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A Visionary Remembered

By Kelly Rayburn

Dec. 3, 2003 9:00 p.m.

Clark Kerr, the University of California president for much of
the tumultuous 1960s whose model for higher education redefined the
mission and purpose of universities across the country and
throughout the world, has died. He was 92.

Kerr suffered complications following a fall, and he passed away
Monday at his home in El Cerrito.

During a life that spanned 10 decades, the son of an apple
farmer who became UC Berkeley’s first chancellor and the
UC’s 12th president was many things to many people. He was a
husband of 69 years to his wife Catherine, and a father of three.
As a young professor, he was highly regarded as an economist by his
faculty colleagues.

He was dismissed as an oppressive administrator by the student
leaders of Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement. And he was weak
in dealing with campus demonstrators in the eyes of conservatives
responsible for his firing as president in 1967.

But today, years removed from the polarizing demonstrations of
the 1960s, few university administrators have anything but praise
for Kerr, who, at the time of his death, was regarded as the elder
statesman of higher education.

Chancellor Albert Carnesale said last spring, for example, that
Kerr’s book “The Uses of the University” is
“as close as we can get to the Bible” in the field of
higher education. UC officials laud him for increasing the
university’s quality as the UC endured the massive enrollment
boosts of the post-World War II era. Under Kerr, the UC opened
three new campuses and became the first multiple flagship
university system in the country.

California’s 1960 Master Plan for Higher Education, of
which Kerr was the chief architect and which was designed to offer
an affordable higher education to anyone who pursued one, has been
imitated widely.

Current UC president Robert Dynes reflected on Kerr’s life
Tuesday and said, “He was remarkable. … I find it awesome
… and very humbling that I am sitting in the same chair as Clark

David Saxon, a former UC president, said Kerr was the
“most influential and important leader in higher education in
the 20th century.”

“I had the highest respect for his integrity, his ability,
and his intellect,” Saxon added.

One of Kerr’s great accomplishments was making California
a center for what he called the “production of

But his life began on the East Coast. He was born in 1911 in
Stoney Creek, Penn. Kerr received a bachelor’s degree in
economics from Swarthmore College in 1932 before traveling west for
a summer with a Quaker service organization.

Kerr had planned to return east to enroll in law school at
Columbia University, but on the spur decided instead to stay in
California and take classes at Stanford University for a year. In
the introduction to the first volume of his memoirs, Kerr recounts
how he wrote to one of his professors at Swarthmore about his plans
to study at in Palo Alto. The professor wrote back. Kerr writes:
“I was making, he wrote, a terrible mistake; if I were
foolish enough to be in California at all, I should transfer as
quickly as possible to Berkeley.”

After a year, Kerr did just that ““ and began his life at
the University of California. Kerr earned a Ph.D. in economics from
Berkeley in 1939 and became a key labor negotiator.

After World War II, the G.I. Bill sent millions of post-war
servicemen to college, and with enrollment surging at universities,
faculty were in demand. In 1945, Kerr joined the faculty at
Berkeley. At the time, the UC consisted of the highly regarded
campus in Berkeley and a few satellites ““ a
“southern branch” in Los Angeles, for example.

When Kerr’s professional career at the University of
California came to an abrupt end in 1967, the UC was a world leader
in higher education. In short, Kerr made the modern UC.

During his recent visit to UCLA, Dynes made note that six UC
campuses are are now members of Association of American
Universities, a group of roughly 60 distinguished research
universities. No other public university system has more than one
campus in that group. Much of the credit for this success goes to
Kerr, Dynes said.

“(Kerr) set the tiller in place. … He was the
visionary,” Dynes said.


The outlook was not always so rosy for the UC.

After fascism, the post-war United States soon found itself
another enemy: the communist Soviet Union. Facing a military
threat, Americans also feared internal subversion. At the UC, this
fear manifested itself in the form of a Loyalty Oath.

All faculty had to declare their allegiance to the United States
and disassociate themselves from communism. Saxon remembered the
oath as “a terrible idea for all kinds of reasons.” In
Saxon’s mind the oath so betrayed the notion of academic
freedom that he found it “personally intolerable.” He
did not sign it.

