Former UC Presidents Recollect Loyalty Oath

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Former UC presidents gathered on campus yesterday to weigh the repercussions of a loyalty oath that shattered the relationship between university administrators and faculty members 50 years ago. Clark Kerr, David Saxon and David Gardner discussed the UC Board of Regents' decision in 1949 to require all UC faculty members and employees to swear an oath of loyalty to the U.S. Constitution, and swear that they were not members of the Communist Party.

UC Berkeley history professor David Hollinger moderated a panel featuring the three past UC presidents.

Clark Kerr, UC president from 1958 to 1967, spoke about the loyalty oath for the first time since he refused to sign it in 1949.

Kerr said that he originally avoided the issue. But as the controversy wore on and he became a member of faculty committees which resisted the regents, he began to oppose the idea behind the oaths.

He served on the Committee on Privilege and Tenure, which questioned professors about their refusal to sign the oath and also recommended appropriate action to the regents.

"All of (the faculty members) had what we thought were good reasons, and we cleared them all," Kerr said.

According to Kerr, when the committee recommended to the regents that the professors should not be punished, the regents fired the professors anyway.

"And I thought, ‘If you make an agreement, by God, you keep it,'" Kerr said. "(It was) sort of by accident I got involved in this dispute, and then emotionally involved as well."

Ultimately, the regents came to regret their decisions on the oaths and they did several things to show their remorse, Kerr said.

According to Kerr, the fact that the regents reinstated permanent tenure, gave back pay to non-signers and awarded an honorary degree to Professor Edward Tolman, one of the professors who was fired, indicated that they felt remorse for their actions.

David Saxon, president of the university from 1975 to 1983, was a professor at UCLA who refused to sign the oaths and was dismissed from the university because of it.

While many other faculty members refused to sign loyalty oaths and were dismissed, Saxon emphasized that each person had different reasons for not signing them.

Although Saxon did eventually return to his job as a physics professor at UCLA, he says that other physicists did not, leading to the eventual decline of the radiation laboratory.

"The decline (of the laboratory) was accelerated and amplified because of the loyalty oaths," Saxon said.

But Chancellor Robert Berdahl, who spoke earlier in the afternoon, said the oaths did have an upside. Berdahl launched the program as a challenge to Gardner, who outlines the negative consequences of the oaths in his book, "The California Oath Controversy."

Gardner wrote that the conflict revealed "the failure of educated, competent and allegedly rational human beings bound together in good cause to serve the truth in knowledge, and their inability to resolve their differences without injuring the university."

While Berdahl said he admires the thoroughness of Gardner's work, the effects of the oaths have not been as negative as Gardner claims.

"While it is clear that much was lost, was the loss so complete and unredeeming, as Gardner suggests?" Berdahl said.

Instead, the chancellor said that university officials and faculty may have learned something and benefited from the loyalty oaths.

He also said that the conflict has helped define a certain principle of individualism at UC Berkeley.

"Like the Declaration of Independence, this principle was born in a dispute that could have been avoided, and was neglected afterwards, but it is still a principle, even if it is yet unfulfilled," Berdahl said.

Berdahl said he sees the conflict over the loyalty oaths as a defining moment in the history of the university and a point of reference for the university's principles for the last 50 years.


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