Alma mater, other matters

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A few weeks ago, American author Joyce Carol Oates mused on Twitter how fascinating it was that alumni always lament the falling standards at their alma mater after they have graduated but never while they were in attendance. If this is the case, then homecoming is a charged time. It is a remembrance of the glory days for many as Berkeley welcomes back waves of alumni who were students here when the school was really great.

There will be returning individuals who remember the Free Speech Movement and the moment in time when Berkeley was synonymous with action and revolution and the liberal fringe. There will certainly be more recent alums among us who recall milder times, high points such as The Play or a long winning streak when Cal had the Axe. That things have changed at Cal will be obvious to returning alumni, but they will also see how things have stayed the same.

The relationship between alumni and their alma mater is often complicated. It’s comparable to a family relationship — it defines us once we’ve graduated, and it’s an association we cannot shed. We finish growing up here, and in some ways, we must define ourselves by how we are different from it. It’s easy to feel loyal to a place that has given so much, especially given the prestige and continued cachet of the name of UC Berkeley. It’s also easy to feel unsure of what that really means in the present.

This year’s events provide for a unique visit home. The university is still reeling from the explosion and ensuing confusion on the last day of September. That the explosion was the result of copper theft is a detail that is not lost on the UC Berkeley community. This university is, after all, home to former Secretary of Labor and current UC Berkeley public policy professor Robert Reich, who recently released his documentary “Inequality for All.” Reich could tell you copper theft is often the action of poor people, who sometimes risk stealing against their better judgment because it’s obviously dangerous, and people have died attempting it. Setting aside our shared trauma as students and alumni here, the incident itself is worth examining in larger social and economic context. Cal is increasingly an island of privilege in the middle of the Bay Area’s astonishing rich-poor gap. Strange days around homecoming, indeed.

This homecoming also takes place during a historic and frustrating government shutdown, the last of which took place in 1995 and 1996. The relationship between this campus and the federal government is difficult, no less so under President Obama than under President Clinton. We celebrated the inauguration and reelection of the current president on the same plaza where we protested his drone strikes and railed against the appointment of his former Secretary of Homeland Security as UC president. If alumni worry Sproul Plaza will grow cold, this homecoming should reassure them: The Cal legacy is solid.

Despite the continual change and turmoil and adjustments and rate hikes and occasional explosions, I doubt Joyce Carol Oates would find her backward-looking pessimist alumni here. Alums returning to Cal are indeed returning to their alma mater — a Latin term meaning “nourishing mother.” The relationship we have with this mother after we’ve left her is always going to be complicated and rich. She is still really great, according to the people who decide these things. She’s not the mother we remember: She’s got new scars, and she rearranges the furniture. Her income is often in question, and she always seems to be in a fight. But Cal is still here to nourish us, students and alumni and community alike. Every fall, no matter what, she will be here to welcome us home.