Clark Kerr did. But Kerr also disagreed with the idea and
rallied faculty against the regents’ policy. In the end, the
faculty effort was not successful, and more than 30 professors,
including Saxon, were fired.

Though faculty were fired, Kerr won the respect of his
colleagues. They nominated him to be Berkeley’s first
chancellor in 1952. (Before 1952, the UC president, operating out
of Berkeley, ran the campus.) But while his stance against the oath
earned him the respect of colleagues, others developed the
impression that Kerr was soft on communists. This reputation,
unfair though it may have been, would haunt him for years to

In the six years Kerr served as chancellor, the campus slowly
recovered from the Loyalty Oath debacle which left morale low and
embarrassed the university. In 1958, UC President Robert Sproul
resigned, and as chancellor, Kerr was the natural choice to replace

In an inaugural speech, Kerr said the “university over the
centuries has moved from its role as the guardian of the past to
that of the explorer of the future.” Given this role, it was
the task of universities “to create new knowledge.” He
ended, “This can be a truly Golden Age in the life of the
University of California during what may yet become a Golden Age
for mankind.”

If Kerr saw universities leading the way toward a Golden Age for
mankind, then it was a new kind of university that would be paving
the road ahead. Kerr observed modern universities were really
“multiversities” ““ not one community, but

Multiversities educated future doctors, lawyers and teachers.
They conducted research and participated in public service ““
all under one umbrella. Multiversities operated as integral parts
of society, not as ivory towers that were removed and isolated.

And while most public institutions developed along the model of
one “multiversity” surrounded by satellites, Kerr
abandoned this notion. Though former UCLA Chancellor Franklin
Murphy felt Kerr favored Berkeley, a large part of Kerr’s
legacy was decentralizing the UC. Kerr worked hard to make UCLA in
particular a standout campus.

During his tenure as president, the university spent money to
develop a top library at UCLA. From 1960 through 1968, more than
100,000 volumes were added to UCLA’s library annually. In
addition, L.A. administrators were given more authority and the
southern campus’ student population surged by more than
10,000 from 1960-1967.

While Kerr saw organizational flaws with the UC system, he also
saw problems with California’s other higher education
institutions. The role of state universities seemed to more
frequently overlap with the role of the UC’s campuses.

Kerr led the effort to establish a master plan for higher
education. The plan that eventually emerged called for tuition-free
college. The UC was to accept the top 12.5 percent of high school
graduates and the California State the top third. Anyone who was 18
years of age could attend a community college. The ambitious plan
set new standards for university affordability and

The proposal, which became law with the signature of then-Gov.
Pat Brown, solidified Kerr’s legacy as an internationally
renowned educator. But as time progresses, many have wondered
whether Kerr’s was a vision whose promise could not be
fulfilled. Kerr himself was among those concerned.

“The big thing that we were working on in 1960 was
equality of opportunity,” Kerr said in an interview with the
Daily Bruin in spring 2002. “The big thing we did … was to
guarantee there would be a place in higher education for every high
school graduate who wanted one. That was just absolutely

But then, Kerr said, “two sad things happened.”
First, the UC began weighing Advanced Placement classes in its
admissions, hurting the opportunity of students from high schools
that didn’t offer AP classes. Also, some community colleges
now offer high numbers of courses with credits that transfer to UC.
Others have few such classes.

Contemplating these developments, Kerr said, “The gains we
thought we’d made in 1960, leading the world, have now been
taken away in a very large part.”


In his memoirs, Kerr continually returns to the idea that it is
remarkable the UC improved as it did academically during his time
as president while simultaneously enduring political turmoil. It
was the UC’s academic success that earned Kerr his
reputation; it was its political troubles that ended his

Kerr cited the Loyalty Oath as the a major political assault on
the UC but also said the Berkeley Free Speech Movement greatly
threatened the university. The Free Speech Movement erupted in the
fall semester of 1964 as student groups from the right to the
far-left joined to oppose administrative policies against
disseminating certain political material on campus. As president,
Kerr was the target of many students’ frustration at what
they perceived to be unfair policies.

