As a freshman at Del Campo High School in Sacramento, I was assigned to research and report on a four-year university for a class project. Being a first-generation college student with no family lobbying me to report on any particular school, I considered the fact that my father lived in Cupertino, Calif. Doing my report on UC Berkeley was a good excuse to visit him. At this point, Berkeley was just a school conveniently located roughly halfway between Sacramento and the Bay Area.
After touring the campus with my sister and father, naturally I was overflowing with factoids and excitement, and at that moment I knew I wanted to attend Cal three and a half years later. As the tour began and ended on the historic Mario Savio Steps on Sproul Plaza, I was genuinely drawn to Berkeley’s rich history of activism, diversity and free speech.
While my time at Cal has shaped me in ways I could not have imagined, I leave this campus far less enamored with some of the ideals that originally attracted me to Berkeley nearly eight years ago.
With more than 1,000 registered student organizations representing a wide range of social, athletic, philanthropic, professional and political groups, UC Berkeley may look like a campus beaming with diversity and activism. But when I walk through Sproul Plaza, I see mostly self-segregation and isolation of different groups and perspectives. Rarely have I seen much interaction between these communities during my four years at Berkeley.
It was my hope and expectation that Berkeley would offer a marketplace of diverse — and sometimes opposing — ideas, but instead I experienced a culture that often valued a comfortable campus climate over an ideologically and intellectually rigorous one.
The days and weeks surrounding Sept. 27, 2011 shaped much of the lasting impression of Berkeley that I will take with me after graduation. As president of the Berkeley College Republicans, I led a satirical bake sale that protested pending state legislation that would have injected various factors, such as race and gender, into the admissions process of public universities in California. Through this process, I sat on panels with campus administrators, spoke at forums with opposing student leaders and even discussed the state legislation on CNN with the California senator who authored the bill.
While many protested the bake sale, others supported it, but ultimately this controversial event brought multiple perspectives into dialogue and demonstrated that Berkeley has a diversity of opinions on divisive issues, such as affirmative action.
In a move seemingly contrary to the campus’s principles of tolerance and inclusion, Chancellor Robert Birgeneau moved quickly to publicly condemn the bake sale and how BCR publicized the event. Additionally, the ASUC Senate voted unanimously to stifle free speech by threatening to defund BCR for creating an “uncomfortable campus climate.”
Clearly, the student government had no legal authority to defund a group for creating controversial dialogue on campus, and Birgeneau’s email publicly singling out a student organization that he disagreed with was inappropriate. But what kind of campus has Berkeley become when free speech can be threatened and activism can be qualified based on how “uncomfortable” it makes students feel?
How “comfortable” was campus climate during the Free Speech Movement? During the tuition hikes protests? During Occupy Cal? During divestment from Israel? Were all of these discussions not worth having because they made some students feel uncomfortable? Or have the UC Berkeley administration and student government fallen so far out of touch with students that they believe they can discriminate which dialogues are and aren’t appropriate on campus?
A perennial question each generation of student leaders and campus administrators ask is, “How can we create a real Cal community on campus?” At this point, I see more than 1,000 registered student organizations that know little to nothing about each other and rarely — if ever — interact and exchange ideas. It’s no wonder that so many students tune out of campus life when their student government unanimously votes to condemn free speech and take sides on issues that students are very divided over.
I will forever bleed blue and gold, but I leave Berkeley this year hoping that our new chancellor and future student leaders work harder to foster meaningful engagement between communities rather than sustain ideological isolation and protectionism.
Shawn Lewis served as president of Berkeley College Republicans during the 2010-11 and 2011-12 academic years and vice chair of the California College Republicans during the 2012-13 academic year.