Too-brief tour of the new Berkeley

berkeleyJust the other day, I paid my first-ever visit to that amazing campus on the hillside above Oakland -- the University of California at Berkeley. I have to admit that what I saw and heard surprised me a bit.

As someone who went to college in the 1970s, not that long after the '60s, I had read a bit about Berkeley. I also wrote my first graduate project on civil religion in the Vietnam War Moratorium, which required me to read quite a bit about Berkeley. But, hey, everyone knows the reputation of that campus when it comes to (a) excellence and (b) trendy radicalism.

Now, maybe it was because I was on campus for a conference about religion, politics and the news media (of course), but I heard lots of people talking about how much things have changed at Berkeley. More on that in a moment.

As it turns out, the Los Angeles Times has also caught wind of changes at UC Berkeley and that led to a news feature story with the headline: "Berkeley changes with the times -- Nestled in the Berkeley Hills, Cal is home to Nobel laureates, the first cyclotron, berkelium and a spirited student body."

The story by Christopher Reynolds covers the obvious:

Way back in 1966, when he was running for governor and the university was awash in demonstrations, Ronald Reagan described this campus as "the mess at Berkeley." After winning that election, Reagan engineered the firing of the university president, cut the budget, proposed selling rare books from the library and sent the National Guard in with bayonets and tear gas, dramatic gestures that helped give this territory its own chapter in the history of dissent in America.

But that was a long time ago.

"You can pretty much call us whatever you want," guide Jenn Lerner told us. "As long as it's not Stanford."

And so we began, some of us considering commitments to UC Berkeley, some just curious. Berkeley, the city, is a famously liberal enclave of 102,000 people wedged into about 10 square miles just north of Oakland. Berkeley, the campus, is 1,232 acres of that, but most of the action is in the 178-acre central core, which faces San Francisco Bay from the low slopes of the Berkeley Hills.

The story notes some of the obvious sights on campus, but also the presence of high-profile recruiting tables for Muslims (wouldn't that be an "evangelism" table?) and even the campus Republicans. There are still the neo-1960s bookshops, coexisting with the usual pizza and sandwich shops for today's mall youngsters.

There are some hints at other changes in this background paragraph:

There are about 24,600 undergrads here and 10,300 grad students, with about 85% of the just-admitted freshmen from California. About 35% of all students are Caucasian, 34% Asian American and Pacific Islanders, with other backgrounds present in smaller numbers. About 8% come from foreign countries (mostly grad students). About 10%, Lerner told us, belong to fraternities or sororities.

Now, no one is surprised at this kind of diversity, I hope. You hear the whispers that places like Berkeley have to be careful because, with such a strong emphasis on excellence, the school could go almost totally Asian in the blink of an eye.

But what struck me? Well, let's just say that a campus with lots of brilliant people from places like China, Korea, the Middle East and other places (think Global South, in general) is going to include a high percentage of intense religious believers of various stripes, including traditional Roman Catholics and even some Pentecostals. And did I mention the Koreans?

How are all of those very religious young people -- I met some without even trying, in a short stay -- getting along with those professors who came of age in the 1960s? Me thinks that would have made an interesting wrinkle in this report.

Let the new Berkeley be the new Berkeley, and all that.

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