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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 910

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This is the grave of Clark Kerr.

Born in 1911 in Stony Creek, Pennsylvania, outside of Reading, Kerr grew up in a middle-class household. His father was a teacher (as were many in his family), as well as a farmer. He was a very intelligent and ambitious child and rose rapidly in his school. This got him to Swarthmore. While there, he converted to Quakerism (how many people actually converted to become Quakers in the 20th century?). As such, as he rose in power in America, he became an advocate for peace, for the U.S. joining the League of Nations early in his career and then the World Court. He worked heavily with the American Friends Service Committee promoting these ideas.

Kerr went west for a master’s degree in Stanford and then a PhD in labor economics at Berkeley, which he received in 1939. He got a job at the University of Washington, where he stayed until 1945. He became a well known labor arbitrator and was the kind who was respected by both sides. Labor arbitrator are critical parts of the labor relations system, even in the present when the system is so corporate dominated. He became well known enough that he was brought in to settle a brutal dispute between the militant International Longshore and Warehouse Union led by Harry Bridges and the dock owners in San Francisco.

As an expert in labor relations, Kerr became the head of the newly founded Institute of Labor Relations at Berkeley. As an administrator beyond compare, he rose rapidly in the world of the rapidly expanding University of California. He was the first chancellor of UC-Berkeley in 1952, where he often clashed with UC president Robert Sproul. But Kerr was ascendant and became president of the University of California system in 1958.

Kerr had huge plans for the University of California. He wanted a system of first rate public universities that were semi-autonomous and with world-class facilities and professors to be a model for the world of public education in the age of prosperity. This of course ran up against a lot of opposition, especially from cheap California Republicans who did not want to pay the taxes for this. But because Kerr was so good at labor relations and thus talking out problems and coming to mutually acceptable solutions, he was able to work and cajole the state to approve his California Master Plan for Higher Education. This was critical for the development of community colleges that would allow students to transfer to 4-year institutions with their credits counting as well as to transfer between the 4-year institutions. For Kerr, community colleges were the real key–even as he was promoting Berkeley as the true flagship and UCLA, Davis, San Diego, and the other schools as great schools too–because this was how education became central to democracy. Kerr wasn’t thinking small fry here. He really had thought through the future of higher education, rejecting the elitist notions of the past and creating a world where everyone could continue their education, whether for personal edification or for strictly economic motives. In this, he is one of the most important people in the history of higher education in this country.

However, this is not what Kerr is primarily known for today. What we know him for mostly is his disastrous leadership during the 1964 Free Speech Protests. Kerr was one of those New Dealer types who just didn’t understand the young people of the 1960s. Radicalism was something Kerr was not comfortable with anyway. The man was a labor arbitrator after all. Compromise within a capitalist system was at the core of his beliefs. Kerr’s vision of the university was political in the broadest liberal sense of everyone accessing an education, but it was fundamentally a space without politics as they existed in America. It certainly was a space without protest movements. It’s worth noting here that with a few rare exceptions, college campuses had been apolitical and even reactionary spaces in American history. It was more common to this point for college students to serve as strikebreakers than it was for them to lead leftist protests on campus. So when Freedom Summer veterans came back from Mississippi in the fall of 1964 and demanded reforms on campus, including just being able to table and give out information about civil rights, Kerr was taken aback and he cracked down, attempting to ban it. This actually put the SNCC kids in alliance with young conservative groups who also wanted to pass out literature and organize on campus. Kerr just had no idea how to handle this and did a poor job with it.

Kerr issued an order banning political campaign. 500 students led by Mario Savio marched on the university administration building in protest. Looking back from 2021, the Free Speech Movement seems so mild. The demands were so limited and the students were so well-dressed and polite. They used radical language but in service of really liberal demands, such as, well, free speech. But this was unprecedented on college campuses. California politicians, especially the state’s powerful conservative movement increasingly spearheaded by Ronald Reagan, were especially furious and demand Kerr crack down. But he caved pretty quickly. He hired a new chancellor for the campus who allowed free speech and political activism.

Still, Kerr had lost the trust of students and he had lost the trust of California politicians. Reagan ran for governor in 1966 on an anti-student and anti-Kerr ticket and of course won. The Board of Regents, who already hated Kerr for not enforcing the university’s McCarthyite loyalty oaths, were able to get rid of him in 1967. Before this though, Lyndon Johnson wanted to bring him into the Cabinet as Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare. J. Edgar Hoover though considered Kerr a communist and had a huge FBI file on him that he used to create a largely false report on Kerr, torpedoing the nomination. Hoover also fed information to Reagan to use against Kerr in his campaign. It’s hard to overstate what an utter scumbag Hoover was.

Kerr was known for other things than his 1964 missteps. He wanted to bring the foundational ideas of the small liberal arts college that nurtured him to the giant UC system and that is how UC-Santa Cruz came to be, with its radical foundations that still matter to some extent there today. He also was critical to the idea of the government grant-funded university, which has turned into a malignancy on higher education, where the only research that “matters” is that which brings in money to the institution.

Kerr remained one of the national experts on higher education for the rest of his life. He headed the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education and chaired the Carnegie Council on Policy Studies in Higher Education. He also wrote a bunch of books on higher ed. He continued working as a labor mediator as well, particularly within the Postal Service and the unions of workers in that agency. He sought to expand his vision for higher education overseas and frequently worked on projects in other countries.

Kerr died in 2003 at the age of 92, after a fall.

Clark Kerr is buried in Schwarzwald Cemetery, Jacksonwald, Pennsylvania. Or maybe he is anyway. No one is really certain if his ashes are under here or not. I regret to inform you that I did not in fact dig up the grave to check.

If you would like this series to visit other people associated with higher education, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Mary Lyon, who established Mount Holyoke College as the first institute of higher education for women in the United States, is in South Hadley, Massachusetts and Claiborne Pell, father of the Pell Grant, is in Middletown, Rhode Island. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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