Report from Berkeley SESPA

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Report from Berkeley SESPA

by Bob Cahn

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 3, No. 2, May 1971, p. 22 – 23

We received the following article from Berkeley SESPA just as we were closing out this issue of the magazine. Though we think the author’s discussion requires some clarification in parts, for example in the discussion of tactics and in the analysis of McMillan’s position, we are printing the report as is in the interest of keeping our readers up to date on local SESPA activities.

Students and staff at the University of California’s Lawrence Radiation Lab at Berkeley continue to press for the right to hold organized meetings at noon hour in the Lab auditorium. This seemingly innocuous demand has resulted in a seventeen-month controversy involving Director of the Laboratory, Dr. Edwin McMillan, Chancellor of the Berkeley Campus, Roger Heyns, President of the University, Charles Hitch, and quite possibly, some of Ronald Reagan’s Board of Regents. While the cast of characters is filled with Nobel Laureates McMillan, Chamberlain, Alvarez, and Calvin, the impetus for action has most recently been due to graduate students and post-docs, who on March 4 (of course!) held a noon-hour meeting outside after being denied use of the auditorium.

The meeting was held less than one month after the Academic Freedom Committee of the Berkeley Campus found that the Lab rules violated the academic freedom of the 500 students and faculty of the Lab. The Committee’s report was supported by the Berkeley Faculty and by the Chancellor, but has had no effect on Lab policy. McMillan, without mentioning the conclusions of the report, has asserted that he is independent of the Chancellor and takes orders only from the President of the University. By such maneuvering McMillan has managed to forestall action for some time, but it seems unlikely that this tactic can survive a determined effort by Lab personnel to win their rights.

Last summer, Charlie Schwartz, a SESPA founder, was suspended by McMillan for holding noon-hour meetings. It is widely believed that if similar action were taken against graduate students the pressure against McMillan would become overwhelming. On the other hand, McMillan feels he cannot let these meetings continue without responding, lest his rules become meaningless. Schwartz’s many controversial actions made him vulnerable to McMillan. Such vulnerability seems absent in those now pressing the issue. Lab personnel are becoming increasingly irritated by McMillan’s actions, and a few senior scientists have threatened to leave the Lab if the rules are not changed.

Any battle, which lasts as long as this one has, provides an excellent opportunity to judge the value of certain tactical approaches. The tactics have been moderate by any standard. As a result, many liberals, such as Owen Chamberlain and Arthur Rosenfeld, remain firmly committed to the cause. Occasional support has even been provided by Luis Alvarez, Nobel Laureate, past president of the APS, and a somewhat conservative member of the Establishment. These moderate tactics however are certainly the cause of the great duration of the ‘ controversy. Attempts to use University and Lab rules to gain a satisfactory settlement have failed completely. Indeed, it has become clear that there really are no rules when it comes to the conduct of people like the Director of the Laboratory. This fact has dictated the tactics which have been employed recently: maintaining constant pressure on McMillan from within. This pressure cannot be made to disappear by a redefinition of the rules, but can be stopped only by firing or suspending employees.

It is worth analyzing McMillan’s position, for while he may be an inept administrator, he is by no means a reactionary, a supporter of the War or of Ronald Reagan. Indeed, there is much which is tragic about his situation. He is frightened that liberalization of the rules would result in raucous noon-time rallies, presumably led by Huey Newton and Torn Hayden. Even in the absence of such demonstrations, he fears that noon meetings would introduce controversy into the Lab (whose sister Lab designs thermonuclear weapons). Lab administrators have repeatedly stressed that it is all right for scientists to worry about nasty questions like the War, but it seems to them improper that the workers at the Lab should consider these problems while at work. This elitist view is the key to the Lab Administration’s thinking: there is a hierarchy in the Lab of which they occupy the top and the students the bottom. They believe that they can decide for the rest whether freedom of assembly is useful or not and they have decided that, at least at the Lab, it is not. The most extreme aspect of this position is McMillan’s contention that he and his administrator friends know that the proposed noontime meetings will not convince anyone of anything, so why have them. This line is not going to be bought by anyone.

The prospect is for more illegal meetings. A request has already been made for use of the auditorium for March 18 and March 25 to discuss upcoming elections in Berkeley. Denial of these requests may result in legal action against the Lab.


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