Our University
by Genevieve Yue

At Berkeley
Dir. Frederick Wiseman, U.S.

At Berkeley, the latest institutional study by Frederick Wiseman, could be called a bureaucratic drama. Much of the film, set at the University of California, Berkeley, feels like one long administrative meeting, an experience that is simultaneously mundane and anxiety-provoking. Throughout, we see Berkeley’s higher-ups, usually led by then-chancellor Robert Birgeneau, pore over the minutiae of running a major public university. We’re made privy to such events as a meeting about groundskeeping, where it’s revealed that the university is maintained by a single lawnmower; a discussion about measures taken to fend off cyber attacks; one administrator’s weak suggestion that improvements to classroom facilities, rather than matched salaries, would help retain faculty being recruited by other institutions (“That story’s not told,” he complains).

Amid the tedium of campus administrative protocols, the bigger issue that arises from the various belt-tightening discussions is, both in 2010 and now, the crisis of the university in a moment of shrinking public funding, and more generally the way that higher education in this country and around the world has been reshaped according to neoliberal interests. The Obama administration’s recent announcement of a plan to rate universities according to, among other criteria, how much their graduates earn, is but one indicator of this profound shift in which schools have been pressured to reorganize their priorities to favor of job preparedness (shoring up the link between education and the economy) over the more traditional values of liberal arts education. Public universities like Berkeley, founded with the mission to make such opportunities accessible to all, have been particularly vulnerable to these changes because they rely more heavily on state and federal funding. And unlike private institutions, they don’t typically have sizeable endowments to buffer against these economic imperatives.

The Berkeley we see is one struggling to hold on to those values in a rapidly changing economic climate. The film was shot during twelve weeks in the fall of 2010, and the events that take place occur one year after faculty were pressured to take furloughs in order to avoid deeper cuts in staffing, and one year before campus police clashed violently with Occupy Cal protesters in Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza. It is not until the third hour that At Berkeley arrives at its centerpiece sequence, a showdown between protesters at a library sit-in and the administrators reviewing their options for removing them. This student-led walkout, which took place on October 7, 2010, was organized to protest tuition hikes, staff cuts, and other consequences of the dwindling funding provided to the university by the state. As the students march across campus, they gleefully shout, “no cuts, no peace, education must be free,” a noble if increasingly untenable sentiment.

Though Wiseman refrains, in typical Wiseman fashion, from identifying the people who appear onscreen, or providing much in the way of explanatory text, his sympathy for the student protesters, set against Berkeley’s history of radicalism, is evident in the material he selects to lead up to this moment. We see the prominent biologist Mina Bissell encouraging a lecture hall full of students to seek their own answers independent of their professors’ approval; Professor Anayana Roy’s seminar on global poverty turning its attention to the structural injustices associated with the system of higher education in America; a young woman crying as she describes the financial burden her tuition is placing on her middle-class parents; and, in an echo of Birgeneau’s forcible removal of Occupy Cal encampments in 2011, when he issued the somewhat odd statement that they were “not non-violent disobedience,” a class session on the writings of Thoreau. With the inclusion of a talk by emeritus professor Leon Litwack, given in a café named for the Free Speech Movement, Wiseman makes his position eminently clear. “The indispensible strength of America,” Litwack says gravely, “is a right of dissent.” The expression of this right at Berkeley, however, is met with no small degree of resistance.

Birgeneau, who granted Wiseman full access to shoot on campus, save for tenure decision cases, in many ways becomes the film’s focus, appearing more than any other individual. His manner is grandfatherly, warm, and commanding, but never oppressively so. His default facial expression is a crinkly, wide-eyed smile, his blue shirtsleeves almost invariably rolled. When he tries to convey the depth of the state’s funding cuts to a roomful of administrators, or to convince a banquet hall of faculty members to solicit donations from prominent alums, his conviction is believably earnest. The image Birgeneau masterfully presents of himself is of an embattled chancellor presiding over troubled financial times, and managing, despite those difficulties, to bring together staff, faculty, and students in a shared sense of sacrifice, responsibility, and purpose.

Over the course of At Berkeley’s 244 minutes, however, the Birgeneau edifice begins to crack. During a meeting about the university’s “crisis management incident severity system”—a security protocol that, in its more extreme forms, includes bringing in local police from the area jail—the camera pans to his silent figure nodding along in agreement. Later, when the discussion about managing student protests is put to the test with the October 7th walk-out, Birgeneau is surprisingly candid in expressing his contempt for the five hundred students who gathered for the event. Unlike in the political demonstrations of his day (namely the civil rights and antiwar movements of the 1960s), he suggests that the Berkeley students are somehow uncommitted in their efforts. “We took serious risks, actually,” he says, smiling hard. “Now protests have just become, sort of, fun out in Sproul Plaza.” A yes-man at Birgeneau’s table, out of frame, chimes in: “But you were also willing to take responsibility for what happened, which doesn’t happen now.” Birgeneau turns reflective. He recounts how he was fired for his activism, and notes that he’s never told that story before. The implication is, of course, that he’s never had to: until recently, the liberal reformer of the past, promoted over the years into the top ranks of academic administration, hasn’t had to reconcile the disciplinary authority demanded by his position. Yet the events of the past year, which, in addition to several large campus protests included the nighttime raid of his home by a group of forty people carrying torches and throwing planters, perhaps compelled him to adopt a tougher attitude. Faced with his campus’s mounting protest over rising tuition fees, staffing cuts, and the many effects of the state’s “progressive disinvestment,” as he himself described it earlier in the film, he can only hold on to his liberal credentials by discrediting the validity of theirs.

