Inaugural Address [as President of the University of California]

by Clark Kerr

University of California at Berkeley
September 29, 1958

[page 1] There occasions in the life of an institution which we surround with ceremony in order to pause and take stock, to recall its past, to consider its future, and to remind ourselves of its purposes. This is such an occasion. Members and friends of the University have met here and are being honored with the presence of distinguished visitors–delegates from great universities throughout the world and representatives of the state and nation.

You have just heard representatives of The Regents, of the students, of the alumni, of the faculty, of the State of California, and of our sister institutions extending their good wishes for the years to come. By their presence and their greetings, they have conveyed to all of us a feeling of the dignity of this day and an appreciation of the far-reaching extent of our University community.

My own first thoughts at this ceremony are of the men who have preceded me. Eleven times in the past 90 years, a new President has been invested with the task which it is now my privilege to assume. Each of them was deeply dedicated to the University; each must have been grateful and proud of the opportunity to contribute to its development. All of them faced exciting challenges: for especially in the early days, the odds against great achievement have seemed enormous. Among academic institutions, distinction is usually wedded to long tradition, and the prospects for a center of higher [page 2] learning in the frontier state of California must often have seemed dark.

But the accomplishment was great. For many years now, this University has had an honorable position in the academic world; and today I first wish to pay tribute to the men who led in the building of this edifice.

Several of their names are known even to our freshmen, for it is an academic practice to remember our more famous predecessors by naming buildings for them. This is a good tradition, but the steel and concrete of the buildings must not lead us to forget that it is for the sweep of their ideas and the impact of their policies that we are indebted to these men. I should like to review, very briefly, some of their contributions, and to suggest that their ideas and visions of our University still retain their vigor.

The presidency of the University changed hands seven times in its first three decades of existence. This rapid succession of administrations during the institution s formative years sometimes caused the Regents understandable consternation, but on the whole the results were highly beneficial. Each man brought to the young campus the imprint of his particular educational background, interests and aims, thus broadening the foundations upon which others were to build.

Two of our early Presidents–Henry Durant and Martin Kellogg–were classical scholars and helped to foster here an abiding reverence for the great cultural heritage of mankind. Three were eminent scientists: Daniel Coit Gilman, John LeConte and Edward S. Holden. Scientific studies were just then, and sometimes grudgingly, being accorded a significant role in a university curriculum, and the influence of these three Presidents helped establish the renown in the scientific field which the University has held almost since its beginnings. One of the early Presidents, William Thomas Reid, was [page 3] a school administrator, and another, Horace Davis, was a lawyer, business-man and former California Congressman.

Five of the first seven Presidents were graduates of Harvard or Yale; and so the rich traditions of these older institutions were blended with the vigor and enthusiasm of the frontier environment. The University’s physical growth was slow in those first decades; at the close of the nineteenth century enrollment was still less than 2,000 students. But growth in other ways was solid and impressive. The University had established firmly its unswerving commitment to high academic standards, to the need for a broad liberal curriculum, to the importance of adding new knowledge to the intellectual heritage of the past.

The University had now reached the point where it could benefit most from the stability of a longer administration. And destiny helpfully provided an administration whose length was matched by its distinction–that of Benjamin Ide Wheeler. During his twenty-year tenure, enrollment climbed from 2,000 to almost 12,000. The face of the Berkeley campus began to assume its present form with the construction of the Doe Library Building, Agriculture Hall, Hilgard Hall, the Hearst Mining Building, Boalt Hall, the President’s House, Gilman Hall, the Greek Theatre, Wheeler Hall, which was named for him, and the Campanile which has become so beloved a symbol of the Berkeley campus. Professional schools were instituted at Berkeley. Many new academic departments were established to accommodate new or rapidly expanding disciplines. The College of Letters and Science was created by merger of the separate Colleges of Letters, Social Sciences, and Natural Sciences. The University established research facilities at Davis and at Riverside. The notable succession [page 4] of accomplishments during the presidency of Benjamin Ide Wheeler brought the University to the forefront of the nation s centers of learning.

The presidencies of David Prescott Barrows and William Wallace Campbell were marked by the emergence of a concept of definitive importance to the future of the institution: the concept of a statewide University. It was during their terms of office that the Los Angeles campus was developed, at first as an experiment, and then as the guidepost for the further growth of the whole University. And the statewide University system was brought to its present level of service to the community and to scholarship under the devoted stewardship of the only one of my predecessors who is with us today. I am deeply grateful for his presence: first of all, because he is able to share, more fully than anyone else, my feelings on this occasion; and second, because I can take this opportunity to express what all of us must feel: our profound admiration for a lifetime of high accomplishment.

