Berkeley : Surviving the 21st Century

A personal view of Frederick Wiseman’s documentary At Berkeley
by Rosalea Barker

(For 10 of the 14 years I have lived in the San Francisco Bay Area, I had an @berkeley email address by virtue of working there, so my take on this 4-hour- long doco is colored by that experience.)

Right from the get-go, Frederick Wiseman nails the peculiar culture of any institution known as a university. His choice of typeface for the opening title is reminiscent of both medieval illuminated book calligraphy and that used by totalitarian regimes. The documentary unrolls like a medieval scroll, with no music track, and no interviews, narration, or graphics to indicate who the people in it are (for reasons he explains here). The bureaucrats might not be faceless, but they are nameless.

When At Berkeley aired on the SF Bay Area PBS station, KQED, on January 13 this year, it was part of the PBS Independent Lens series, so it was broadcast with an introduction by Stanley Tucci, who gets one aspect right that Wiseman gets wrong in the closing credits – which thank “faculty, students, and staff”. Tucci, more correctly, identifies “faculty, administrators, and students” as being the subjects of the documentary.

It may seem picky to point out the difference between “administrators” and “staff”, but Wiseman’s total lack of interaction with the staff who don’t have middle or upper management roles is a glaring omission. Perhaps he wasn’t granted access to the union meetings that were taking place back then (in 2010) as UC Berkeley began to implement Bain’s Operational Excellence report (PDF). Two middle managers shown in the doco do pass on workers’ concerns, and there is a slide showing stick figures surrounded by clouds of staff grumbles in a presentation made by the person in charge of implementing OE at the time, and some Financial Aid and Student Services staff are included by default in meetings with students.

But the nearest Wiseman gets to an actual coal-face worker is showing the groundsman on the ride-on mower going by. The fact that budget cuts meant there is only one person left to mow all the lawns on campus is the subject of some mirth in one administrators’ meeting that Wiseman shows, so I suppose there’s a possibility that his omission of staff is an intentional commentary on how the university sees their worth. As one manager explains about staff at that time, they aren’t opposed to operational efficiencies, per se—they’ve been suggesting process improvements for years—but they’re wondering why the university ignored their requests in all the years the institution was well-funded, and is now wielding “Operational Excellence” as a blunt tool to lay them off.

But I digress. This is Wiseman’s documentary, not mine, and what he does show is as good a taste of the University of California’s flagship campus as it gets.

In the beginning…

As I said, the documentary unrolls like a scroll, but in discrete sections interspersed with 10-to 30-second shots of the campus, students in hallways, workers pouring cement for the sports stadium upgrade, an a capella group, Frisbee throwers, and so on. Usually, these interstitials end with an exterior shot of the building where the following sequence will take place. Anyone who doesn’t know the campus is none the wiser about whether it’s an establishing shot or not, and it doesn’t really matter, anyway. (Oh, and, every day is sunny!)

Wiseman makes great use of the content of lectures and meetings to explore the history and persona of Berkeley. In the first sequence, a speaker asks, “What is it about Berkeley that is different, that stands out from others?” and those are two of the key questions Wiseman tries to answer in At Berkeley. The speaker’s own answer is that UC Berkeley is not a colonial university founded by a bunch of Puritans (like Yale or Harvard) – but one founded by entrepreneurial businessmen whose reason for establishing the university was that it would be for the future of California and its very diverse population, rather than just for an elite studying traditional academic subjects.

Access to public higher education, and the threat posed to that ideal by repeated cuts in the portion of the State budget allocated to the University of California, is another of the themes that runs through the documentary. The very next sequence (don’t worry, I’m not going to detail every sequence!) is of one administrator trying to sell other administrators at a retreat the Operational Excellence bill of goods. In the face of those severe cuts in State funding, he asks, “How do we, first of all, maintain our pre-eminence, but secondly, how do we guarantee our public character? Because we must not compromise on that.”

The administrator doing the talking is Robert Birgeneau, at that time UCB’s Chancellor. By the time this documentary made it to selected cinemas and PBS in January 2014, Birgeneau’s term had ended. The evening after the TV broadcast, the current Chancellor, Nicholas Dirks, participated in an online Q&A session, where six issues rose to the top of the collective agenda and were selected for the 45-minute program, according to the blurb. “They included UC Berkeley’s public character and mission, its global presence and activities, access and affordability, state support for public higher education, building a research and innovation ecosystem in and around campus, and intercollegiate athletics.”

…towards the end: October 7, 2010

Because university chancellors are usually chosen for their experience – as faculty as well as administrators – they have in their office a professional administrative sidekick known as the Associate Chancellor. His or her task is to get all the pieces of the university’s administration to work together, and it’s a hands-on job. No more so at Berkeley than when students announced that, on October 7, 2010 they would be staging a protest – about the plan to make up the State budget shortfall, by increasing student tuition fees.

The documentary does a good job of setting the background and following the action, including the administration/police department planning, and the debriefings that follow. Part of UC Berkeley’s history and persona is that it is a campus on which free speech and protest are a valuable part of the culture. Quite early in the documentary, there is a fragment from an after-hours public talk given in the Free Speech Movement Café—a popular dining spot on campus. With a backdrop (part of the café’s décor) of a photograph of a student in the back of a police car – the incident that ignited the FSM – the speaker says:

“The Free Speech Movement and Mario Savio, for one, gave as much to this campus as any of its distinguished Nobel Laureates, financial benefactors, or fabled athletic coaches.

He goes on to bemoan the “lack of historical literacy” that has resulted from changes to the way the subject is taught, if at all, in schools. Quoting a recent nationwide study, he says that Americans are becoming “a cynical, passive, and uninformed people”. In the past, people “engaged in moral theater, risking life and liberty to redeem the promise of America.”

When, towards the end of the documentary, Chancellor Birgeneau dismisses the effectiveness of the protest on October 7, he paraphrases an historian friend of his as saying that now protests have become a sort of fun-out on Sproul Plaza with a list of demands, which are all over the place, even contradictory. An administrator’s debrief of some students—not participants in the protest—brings up the same point about how the organizers lost student support by not having a single focus.

For a different perspective of Wiseman’s handling of student issues, see this review on the Reclaim UC website.

And all the other stuff in between

Four hours of fly-on-the-wall documentary time can cover an awful lot of ground, if you’ll pardon the mixed metaphor. From a lecture about the sexual metaphors of Donne’s poetry, to the fine-tuning of a robotic exoskeleton to help a spinal injury patient walk again, to the teary-eyed statement by one student that the economic downturn led to a drop in her mom’s wages as a teacher so now the student has to put in more hours of paid work herself, to the emotional statement by one of the military veterans attending Cal that he is “so grateful that they take a chance on us”…..a wide range of moments distill the essence of what the university is about.

Although no fine arts make their way in the mix, a poetry reading, a performance by the string quartet Sonos, students performing a musical skit about Facebook friends, and drama students rehearsing for a performance are scattered throughout. There is a women’s field hockey match, and shots of the Cal marching band and the spectators at a football game in the stadium. The closing credits are shown over the opening scene of that student performance, which features lone individuals—some on stilts—walking across the stage to the tune of “City of New Orleans”.

“Good morning, America, how are you?” the lyrics ask. Wiseman [pictured left] is asking the same thing, but through the lens of a public institution struggling to preserve its values and its worth in the world, post-2008.