The tenor of Birgeneau’s remarks about the student demonstrators reflects many of the criticisms lodged against the Occupy movement a year later: a lack of coherent demands, a diffuse and overbroad inclusiveness, and an amorphous, undisciplined mass that seemed to exist merely for its own sake. Birgeneau’s criticism that the students were having “sort of fun” is suggested in one sequence where Wiseman shows, at night, a rush event for the university’s massive Greek system. Like the later protest, the fraternity and sorority hopefuls carry handmade signs and mill about in an open-air plaza; it’s easy, at least from a more distant perspective, to see how confusion might arise in observing the two gatherings. Whether, at this point, Birgeneau could actually sympathize with the student protesters, or whether his institutional role as chancellor forced him to act against his progressive values, is unclear; in 2011 the point became moot, when, during his handling of Occupy Cal, he authorized police officers to use batons against them. Broad calls for his resignation ensued, and, citing his desire to return to being a “regular professor,” Birgeneau stepped down as chancellor at the end of that school year, in spring 2012.

Not all of these events occur in the film, of course, though many of them happened while Wiseman was editing it. Neither is At Berkeley solely interested in finding clues that would indicate the challenges to come. In between classroom sequences and meetings, the film offers quieter, interstitial moments, shot at a distance of people walking across campus or groundskeepers tending to the university’s winding paths. Many scenes don’t seem to do more than express the range of activities that happen on campus. We see, for example, a women’s a capella group belting out “Up the Ladder” to an expressionless audience, and in one wondrously enigmatic moment, a young scientist operating a pair of robotic arms, and trying unsuccessfully to get them to fold a hand towel. Some scenes seem less ambiguous, though they only generally contribute to the film’s political sensibility. The grenade-throwing exercises of ROTC students at nightfall suggest a growing military presence on campus, while the image of a raucous crowd waving blue and gold placards in unison in the stands of Memorial Stadium, for some viewers, might recall the controversy over the stadium’s $320 million renovation during a time of severe staffing cuts.

In a monologue from Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, a young man considers the way a time capsule, unlike the grand masterworks of civilizations past, might strive to contain something of the lives of ordinary people. Yet as thorough and wide-ranging as it is, At Berkeley is missing this quality of everyday lives. While there is plenty of coverage of public spaces, the documentary offers no feeling for the private lives of those that we see. The students are perhaps the least represented in this way—we see no dorm hall shufflings, no cacophonous dining halls. As with his earliest documentaries, Wiseman is focused only on the public dimension of a public institution, even though the film’s title suggests both the university and the town in which it’s located: both a place where people work and study, as well as one in which they live. The lack of names, titles, and other indicators of distinct personalities, moreover, tends to occlude the possibility that any individual might have a life beyond his or her function in the university. This anonymizing, perhaps even dehumanizing, tendency in Wiseman’s films has been brilliantly parodied in Jean-Paul Kelly’s Service of the Goods (2013), a film that consists of a series of reenacted scenes from Titicut Follies (1967), High School (1968), Law and Order (1969), Hospital (1970), Basic Training (1971), Juvenile Court (1973), and Welfare (1975). In each scenario, the actors are covered in white sheets, masked as ghosts. The costumes, and especially the gaping eyeholes cut out of them, suggest the degree to which people that exist within institutional settings are merely types, and that the individual underneath the sheet, or the uniform, hardly matters at all.

Given this tendency to faceless institutional surveying, it is perhaps surprising how much time is given to Birgeneau and his ruminations. To consider the question the demonstrating students ask, “Whose university?” Wiseman arrives at no answer. Though his political orientation, expressed in his choice of shots, would seem to emphasize the student protesters, Birgeneau’s pervasive presence suggests otherwise. This split focus, between an institutional study and a more psychologically inflected one in the case of Birgeneau, indicates what might, for some, be a weakness in Wiseman’s approach. While he is obviously a political filmmaker, he is not an argumentative one. And though it’s clear that he attempts to advance sympathy for, and account for the early stirrings of, the Occupy movement, his assemblage of footage does not add up to a polemic. Without an investment in individuals beyond Birgeneau (and he, too, is invariably shaped by the institutional forces in his role as chancellor), it can be difficult to read into the nameless faces on which Wiseman impassively dwells, the very people for whom this university could be said to belong: the students.

Most of what we hear from students is expressed in the presence of adults, whether in class settings or smaller meetings, like the one gathered to discuss the experience of African American students on campus, or the group of military veterans sharing their experiences under the Cal Veterans program. In these examples, we glimpse a different view of the university as yet another ivory tower, built to admit some people in while shutting the vast majority out. It’s an elitist reality that has perhaps always brushed uncomfortably against the university’s populist idea of itself, yet in both groups the students, despite their feelings of estrangement on campus, are grateful for the opportunity their education will provide. In overt economic terms, but also in more subtly political ones, we’re given the sense that public education is no longer public, or that its public character has always been a matter of protest, negotiation, and mind-numbing bureaucratic labor. Yet the stakes have been undoubtedly raised in recent years—the crisis at Berkeley is part of a broader transformation in higher education, and it remains unclear what the fate of the country’s preeminent public university will be. What Wiseman’s film insists, however, is that there is a history here, a record of that struggle, even if it’s as ephemeral as the dust we see in one enigmatic shot, falling in light clumps to a basement floor as a janitor sweeps the stairwell above.