A campus in crisis

The Campus Upon a Hill

UC Berkeley got off to a rocky start in 2017. First, Milo rode a bucking horse into town on a cool day in February. Word spread faster than the sheriff could handle. 

Last night the Berkeley campus was invaded by more than 100 armed individuals clad in Ninja-like uniforms who utilized paramilitary tactics to engage in violent destructive behavior. 

By the summer, Dirks’ resignation took effect, during a budgetary crisis. His successor, Carol Christ, was made to take the oath of office on a “Budgeting for Dummies.”

The UC Office of the President stipulated for campus to reduce the deficit by about $53 million for this fiscal year, bringing the deficit to $57 million 

Maybe the fall sports season would bring succor to a summer in the red?

After athletics probe, UC Berkeley placed under indefinite federal Title IX monitoring 

The stadium may have been built on a fault line, but at least the university has a foundation in academics. After all, the flyers say No. 1 public —

UCLA beats UC Berkeley as No. 1 public university in US, ranking reports 

At least they can’t take away the simple pleasures.   

Sex and depression are not mutually exclusive

I guess there’s a crisis.

It’s undoubtedly a turbulent time to be a student at UC Berkeley. It seems like the only thing more unbalanced than the planned “Free Speech Week” is our budget. But surely there is more to UC Berkeley than what we can be gleaned from the headlines. Where are we headed as an institution? What obstacles must we overcome? And will there be doughnuts on the other side?

These are but a few of the questions I would like to take up this semester. I hope to provide a lens into how our campus culture reflects a sense of upheaval at the institutional, state and national levels. There is no debate about whether we’re in a time of crisis, but what’s missing is a lively discussion about how the prevailing sense of disorder is reflected in our community.

I started this column with a tweet likely sent from under the covers of the White House master bed. That the commander of the free world tweeted about UC Berkeley suggests something quite obvious: UC Berkeley is among the most publicly important and visible universities in the country.

We’ve had a long history that attests to this fact: from our founding in 1868 as the first UC school up to the present, as one of the most diverse and elite institutions in the country. Forget the number of parking spots for Nobel laureates; what happens on our campus can result in rapping fingers on the desk of the Oval Office. Now there’s a pitch for the brochure.

When the attention of a nation is on us, the internal crisis in Berkeley can become even more problematic. Take the Ben Shapiro talk last Thursday as an example. The barricades around campus recalled the July Revolution on the streets of Paris. For $600,000, we were treated to the most expensive set of Les Mis around.

The real battle wasn’t between liberals and conservatives that day, though — it was between our public image and the debt crisis. It’s but one of many examples of how Berkeley’s visibility can undermine its institutions. Forced to appear more open to free speech, the campus and the UC system together spent more than half a million dollars on security for a two-hour talk.  

The administration’s “free speech year” is just one example of the battle to reclaim the identity of our campus. I can understand the nostalgia for the ideals of Mario Savio, but the administration’s current position creates a false comparison between the debate of the 1960s and today’s.

Today’s “Free Speech Week” isn’t about basic civil rights. It’s about whether to waste campus resources on outsiders looking to provoke a public and media frenzy. To put it another way, today’s free speech debate is over just how loudly you can shout fire in a crowded theater.

As bad as things may sound, I see within each institutional problem an opportunity. Perhaps it’s worth celebrating the fact that our universities moment of transition is becoming a public spectacle. Where else will an eavesdropper at a café overhear a conversation that moves from spiced lattes to ecological crisis, the hopeless political class, classes in political science and the ethics of Reagan-Bush tank tops? I hope, over the course of this semester, to bring out the better side to all the headlines.

It can be easy to think the continuum of human experience stops at Sather Gate. After all, a university is made up of its people (and people are 80 percent water, so …). It’s a unique time to be at UC Berkeley. There’s a pulsing student culture on campus that is responding every day to institutional transition and political upheaval. See you next week, when I take the temperature of the school in the midst of a Milo takeover.   

Ismael Farooqui writes the Friday blog on campus culture in a time of institutional crisis. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @ishfarooqui.