America Needs Great Public Universities: ‘At Berkeley’

“On the one hand, it’s very non-rational, maybe irrational, but certainly non-rational, on the other hand, extremely deductive. I’ve learned to pay attention to the thoughts at the fringe of my head while I’m working. Or even when I’m not working. Because sometimes the best ideas are there. But at the same time it’s an extremely rational process, because I have to constantly ask myself the question: ‘Why?'”

Frederick Wiseman

“If something’s weird and you’re not actively accounting for it, you’re going to stumble.”

— Robotics student in At Berkeley

“Why should I care about the fact that you care about poverty now?” The young woman who asks this question in a seminar with other Berkeley students has just identified herself as “the only black person in the room,” and added, laughing, perhaps so that everyone else in the room can laugh with her. “I hate being that person in the room and then asking this question.”

As the student speaks, the camera in At Berkeley pans slowly to frame her more closely, away from her teacher, whose own question has prompted hers: “Why should we care about poverty in American now?” The student gestures with her hands as she explains the particulars of her background, partly black, partly Irish, partly Italian, particulars that ordain both her difference from most of the people at Berkeley and also, her perfect fit at Berkeley, what makes her “that person in the room.”

This perfect fit might also be considered the very idea of the University of at Berkeley, the oldest campus of ten in the state’s public education system. This idea, as Frederick Wiseman’s four-hour documentary reveals, is at once gloriously and unbearably ambitious. “This is not a colonial university founded by a bunch of Puritans,” explains one teacher, but instead, a radical new idea at the time, dreamed up by a couple of gamblers, a school for everyone.

Described variously here, by students and faculty members, staff members and administrators, public education is as much aspiration as reality, crucial to a democracy, but, increasingly impossible to sustain. Everyone on campus feels the effects of funding cuts (state funding, formerly 40percent of the school’s budget, is now reduced to 16 percent)cuts that are themselves the effects of economic decisions made by people who make such decisions for a living and never feel their effects directly, people who will never set foot on campus.

Those people who do spend long hours at Berkeley express their concerns about “progressive disinvestment in education” repeatedly in the film, open in select theaters now and premiering on PBS 13 January. Such expression takes multiple forms, in administrative meetings, in classroom discussions, in lectures about the sacred activity of sex in “To His Mistress Going to Bed” as well as the possibility of interstellar travel and how torque affects prosthetic legs, the existence of time and the causes and costs of global poverty. And in between the conversations and the lectures, the film cuts repeatedly to workers mowing lawns, blowing leaves, and pouring cement into a new building’s foundation.

Maintenance of the public university is at once material and philosophical, habitual and complicated. discuss fundraising and corporatization, debate furloughs and subsidies (should child care be provided for assistant professors who make such a “life choice”? how does the public university compete with private institutions over faculty as well as students), their arrangements around long table are juxtaposed visually with students piled into seminar rooms or men in hardhats pouring the foundation for a new building.

As much as the film observes its diverse participants, it persistently poses smart questions and provocative metaphors through editing. Wiseman’s documentaries have always told stories and made cases in just this way, setting shot next to shot and scene next to scene. Wiseman’s cutting is mostly subtle, sometimes disarming, always fascinating. “A group,” lectures Robert Reich, “can become positively self-conscious about its process.” So too can a film and its audience.

In At Berkeley, process is premised on time, structuring both change and sameness. A discussion of time in class posits its transformation into metaphors of space. The teacher offers this puzzle, that “If you take physics literally, if you go back, you’ll find a time when time is created.” His students, pictured in close-ups or pairs, nod earnestly and take notes.

At another time, in another venue, a cancer researcher offers another sort of caution concerning time, how it passes and what it does: “Don’t listen to your textbooks, they are dead,” she advises, “I say to [students] now, don’t even listen to me, go and find your own answers.” Outside, a few students march in orange jumpsuits, protesting detentions at Guantanamo Bay, even fewer security officers trailing along. And in yet another meeting room, administrators and local police discuss plans for an upcoming protest against tuition hikes, among other things, how to manage it in space and time and also… in public relations.

Each of these terms shapes experience at Berkeley, or better, shapes experiences, for as similar as they may be, they are also utterly different. The student speaking on the emergence of poverty as a new “issue” now that it’s affecting the erstwhile American middle class provides context and history, voices outrage and resistance. Her peers in the room nod, her teacher commends her; other discussions offer similar insights, framed from other directions: one student worries about the lack of grants available to her (“I am solidly middle class, so it sucks”), an administrator suggests that subsidizing assistant professors’ “life choices” with child care is unfair to other populations. Faculty furloughs allow for staff members to keep their jobs; former chancellor Robert Birgenau especially commends this action, noting how it resonates for Berkeley’s reputation as an institution of public education.

A sequence near film’s end makes clear the themes running throughout. While administrators at a long table discuss what they consider the successful resolution of the protest (that is, no crisis, which the chancellor ascribes to the students’ lack of focus and leadership), the film cuts to a group of student veterans, who have nothing but focus and leadership. And as they praise the community they’ve found at Berkeley (“I think the community is pretty priceless, at other schools, we didn’t have anything like this”), the film cuts again, this time to a lecture on dark energy (whose measurement requires “a comprehensive multi technique approach with single-minded focus on systematics”).

The film cuts again to a group of students lamenting the previous day’s protest, because it disrupted their midterm. The annual, carefully managed Student Protest, supposedly addressing everyone’s concerns, says one boy, covers no one’s. “The more you add, the less people feel connected to it.” Right.

RATING 10 / 10