Activist past gives campus chancellor unique worldview

Chancellor Robert Birgeneau’s career has been characterized by social activism as well as academic research.
James Besser/File
Chancellor Robert Birgeneau’s career has been characterized by social activism as well as academic research.

It was the summer of 1965 — well before UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau was a professor, a world-renowned physicist or an administrator at top-notch universities in both the United States and in Canada.

In fact, Birgeneau was just a graduate student studying physics at Yale University, wanting to do a little more than stay inside and conduct research in his lab all day.

Fresh out of the University of Toronto, Birgeneau said he was “restless” and was looking for something more socially relevant to incorporate into his life.

Surveying New Haven, Conn., with a friend, Birgeneau found a community center six blocks from campus located next to a housing community built specifically for low-income families. The community center and the neighborhood were entirely African American, despite the fact that they were a stone’s throw away from the nearly all-white university community.

That was where he said his activism and his desire for social change were sparked.

However, it was not until he was introduced to a Freedom Rider while visiting Cape Cod, Mass., that Birgeneau was introduced to the Yale-run outreach program called the Southern Teaching Program Incorporated. The program gave individuals from the university the opportunity to go south and teach in all-black colleges as well as conduct civil rights work.

Packing up his bags, Birgeneau and his wife headed to Columbia, S.C., where he was selected to teach at Benedict College, a Baptist, all-black campus at the time.

“It was not the same as standing out on Sproul Plaza,” he said. “It was very serious in those days. I learned the young people we interacted with literally never had a person-to-person conversation with a white person. Ever. In their lives.”

The South proved to be a politically and racially charged experience for Birgeneau, who witnessed firsthand just how complicated race relations were — not only between African-Americans and whites but within the black community itself.

“It was such a psychological impact, knowing an emergency-room doctor had refused to care for one of the black students from the college because they were American but had allowed the hospital to take care of a woman who was black when they realized she was from the Bahamas,” Birgeneau said.

Following completion of his doctorate at Yale, Birgeneau continued his activism while working as a member of the technical staff at Bell Laboratories before joining the physics faculty at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1975.

It was during that time that he met H. Eugene Stanley, a fellow physicist who was also interested in social change. Eventually they were invited to Moscow to meet with the Russian Academy of Sciences, though Birgeneau and others did not just meet with Russian scientists.

Aware that Russia was keeping Refuseniks — members of the Soviet Jewish community who were denied permission to emigrate abroad by the authorities of the former Soviet Union and other countries that were formerly communist states — from leaving the country, Stanley encouraged his fellow colleagues, including Birgeneau, to conduct a freedom march on the Moscow subway to protest the Refuseniks’ captivity.

“There were literally soldiers with machine guns, and it got incredible attention there because there had not been a protest like this in Moscow before,” Birgeneau said. “It was a singular event in my life. This was something we started that led to liberating these sets of people.”

Today, Birgeneau is the leader of one of the most politically active campuses in the country, and according to associate vice chancellor of public affairs and university communications Claire Holmes, Birgeneau’s background gives him the insight and perspective to address the issues the campus faces today.

“UC Berkeley’s legacy of activism is an essential part of who we are,” she said in an email. “We are fortunate to have a Chancellor who brings personal experience and passion about important world issues.”

Katie Nelson is an assistant news editor.