It was 28 years ago this fall, in this same magnificent setting, that Robert Gordon Sproul was inaugurated as the eleventh president of the University of California. As he stood were I now stand, he looked to the future in the following words:


It is not with the interesting and glorious history or manifold and notable present accomplishments that we must concern ourselves. . . . we are interested not so much in what our institutions have been as in what they shall be. The test for the president of this university has been here established, and what he contributes in the creation of wider opportunities for those who are facing the future. This test is a stern one.

A stern test indeed. Yet as we view the University of California today, an academic community unsurpassed in size and seldom equaled on the more important scale of scholarly distinction, we can turn to him and say, with conviction and with gratitude:

[page 5] Robert Gordon Sproul, you have passed your stern test, summa cum laude.

Now I must assume the responsibilities which my predecessors have discharged so well. I have had to assess how I might meet this same stern test. Certainly I must hope for the fullest measure of generous support. The most willing efforts of a single individual can count for little among the myriad actions which will govern the future of an institution such as ours. Even in the earlier days, it required more than the devotion of a handful of men; throughout its history, the University has been shaped by countless personalities. Some imprints have been sharp and clear, others blurred. But it is too massive and complex an institution to owe its character to a few.

There have always been the immeasurable benefits of an enlightened and friendly environment. The long vision and the understanding of the legislators and officers of our State have yielded generous support usually beyond the minimum needs of the moment. Thoughtful private donors have come forward to make provisions above and beyond what the state could do or even should do; we owe to them many of the best-loved facilities which lend distinction to our campuses, including the splendid Greek Theatre where we are now meeting. The University s loyal alumni have always provided the principal link between the University and the community; they have been its prime defenders as well as its most incisive critics. Leading citizens of the State have performed the crucial function of overseers–our Board of Regents, who have worked tirelessly to insure the University s financial soundness and academic repute.

We have been richly rewarded in our efforts to attract an outstanding faculty. Drawn from all corners of the world for their scholarly ability, deeply dedicated to both teaching and research, our faculty members have assumed [page 6] broad responsibility for the academic development of the University and for the selection of new colleagues in the never-ending process of replacement and growth, certainly the key process in University life.

Finally, we must express our debt to our students, who are, of course, the major reason for a university s existence. Our students are chosen with care; they come here with sound academic records and a promise of intellectual growth. They have always responded to the opportunities the University has offered them, and they continue to provide the throbbing vitality of our campuses.

In sum, it has taken the effort and the judgement of thousands of people to build this University so quickly and so well; and I draw comfort from the thought that this effort and judgement, which had been so abundantly available in the past, will continue to sustain it.

If ever the University has needed the wholehearted support of its friends, it needs it today. We are all proud of the University’s past; and we have a right to expect that it will have a great future. But if our expectations are to be fulfilled, we shall have to meet immense challenges. The University is still growing, and growing rapidly. In part, this growth is a response to the need to accommodate the rapidly increasing numbers of young people coming from the high schools; here our problem will be how to expand facilities at a swift pace while maintaining high standards.

But, the accommodation of students in increasing numbers is only a part of the vital role which the university is called upon to play in the modern world. I believe that this role is more important in our century than ever before in the history of civilization–that the work to be done by men and women of trained intellect is greater and more desperately urgent today than at any previous time.

Each civilization has produced its characteristic institutions of [page 7] learning. They have reflected the essence of the civilization which created them, and usually their place has been at the vital center of society. In the ancient empires which the archaeologists unveiled, secret knowledge was guarded and kept alive in the great temples. The spirit of ancient Greece, the heritage of all Western civilization, produced Plato s academy and the legendary library of Alexandria. When Islam swept across Asia Minor and North Africa, it gave birth to illustrious centers of learning such as El Azhar, the still surviving University of Cairo. When, around the time of the Crusades, the West reentered the history of progress, the scattered cathedral schools of Europe turned into those medieval universities which were the direct forerunners of so many modern European schools. In the New World the Universities of Santo Domingo, of Mexico and of San Marcos in Peru came into being in the sixteenth century. And as for ourselves in North America, no sooner had the Pilgrims arrived on this continent than they founded the institution we know as Harvard.

To safeguard and transmit that knowledge which was considered vital to the survival of society and the salvation of its members–such was the main function of these institutions of earlier times. Knowledge was usually conceived of as a finite and limited substance, inherited from the past. All that was worth knowing, indeed all that could be known, was often assumed to have found its authoritative expression. Scholars were the custodians of this fixed fund; their task was to reconcile apparent contradiction and, in the case of the most ambitious schoolmen, to set down in their Summas the definitive balance sheet of man s comprehensive of the universe.