UCLA communications studies professor Paul von Blum was a
student at Berkeley and active in the Free Speech Movement. He
acknowledged Kerr’s distinguished career but said in 1964
Kerr demonstrated an “insufficient understanding of the First

“He was not a supporter of student political
rights,” von Blum said.

The demonstrations at Berkeley did not stop in 1964 after the
Academic Senate voted to expand students’ speech rights on

Kerr, meantime, maintained a moderate approach to dealing with
student demonstrators. While students felt like they were being
bullied, conservatives began to grow angry at what they saw as
Kerr’s soft response to unruly demonstrations.

By 1966 a law-and-order actor-turned-politician, Ronald Reagan,
was on his way to the governorship. One of his campaign mantras was
that he would clean-up the “mess” at Berkeley. Many
members of the politicized Board of Regents had been lining up
against Kerr, and when it became clear the president would not get
along with the new governor, Kerr was doomed. At the first regents
meeting after Reagan took office, Kerr was fired.

It was later revealed in an investigative report in the San
Francisco Chronicle that the FBI had illegally compiled information
to smear Kerr.

Years later, Kerr was given an FBI document that had been
obtained by a reporter. All of the document’s words had been
blacked out except for a small blurb handwritten by J. Edgar
Hoover: “Kerr is no good.”


In 1996, when a Boalt Hall law school student sought to be the
only student representative on the Board of Regents, he called the
former UC president who had become a legend in the world of higher

To Jess Bravin’s surprise, Clark Kerr not only called him
back, but invited him to his home to discuss some of Bravin’s
ideas for the UC.

Bravin and Kerr talked about the financing of the UC. The two
agreed that administrators and state officials were headed in the
wrong direction, relying more and more on students to fund their
own education through higher student fees.

Bravin, who was successful in his bid for student regent, was
impressed that Kerr not only kept well up to speed with UC affairs,
but that he was so “down to earth” ““ willing to
share his thoughts at his home over grape juice and cookies.

Kerr never abandoned the university ““ even after he was

In fact, just weeks after being fired, Kerr attended a building
dedication at UC Santa Barbara. During his remarks, Kerr reflected
on his time as president of the UC. Kerr said he left the
presidency as he entered it: “fired with
enthusiasm.” Able to joke, Kerr later acknowledged that his
firing was a painful experience.

And he may not have been the only one hurt. The campus
demonstrations did not end with Kerr’s dismissal. In fact,
thousands marched at UCLA in protest when Kerr was fired.

And if students disliked Kerr, they found out his replacements
weren’t any better. Peter Camejo, the Green Party candidate
for governor in the last two elections, enrolled at UC Berkeley in
January of 1967. An activist anti-war student, Camejo was expelled
in December of the same year for improper demonstration.

“In general,” Camejo said, “the anti-war
movement … was very critical of Kerr for suppressing free

But among demonstrating students, “there was an awareness
that he (Kerr) was somewhat better than what the Reagan
administration and the regents were pushing for,” Camejo

If there was a battle for the UC between Reagan and Kerr in
1967, Reagan won. Questions about demonstration policy aside,
Reagan was successful in cutting the UC’s budget and raising
student fees.

Kerr saw Reagan’s policies as another negative political
influence on the UC. And as he watched the UC develop after his
tenure, he remained impressed but also critical.

Late in his life, Kerr’s concerns for his university went
beyond admissions officers weighing AP classes or non-transferable
community college courses. Kerr was critical of the quality of
undergraduate education at campuses so dedicated to research. He
also worried about how the UC would accommodate its current
enrollment growth. And he wondered how universities would change
with so many advancements in information technology. But he
remained hopeful.

“It’s going to be an interesting period of
time,” he said in The Bruin interview. “It’s
going to be harder on older faculty members. … I know I would
find it really hard to adapt myself to the new (system).

“But then we pass away and a new generation comes along,
and that one is going to depend on the young faculties of

Kerr is survived by his wife, Catherine; two sons, Clark and
Alexander; daughter Caroline Gage; and half-brother, William Kerr,
and one great-grandchild.

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Kelly Rayburn
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