Then-dean looks back on 1964: policy ‘was wrong’

In 1964, Peter Van Houten was a 30-year-old associate dean in the Office of the Dean of Students. Today, at 80, the UC Berkeley alumnus looks back at the campus climate just before the Free Speech Movement, his unexpected role in it and how the 1960s affected those he worked with in Sproul Hall.

Q: In September 1964, when the Office of the Dean of Students was asked to enforce new rules prohibiting students from on-campus political organization and activity, what was your job?

A: I was one of several male members of the Dean of Students’ staff assigned to approach individuals at tables who were in violation of campus rules and take their names if they refused to end the tabling. George Murphy and I were the two deans who approached protester Jack Weinberg just in front of the Sproul Hall steps; this set off the police car incident when Weinberg refused to move and was arrested by the UCPD and placed in the police car. As I recall, only the male deans did this confrontational work in those days. Our normal duties – seeing students to help them resolve personal, academic and financial problems – had to give way to our rule enforcement work. This was not what we wanted to do, as this police-type work put us in opposition to the people we were there to help.

Q: Did you support the ban?

A: I am frank to admit that, at the start of the FSM, I felt the university policy was proper and wise. I was convinced that it was vital to keep out religious or political activity that might undermine the institution’s autonomy and make it subject to influences that could make the UC, like public universities in some other states, a political football. I was an “Old Blue” fighting for my university’s well-being. But as the months went on, the Dean of Students’ staff grew to feel we were caught in the middle of a major disagreement between UC President Clark Kerr and UC Berkeley Chancellor Edward Strong, and when the events on campus became more serious, our confusion increased. I didn’t know what to think of the inner workings of the upper levels of the university. I now realize I was wrong about the policy, that it was impossible to support in modern times.

Jack Weinberg in the back of a police car

Jack Weinberg in the back seat of the police car on Oct. 1, 1964. (Photo by Steve Marcus, courtesy of UC Berkeley, The Bancroft Library)

Q: What are your most vivid memories of the first week of October 1964?

A: One of my memories involves the initial sit-in at the Dean of Students’ office that followed the police car incident with Jack Weinberg. It was the first day of work for a new woman assistant dean of students. She appeared all dressed up, including in long gloves, the fashion of the time. As the front door to the office became blocked by those sitting in, we evacuated all the women staff members via a window that led to the roof, where they walked across to the Graduate Division and entered another window and exited Sproul Hall.

Q: Did you personally know Mario Savio?

A: I did not really know Mario Savio or others in the FSM leadership. I did accept Mario’s petition to withdraw from school later in the fall semester of 1964. The Dean of Students had the last signature on student petitions of that sort. The fact that I did not know the leaders well represents, in part, my role as a non-policy maker and also a personal failing. In later years, the campus staff came to know and work with leaders in student causes in an effort to help them get their message across in a way that was effective and not in violation of the rules. We should have done more of that; but times were different, more formal methods were used, and there were lessons to learn for all of us.

Q: What led students from being content, for the most part, with university rules in the 1950s to begin railing against Berkeley as bureaucratic and not user-friendly to undergraduates?

A: In my undergraduate years, 1952-56, it was fair to call Berkeley bureaucratic and impersonal. For the most part, students were treated impersonally and dealt with through windows from long lines. Overwhelmingly, we as undergraduates in that era were born in the Depression of the 1930s, grew up during WWII and were called “the Silent Generation” for our understated approach to life and our resolve to keep our mouths shut and not rock the boat. We accepted things, often without much protest. All this began to change around 1960, when students began showing a new interest in the world around them. They began to question the rules under which the campus operated. One group started to gather student feedback on the quality of teaching. A major impetus for change came from the Civil Rights movement, particularly in the South, where students, often from the North, began to play a role in challenging the segregation policies of the day. The lessons learned from protests in the South later came to be put to work at places like a very unprepared Berkeley.

Peter Van Houten at his desk

Alumnus Peter Van Houten’s 40-year career on campus began when he was 26. He received the Berkeley Citation upon retirement in 2000. (Photo courtesy of Peter Van Houten)

Q: But wasn’t Berkeley trying to make conditions better for students at the time of the FSM?

A: It’s somewhat ironic that the protests began during a period when Berkeley was taking steps to be more personal and user-friendly toward undergraduates. While Kerr was chancellor at UC Berkeley, prior to becoming president of the UC, he improved the physical condition of the campus with a new student union, tennis courts and playing fields with lights, and he had office hours when students could make appointments to see him. But clearly, much more needed to be done, and the failure to do so was, in part, the cause of what happened in the fall of 1964. I think the bureaucratic manner in which students, in general, were treated led many to at least be sympathetic to the FSM. But I’m not sure anything the university did would have fully prevented the unrest that came to represent the 1960s in U.S. history. We were just part of a larger picture.

Q: The beginning of the Free Speech Movement in fall 1964 led to what you and your coworkers called the “Six-Year War” at UC Berkeley. What does that name mean?

A: In the Dean of Students’ office, we came to call the period from 1964-70 the Six-Year War as the unrest went on so long, and our involvement in it felt like we were in a long battle, having spent days and weeks out on Sproul Plaza, enduring many sit-ins, being holed up in campus buildings all night, breathing in loads of tear gas, seeing Sproul Plaza as a war zone with many broken windows in adjoining buildings, experiencing the Wheeler Hall fire and other serious campus damage, having a dean spit upon, and generally being worn out. Some of the worst experiences were in the late 1960s, when things got violent. The late ‘60s, with the Vietnam War and People’s Park protests, made the FSM years look tame in comparison. By June 1970, the worst of the campus unrest seemed to be over. Some felt the student movement had run its course, and many students realized that in their efforts to change the world, they hadn’t influenced the public at large the way they had hoped. I remember the outcry after the invasion of Cambodia and how students found many outsiders were in agreement with U.S. actions.

Q: How will you observe the Free Speech Movement’s 50th this fall?

A: I will remember the people I admired and respected for their honesty, goodness, wisdom and humanity – Clark Kerr for the outstanding work he did as the first chancellor at Berkeley, from 1952 to 1958, and as president of the UC after that. He was badly treated by Ronald Reagan, J. Edgar Hoover and the right wing. Chancellor Roger Heyns (1965-1971) held Cal together during very tough times. Towle did not agree with the directives of Chancellor Strong’s office that set off the FSM, and argued against them, but did her duty and enforced them. Dean of Men Arleigh Williams, who succeeded Towle as dean of students in 1966, was the “point man” for the administration during the late ‘60s unrest and suffered from blows by the left and right. His integrity never wavered nor failed. I am anxious that during the anniversary the memories of these good people be remembered and honored.

I also hope there will be a real discussion of this question: Is speech really free at Berkeley? I am concerned that there are those who think free speech is fine for them but not for others. I wonder if all shades of opinion can be heard and respected. I remember when Secretary of State Madeleine Albright spoke (or attempted to speak) in the Greek Theatre with loud and belligerent protesters doing their best to drown her out. Former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi spoke at Commencement 2014. Could the present speaker have done the same had he been invited? I am afraid that Berkeley, the home of free speech, is a place where some speakers and opinions have trouble being heard. I hope many others will ponder the state of free speech as they remember the events and people of fall 1964.

To read more about the anniversary, click here.

The FSM50 website offers more information about the movement and the anniversary.

Join the conversation on Twitter at #FSM50