An existential necessity at Cal

Exploring the rivalry between UC Berkeley and Stanford University.


Where does the widespread and fervent dislike of cardinal red on campus come from? It comes partially from a traditionally constructed identity, the historical genome of the “Cal identity” that many are implanted with. This athletic rivalry alone is not problematic, but it is reflective of the parallel spaces that make up UC Berkeley, both conceptual and physical, which allow for the neutralization of true crisis and the consumption of passive resolution.

Currently on display at the Bancroft Library is the engrossing Fiat Lux Redux: Ansel Adams and Clark Kerr exhibit. In 1964, UC Berkeley chancellor Clark Kerr commissioned Ansel Adams to capture the “multiversity,” Kerr’s shining example of the managerial institution. Adams photographed the Berkeley campus and labs but also the newly established satellite campuses in Los Angeles, San Diego, Riverside, Santa Barbara and Davis. The culmination of this project was the 1967 book Fiat Lux, which in its pages presented an unstoppable and integral institution — in the words of Professor Leigh Raiford, an institution “Catholic in its reach.” Just a few months after the publishing of the book, Governor Ronald Reagan fired Clark Kerr, and his university plunged into populist upheaval for the second time that decade. Kerr’s shining multiversity was filled with contradictions, tensions and anxieties his managerial policies failed to resolve or divert attention from.

A comparable ensemble of contradictions is currently transforming UC Berkeley, but upheaval is far from sight. UC Berkeley, under Kerr, was being transformed from a tool of state imperialism to a tool of the market state — think Cold War ideologies. Today’s UC Berkeley is being transformed from being a tool of the marginally democratic market state to a tool of unaccountable corporatism. Privatization, higher tuition, the loss of professors and corporate research are indicative of this shift.

The Cal-Stanford rivalry is an essential part of a construct of UC Berkeley that exists outside of these contradictions. The Cal identity provides a space for students to experience the university outside of its structural crisis. It is a space where crisis is resolved on a scoreboard and solidarity is constructed at bonfire rallies and Greek dance floors. Like American exceptionalism, the superiority imperative of the Cal identity inhibits the recognition of institutional decline. Action cannot take place against a problem that is not recognized or part of daily experience.

I began by suggesting that this parallel space exists both conceptually and physically — in fact, it would not be effective if it did not allow for physical action within it. By this, I mean the administratively promoted presence and active construction of the Cal identity on campus with blue and gold lighting, anti-Stanford banners, official Cal Facebook posts, etc. The administration celebrates the “largest bonfire west of the Mississippi” but is alarmed by tents on campus.

Commenting on the crisis that was the cancellation of the game week bonfire this year, UC Rally Committee chair Kalina Kwong explained the loss to the campus experience in an interview with the SF Gate.

“When I was a freshman, I remember when the fire died down and everyone lit candles. … That was the moment I realized I loved this university and I belonged here,” said Kwong.

Kwong suggests that many students’ connection to the university is founded on a cultural identity more than on an educational experience or the university’s increasingly forgotten social mission. Privatization does not explicitly challenge this traditional experience of the university, thus crisis remains neutralized. To borrow a metaphor from an often-forgotten theorist, the Cal identity is the opiate of the UC Berkeley student.

UC Berkeley is a contested space. Yet experience of true structural crisis is necessary in order to protect our dear public institution.

Luis Flores is the national editor of the Berkeley Political Review.

Contact the opinion desk at [email protected].

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  • I_h8_disqus

    It is interesting how several are saying the university is becoming less because of private funding. Most of the best universities are all privately funded, and they continue to excel. Berkeley will only suffer and change in a fundamental way if it is not given the funding it needs. Where that funding comes from will not change the university in any fundamental way. There isn’t anything good about government when compared to wealthy alums.

  • RyCal

    This article attempts to sound way too high and mighty.

  • Ghost of Kerr

    Everything about the university is a false construct or mimic of community. That’s part of the whole reason it exists. The real community is also experiencing structural crisis and has no place or role for the young. The real community has abandoned customary means of transmitting knowledge and culture between generations in favor of slavish obedience to incomplete ideologies and theories “taught” by “experts.” Therefore the real community creates the false construct in the form of the university (1) to warehouse the young and (2) to spur the “experts” to come up with (a) new rationalizations for social control and repression (laws and struggles) and (b) to develop new technologies to keep productivity increasing in the ever-growing community, without regard for the full consequences of those technologies on all community members.