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Tumbling the Ivory Tower

At UC Berkeley, one radically engaged academic program could finally force the school to own up to its mission as a public university — if the administration agrees to fund it.



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At age 79, Duster is a Chancellor's Professor of Sociology — a comfy title — and has a unique understanding of the history of UC Berkeley. He began researching there in 1967 and started teaching in the sociology department in 1970, later becoming the chair of the department, the director of the university's Institute for the Study of Social Change, and the head of the AC Center for a short run. Today, he's among the most highly respected sociologists in the country, but he recalls being one of just six Black faculty members at Cal in the Seventies, out of approximately 1,350 — and the only Black professor in the social sciences.

Duster began teaching at UC Berkeley during a time of tumultuous racial and ideological tension. In the Fifties and Sixties, colleges were either 98 percent white or 98 percent Black (Native Americans barely had access to higher education and the Latino population was far smaller than it is today). Duster refers to this period as the "American apartheid" of higher education. Then, in April 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, sparking a dramatic shift in race relations in the United States. Within eight years, the majority of Black college students nationwide were attending historically white universities. Ivy Leagues went from 1 to 2 percent Black to 7 to 8 percent — an increase that now seems small in numbers but was culturally seismic at the time.

Similar demographic shifts occurred in corporate America and the US military, but, from Duster's perspective, universities put up the biggest fight. "The one place you would have thought liberalism or progressive thought would have been a convenient or fertile ground for this transformation was the opposite," he said.

As the more diverse student body demanded a more diverse education, the nearly all-white faculties at US universities fiercely guarded the notion that a proper education emerged from studying the whitewashed canon of Great Books, and viewed anything that might question the objectivity of that premise as an unwarranted political intrusion, Duster explained. "The faculty attitude around the country was, 'We let you in here. Come in, sit down, and enjoy the show,'" he recalled.   

In 1968, radical students of color at San Francisco State University and UC Berkeley had formed the Third World Liberation Front — a vanguard inspired by the Black Panthers and postcolonial thinkers such as Frantz Fanon, Che Guevara, and Malcolm X — and demanded a diverse curriculum. Through strikes and protests, groups at each campus successfully convinced their universities to establish Ethnic Studies departments. But that was only the beginning of a necessary shift toward multiculturalism for UC Berkeley. United, students of color — with the help of a few professorial allies — continued to challenge the university to stop excluding theorists of color from the curriculum.

In 1980, Michael Heyman became UC Berkeley's chancellor. With a background in law, he was less entrenched in philosophical elitism than much of his faculty and wanted to see a more diverse university. He appointed a committee of the nation's preeminent scholars from a range of fields to look into the students' demands. Eventually, they determined that the curriculum, indeed, only offered a narrow view of the topics it claimed to cover. Thus, the controversial American Cultures requirement was born. From then on, the campus mandated that each student take at least one of the program's courses, which were required to compare perspectives from at least three different cultures. In the beginning, there was not one course being taught that fulfilled the comparative frameworks requirement, and the subsequent effort to develop courses catalyzed one of the most drastic ideological changes in the university's history.

Heyman's term hosted the glory days of American Cultures. But over the years, the administration pushed it to the university's backburner.

Today, however, there is a coalition of UC Berkeley students and teachers, brought together by the ACES program, who still have a radical vision for the kind of inclusivity and democratic production of knowledge that the American Cultures requirement can bring to a university. They believe that diversifying the curriculum must extend beyond the Band-Aid solution of offering multicultural perspectives to actually changing how students learn and who they learn from. Certain intellectuals at UC Berkeley, including influential Ethnic Studies professor Carlos Muñoz, have been proposing this type of education for decades, and studies have shown that engaged community scholarship work helps students understand complex structures of inequality.

"Race in this country has gone through epochal changes and shifts in attitudes and we went through an awful period ... where we just celebrate differences and go away pretty much with a Rosa Parks-Martin Luther King-Cesar Chavez kind of framework in our heads," said Victoria Robinson, current director of the AC Center and the head of the ACES program. "This is very complicated, critical diversity work that holds on to the necessities of each one of us and our roles and opportunities to create structural change and social change. ... We propose that one of the best ways to achieve that complicated curriculum is through engagement with our community organizations who are often living and breathing — as well as theorizing, because they are also theorizing — the work that we think about."

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