A brief history of Cal Day

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Rachael Garner/File

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For decades, the campus has opened its doors to many thousands of prospective students and members of the large community on one day of the year, welcoming them to come and experience the best of UC Berkeley. And for those hoping to leave with a taste of what UC Berkeley has to offer — even, perhaps, some aspects of college life less conducive to proud official advertisement — Cal Day has not disappointed.

Since its inception in 1968, Cal Day has exhibited the diversity of the UC Berkeley experience to much acclaim. First held as a one-time event to celebrate the school’s centennial, the event was received well enough for the campus to decide to hold a similar open house every five years — and eventually, every year.

At Cal Day, visitors have been regaled with everything from tales of working with llamas in Peru to football scrimmages to Nobel Prize winners explaining the significance of their work. In 2014, they even got to see the campus’s Big C in its traditional King Albert yellow, after Chancellor Nicholas Dirks repainted the landmark the week before.

Along with such spectacles, Cal Day has provided an opportunity for the public to engage with the implications of events that had — or could have — a direct impact on their lives, however sobering or optimistic.

In 2002, professor of political science George Breslauer shared his reflections on teaching a freshman seminar about the terrorist attacks that had taken place the preceding September in New York, while engineering professor Hassan Astaneh-Asl presented an analysis of the collapse of World Trade Center construction.

Newly elected President Barack Obama retained a high profile on Cal Day 2009. Campus historians discussed Obama’s place in American history during a panel, and campus political scientists dissected the Obama campaign’s success in leveraging new media to achieve its desired results. Younger visitors were also offered the opportunity to write a letter to the president.

Presidential politics remains a featured discussion this year, as political science professors Gabriel Lenz, Paul Pierson and Eric Schickler “(will attempt) to make sense of both the Democratic and Republican nomination races” Saturday afternoon.

Beyond the analysis of current political trends, Cal Day has regularly offered visitors the opportunity to experience one decidedly political aspect of the UC Berkeley experience that has been both appreciated and lambasted by many for decades: student-driven activism.

As the campus began to experience the impact of the ban on affirmative action put in place due to the passage of Proposition 209, student organizations — including the currently active By Any Means Necessary, or BAMN, coalition — held a rally that was attended by more than 100 people during Cal Day 1998.

For Cal Day 2007, five protesters declared their opposition to both a $500 million research deal the campus signed with British Petroleum and the proposed removal of oak trees near Memorial Stadium by lodging themselves in a redwood tree near Sather Gate.

The groundbreaking ceremony for the campus’s Jacobs Institute for Design Innovation was held during Cal Day 2014, and it saw about a dozen protesters gather at the construction site to speak out against the planned removal of 17 trees to make way for the new building.  

As significant as they were, many of these events paled in symbolic impact to the actions of the Black Student Union at last year’s Cal Day. For more than an hour, students affiliated with the group blocked Sather Gate by lining up in front of it and tying a rope across it.

The students had gathered in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and to raise awareness of 10 demands made by the union to Dirks — which were eventually addressed by a new campus initiative last fall.

Many months have been spent planning the 400 different events that are being organized to celebrate the campus Saturday. But, as may have been the case in the recent past, it may be the events not officially promoted that leave the deepest impact for some.

Contact Ishaan Srivastava at [email protected]