In my four years at UC Berkeley, I have come to understand one consistent thread about the intellectual experience here: The best part of a UC Berkeley education is not the learning that happens within the classroom — it is the experience of applying that knowledge outside it.
Students studying chemistry here do more than simply learn about elements; they are at the forefront of research on new chemical discoveries. Students at UC Berkeley don’t just learn about business so that they can get a job post-graduation; they start up their own businesses so that they can create their own futures. And most importantly, at UC Berkeley, one does not simply learn about history; one has the opportunity to live it.
From the founding of the Sierra Club in 1892 to the first production of plutonium in the world in 1941 to the recent discovery of CRISPR gene-editing technology, creations at UC Berkeley have drastically and irrevocably shaped the world around us. From the Free Speech Movement and the Vietnam War protests of the ’60s and ’70s to the campaign for divestment from South Africa in 1986 to the #BlackLivesMatter mobilization in 2014, social movements that happen in Berkeley transform social change not just on and around campus, but globally.
And this past year, UC Berkeley has once again been thrust into the global spotlight as a theater for history to play out. UC Berkeley is situated at the confluence of two divergent social movements in a fight of ideas — one fighting for the right of total free speech to be as offensive as possible, and another that seeks to redress structural inequities and exclusionary tendencies in public institutions.
What is imperative is that students show up to take part in this historical moment in the coming years. If students do not show up to lead this critical discourse, we are neglecting UC Berkeley’s historical legacy, and we are neglecting the crucial role we play in shaping global history. If students do not participate in this historical conversation themselves, the theater of our campus will continue to be co-opted by outside actors who have no respect for UC Berkeley’s storied past or its transcendent future. These actors are just coming to provoke destruction, not to invoke constructive social change.
When Milo Yiannopoulos laughably tries to compare himself to Mario Savio, he is not actually wanting to build on UC Berkeley’s tradition of empowering historical social change. Rather, the only things Yiannopoulos cares about are his own ego and intentionally trying to undermine our history of student power, so as to delegitimize our future of making social change happen.
Likewise, when the dialogue of our campus descends into the leadership of outside individuals with their faces masked and weapons in their hands, they are not coming to make history — they are coming to create chaos. Chaos that undermines the foundations of social mobility and justice that have defined our campus for decades. Chaos under which police militarization is empowered. Chaos, which silences students. Chaos, which President Donald Trump has tried to exploit for political gain to justify undermining our campus and public higher education everywhere.
Now more than ever, we need students to step up to take on the beacon of leadership in these movements. UC Berkeley’s legacy of social change depends on it. If the arc of history has decided that UC Berkeley must be the stage for playing out this debate, then it is critical that the actors in this movement be a part of our community. In 20 years, future UC Berkeley students are going to be learning about this era of campus history. The question is: Will you learn about it, too, or will you be able to say you were there to live this history yourself?
Looking retrospectively, one of my biggest regrets as ASUC president was not having done more to galvanize students in this conversation. With students in the backseat of this historical moment, provocateurs have taken control, with no respect for our campus’ safety or history. I have the utmost confidence in ASUC president-elect Zaynab AbdulQadir-Morris to learn from my shortfall, and to be a leader in uplifting students above this fray. I encourage all students who will be around next year to join in, too.
For students like me who are graduating, congratulations. But your work as a Golden Bear is not done. We must continue to apply our UC Berkeley education, including the learning that happened both in the classroom and outside it, wherever we end up in the future. The world is looking to us to construct a better, more just society. Whether you end up an engineer or an academic, a businessperson or a doctor, do not simply talk about change. Act on it.
William MacKinnon Morrow was the 2016-17 ASUC president. He is graduating with a bachelor’s degree in political science.