation. Certainly I had not taken any public political stands in the months of conflict. I heard later (but never verified) that Meyerson contacted me on the suggestion of Marty Lipset, a colleague and friend in sociology and a confidant of both Meyerson and Clark Kerr (the president of the entire University of California system and former Berkeley chancellor). Perhaps the fact that I was not publicly identified with any faction (and thereby labeled) in the past few months was also a consideration. Perhaps it made some difference that I had recently written a treatise on collective behavior (Smelser 1962) that included the analysis of riots, protests, and social movements. But these reasons, too, have always been speculations on my part.
THE EARLY DAYS
I had almost no time to prepare for the position. Within a matter of days I had moved into an office near the chancellor's in Dwinelle Hall; was assigned a secretary/assistant from the chancellor's staff; was introduced as Meyerson's assistant at a January 12 meeting of the Berkeley Division of the Academic Senate; held a press conference; and, with Meyerson, met with most of the members of the Steering Committee of the Free Speech Movement.
The introduction at the senate meeting seemed almost incidental. I merely rose when introduced, and sat down again. At the beginning of his brief remarks Martin Meyerson quipped that I was a student of riots, panics, and social movements. A notable feature of the introduction was that the name of Alex Sherriffs, who was still vice-chancellor but whom I was in effect replacing, did not come up either in the introduction or in the question period that followed. That omission was a symptom of the pretence that Sherriffs did not really exist in spring 1965, even though he formally remained in office. I had an early, civil but cool meeting with Sheriffs, and almost immediately established cordial working relations with Katherine Towle, dean of students, and Arleigh Williams, dean of men, both of whom were probably glad to see anyone other than Sherriffs in the chancellor's office, because they had had such strained relations with him during the FSM months.
The news conference was well attended and reported in the Bay Area newspapers, although the appointment of a new assistant did not make front-page news. I also remember that Richard Hafner, public affairs officer, and Ray Colvig, public information officer, were present, probably because they did not trust me yet and were uncertain about what I would say. That distrust was justified, because I didn't know what I was going to say either.
Several items in the coverage of my appointment and news conference were noteworthy.
First, all the reports mentioned that I had been a Rhodes Scholar and some mentioned my Harvard background as well. All mentioned my age, thirty-four. (In announcing my appointment before the Academic Senate Meyerson had also quipped that I was "almost under thirty," a reference to the slogan "Don't trust anyone over thirty" that had become a kind of mantra among student activists at the time.)
Second, the press coverage was generally benign. The newspapers described me as being a new man on the job, unaffiliated with factions, open to communication with students rather than a rule-enforcer, helpful and cooperative rather than punitive, open-door in attitude and respectful of students. In a "Profile of UC Peacemaker" (San Francisco Examiner, January 17), Fred Allgood included a flattering vignette:
At thirty-four he is young enough to win the respect of student groups and to convince them he is sympathetic to their needs and problems. And he is mature enough for Meyerson to accept his advice on how student activity can and should be controlled.
With a donnish uniform of bow tie, casual clothes, leather elbow pads, and heavy glasses, a habit of answering questions with honesty, vigor, seriousness and humor, and an athletic appearance that suggests the necessary stamina for long conferences, he has the ideal presence for the role of mediator on the campus.
Allgood went on to characterize me as "[standing] alone in the noman's-land of the University of California politics battle." That phrase often came vividly to mind during the darker moments of those months.
Third, much was made of my research on collective behavior. Meyerson drew laughs when he mentioned it in introducing me to the Academic Senate. He also jested that my course on collective behavior had even been rated highly in the SLATE Supplement, a course evaluation pamphlet published periodically. The headline on my appointment in the San Francisco Examiner on January 13 was "Meyerson Picks Expert on Mobs."
The other news accounts all stressed this background item. The two evident implications of such publicity were that the chancellor's office was mainly interested in "handling" and "controlling" the dissidents, and that I was brought in to apply my expert knowledge. Both implications made good news for the press in the context of the times, but both were misleading. Neither Meyerson nor I—and nobody in the chancellor's office at the time—had an articulated philosophy of manipulating the movement or the dissidents; we were living day by day without much time to reflect or plan and were most often forced by events to be reactive. I frequently joked that our lead time for decision making was five minutes.
By no stretch of the imagination could it be said that what we did or intended to do was "applied social science." To imply anything like that was to endow us with a rationality we did not have. Yet there were several conclusions that I had reached in my comparative study of collective behavior (including riots) and social movements that informed my thinking in a general way and served me well: (a) I had asked the question of what happens after social movements score a dramatic success and had concluded that success generally creates a psychological letdown, generates internal divisions about what to do next, and leaves the movement floundering and seeking for new agendas and justifications. This conclusion was consistent with what I saw happening with the Free Speech Movement that spring. (b) I had also concluded that among the most incendiary influences on a social movement is authorities' vacillation between punitiveness and weakness, which serves simultaneously to victimize and embolden the movement. I had also seen this principle in action during the late months of 1964 on the Berkeley campus. (c) A closely related conclusion was that it seemed the most legitimate policy on the part of authorities not to engage in direct, partisan ways with activists and antagonists, but to stick, as steadfastly as possible, to a posture of neutrality. In retrospect these lessons seemed to inform my outlook, but only as general orientations and never as fixed principles to be trotted out as specific rules to be applied.
The second noteworthy feature of the news conference was that I framed some of my responses with reference to the issue of free speech. These remarks seemed innocuous enough, and even into February I was quoted in the Daily Californian (February 17, 1965) as saying "already we've seen some helpful reformulations of the free speech issue and many reforms are on the way." Meyerson had also been making conciliatory and liberal statements that were respectful of students and sympathetically echoed their preoccupations (Daily Californian, January 4, 1965). The atmosphere of those first days was such that Mario Savio, the FSM leader, could warn at a rally that students could be deluded by a false sense of security brought on by the university's present attitude. He said, "They could kill us with kindness" (Daily Californian, January 7, 1965). Within a week or so after the press conference, however, I received an invitation (along with Meyerson) to come to dinner at the home of Regent Donald McLaughlin, a leader of the conservative wing of the board. I had known McLaughlin independently, mainly because I was a friend of his son during my graduate school years at Harvard and afterward. I had taken advantage of my acquaintance to pay a visit or two with McLaughlin during Fall 1964, mainly to talk with him about what I saw as the failures of the Strong administration in dealing with the Free Speech Movement. The other guest at dinner was John Lawrence, a noted Berkeley physicist, an outspoken conservative critic of the student movement and the faculty's December 8 resolution, and a member of the small "Truth Squad" of right-wing faculty (Heirich 1968: 358–59) who were active on the campus, with the board of regents, and in Sacramento. After dinner the four of us—McLaughlin, Lawrence, Meyerson, and I—went to a separate room, and the true purpose of the meeting became clear: an occasion for Lawrence and McLaughlin to impose their views on Meyerson and me. In particular, Lawrence gave me a long, vigorous tongue-lashing for even using the term "free speech" in my press conference, because that endowed the movement with an undeserved legitimacy. I remember being very unsettled by this attack, but tended to listen rather than argue back, largely, I suppose, because I sensed that Lawrence was more interested in lecturing than in discussing or arguing. To my knowledge, that episode did not influence either Meyerson or me one way or the other. I did experience a certain muffled resentment toward McLaughlin for arranging the occasion—I suspect that Lawrence put him up to it—though that did not disrupt my friendship with him and his wife, Sylvia.
Excerpted from Reflections on the University of California by Neil J. Smelser. Copyright © 2010 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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