As long as this conception of knowledge hung over the universities, their role in society, however important, was inevitably a relatively passive one. When Abelard, in the twelfth century, said that the first key to wisdom is [page 8] constant and frequent interrogation; for by doubting we are led to question, and be questioning we arrive at truth –this was the call of a heretic, and the University of Paris was not long in expelling him.

More often than not, the atmosphere of the universities of earlier centuries was one of rigid conservatism and the sort of pettifogging pedantry which has given the word academic its invidious overtones. The great periods of intellectual ferment in earlier Western history were usually inspired outside the orbit of the universities, and against much academic opposition. In the Renaissance, in the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century, in the enlightenment of the eighteenth, intellectual leadership passed to men who not only led their lives outside the academic institutions but who often regarded academic learning as sterile and old-fashioned.

If the universities did not originate great intellectual changes, even less were they the mainspring in the vast social and political transformations which made up historical change. The universities may have been guardians of the past, but the course of history was not set by the academicians.

For thousands of years, the history of mankind was shaped by prophets and visionaries, by warriors and rulers. Faith and power, rather than abstract intellect, provided the energies by which the societies rose and without which they crumbled. Even the gigantic technological upswing of the West was at first quite independent of science–indeed, it has been said that during the first 200 years of modern science, from 1600 to 1800, science learned much from technology but taught it relatively little.

Merely to recall these things is to realize the extent of the change which has taken place. The world has changed–from an emphasis on tradition to an emphasis on progress– and the universities have changed, albeit at first reluctantly, to become the architects of progress instead of the protectors [page 9] of tradition. In so changing, their role in society has become ever more important. Increasingly, the leading universities of the world have absorbed functions of intellectual leadership, and today we are all intensely aware of the link between intellect and power, of the appalling urgency and historical significance of our scientific and intellectual capabilities. As the university in recent times has become the undisputed headquarters of intellect, so has intellect invaded all corners of society. I am not thinking merely of the role of science in the modern world, for ours is also an age of ideologies. As Lord Keynes said, more than 20 years ago, and proved so well himself: The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. In the eyes of the public, the actors in the world arena may still be athletes and politicians, generals and diplomats; but no one now can afford to ignore the class rooms, the laboratories and the libraries which have become the small back rooms where history is really made.

Of all the forces which have combined to cast the university in this role, the principle one–which also presents us with one of our greatest challenges for the future–is the unbelievable acceleration in the accumulation of knowledge. Professor Teller once suggested that in each century since 1650 man has roughly doubled his knowledge of the physical and biological universe; but even this may be a conservative estimate. Not only is our knowledge growing, but we are putting it to use in more ways than even the dreamers and visionaries of the past could imagine. Every facet of our society reflects its impact, and we have become dependent upon a level of skill and a degree of scientific training and knowledge which has the most profound implications for us all, both as individuals and as a society. We know so much that no one [page 10] can know very much; for as there is more to know each one of us grows relatively more ignorant.

Even as a society we are finding it difficult to digest and to store the torrent of new knowledge. Our libraries are bursting under our eyes, and it is no coincidence that much creative talent is being devoted to the construction of electronic computing machines with copious memories to facilitate storage of information as well as to handle the administrative tasks which we are creating for ourselves.

Looking ahead, it seems to me that at least four paramount tasks present themselves to the university in our society. On is to continue to stimulate the quest for knowledge. Another is to transmit our knowledge to future generations. A third is to enable us to remain masters of our knowledge, to prevent the complete fragmentation of our view of ourselves, our society and our universe. The fourth and perhaps most exacting is to assess the values which our knowledge should enable us to serve. Let me discuss each in turn.

It is clear that our welfare and our security, now and in the future, depend intimately on our ability to continue our scientific and technological progress. This alone would suffice to make the research work of the university one of its central responsibilities, one which it can not escape. To be sure, the quest for knowledge is not the monopoly of the universities, but they alone combine the task of research with the basic training of the researchers, and provide the environment (if not the salary) that attracts outstanding men. In a recent survey, the major foundations and government research agencies were asked to submit lists of the scientists below the age of forty whom they considered most promising, whether located in universities or industrial laboratories. When a master list was compiled, it was found that of the 225 persons nominated–by agencies whose crucial business is to recognize talent–221 proved [page 11] to be university members.

