Back to School, Berkeley Style

One of the things I’ve been wondering about is what the scene on college campuses will be like this fall, after a year of students staying home and doing all of their classes online instead of in-person on campus. Imagine what the BLM-George Floyd protests would have been like on campus if they hadn’t locked down and emptied out in the spring-summer-fall of last year. Maybe there will be pent-up demand for campus protests to catch up?

Well, here’s one early indicator. I’m back in a live classroom this fall at Berkeley, teaching a basic political science course on the presidency. Yesterday was the first day of classes for the semester, the campus is teeming with student life, and lo and behold—a protest at Sather Gate on Sproul Plaza (scene of the famous Free Speech Movement back in 1964). What’s it about? People’s Park!

Yes, you could think we’ve fallen into some worm hole back to 1969, because that was the first big People’s Park protest that included riots and lots of police and National Guard presence. The issue then—and now—is that People’s Park is owned by the University of California, and as everyone knows student housing is very scarce and expensive here. So the university has once again announced plans to develop student housing on the site of People’s Park. The protests in 1969 caused Berkeley to abandon plans to build. The current administration decided the time had come to go ahead with it. Need I mention that People’s Park today is overrun with the homeless, and is the scene of frequent crime? (I get about one notice a week from campus security of an assault in or around People’s Park.) We’ll see if this protest continues and reaches the dimensions of the riots of 1969. I doubt it.

Separately, a California state judge has blocked the construction of a major new building on the north side of campus on Hearst Avenue, where existing facilities and housing are inadequate for the program growth of the academic units housed there, on grounds that the environmental reviews by the university are insufficient. For the moment, the judge is saying that Berkeley can’t increase its student population until these reviews are satisfied, and the impacts “mitigated.”

Don’t hold your breath for the resolution of either one of these proposed campus developments.  The northside project has been in the planning process for several years now. What’s another decade in California planning hell?