Our government’s research program leans heavily upon these scientists; and those branches of industry which operate st the frontier of knowledge and whose own research efforts have contributed so much to our technological advance are now begining to locate their facilities in the convenient neighborhood of major universities.

The university, with its libraries, its laboratories, its training facilities, its faculty to consult, and its disinterested flow of ideas, is becoming one of the principal assets of our economy and our nation.

Scientific research is much in the limelight these days. But many of our most urgent problems are of a different nature. It is not only technical know-how that makes a modern society, but above all organization in the most general sense. Our efforts to help the so-called underdeveloped areas of the world have brought home to us the enormous differences between rigid societies where the very fabric of social life opposes change and dynamic societies where the ceaseless adaptation to new circumstances is relatively painless. But even in our country, social change is not without its difficulties. In this country the fabulous efficiency of our economy has almost removed the curse of grinding poverty under which mankind has hitherto labored; but the new abundance itself creates new social problems. The most important thing now may be not to find new ways of making things, but to find new ways of living together. Our architects and city planners are evolving new physical patterns to fit the changing modes of family and community life. Social scientists of all descriptions are trying to analyze the implications of the increasing complexity of our society. Biologists and medical research workers are joined by psychologists and sociologists in our attempts to understand and t meet the needs of the individual in his modern industrial environment.

[page 12] In all this work, the university has a natural function and responsibility, for here, too, the role of intellect has become indispensable. The never ceasing flow of new ideas, in all fields, is the lifeblood of our kind of society, and change and movement is the way it achieves its dynamic equilibrium.

But scholarship does not exist only for its application. The pursuit of knowledge and insight is perhaps man s noblest adventure, and needs no other justification. As all scholars know, rigorous intellectual work is one of the most intense and rewarding forms of human experience, and to subordinate everything to the demands of utility would be to impoversih our lives. When the conquest of space excites us, it is not for its practical consequences, whatevr they may be, but for the human achievement it represents. To expand the boundaries of our knowledge is simply one of our obligations to a civilization based on reason.

The extension of knowledge, in its myriad forms, is but one of our major obligations. We must also devote the utmost skill to the education and training of the vast numbers of highly skilled intellectual personnel without whom the machinery of modern society could not operate. Ths task alone–to transmit enough knowledge to sufficiently many–presents a challenge to our educational system, the full extent of which we have hardly yet explored.

A further kind of effort is also necessary if we are to come to terms with the stupendous changes of today and tomorrow. We must weave this new knowledge into the fabric of our social lives and consciously subject it to our service. And we must face the problem of living with a body of knowledge and learning which in its complexity and diversity almost defies attempts at classification. Our knowledge is already separating us, and specialists speak different languages, enigmatic to colleagues in other fields and totally [page 13] incomprehensible to laymen. In part we must learn to accept this state of affairs; in part we must strive to overcome it. Unless educated men are able to perceive, however dimly, the compass of human behaviour, our knowledge will become a tyrant and we shall be all at sea in a universe more utterly meaningless than before we began to explore it.

Finally, there is a task even weightier than the acumulation, the transmission, and the comprehension of knowledge. In a century which by creating much has overthrown so much, men of intellect everywhere have an obligation which they must not betray. The philosophers and humanists of our universities bear a large share of that burden, as creative and sensitive thinkers and as teachers of our values and our heritage. Whatever demands in the way of technical training the age of science may make on the universities, we recognize that education is more than information, and that the wisdom and experience of the human condition which we have inherited are more pertinent than ever in an era of drastic change. The tradition of the humanities is a noble one, based on a belief in the dignity and worth of the individual, in understanding and tolerance. And more than anything else it is the cement which binds our civilization together.

The future for which we are preparing need not be the result of blind fate. It can be ours to make, and this is the greatest challenge of all. A people s image of the future may shape its destiny: where the image is fearful and apprehensive, society will be faltering and slow-moving; where it is confident and optimistic, a society is capable of civilization. Intellectual and moral vision can animate a culture, and without it all our scientific achievement may be in vain.

In conclusion, the university over the centuries has moved from its role as the guardian of the past to that of the explorer of the future; and in [page 14] this transition it has become one of the great focal points of human endeavor. To create new knowledge, to train the men and women who can use this new knowledge, to make this knowledge comprehensible and thus the servant rather than the master of men, to help men know the values this knowledge should be made to serve–these are the great tasks of the university in the advancing industrial society that is sweeping around the world. These are the tasks of the University of California in an age when the worth of intellect is more apparent than ever before–an age of the most fabulous unfolding of the human mind in history. This can be a truly Golden Age in the life of the University of California during what may yet become a Golden Age for mankind.