Clark Kerr Biography

Born May 17, 1911, in Stony Creek, PA; died in his sleep after suffering a fall, December 1, 2003, in El Cerrito, CA. University administrator. Clark Kerr's most significant contributions to higher education may be overshadowed in the public eye by his controversial dismissal from his position as president of the University of California system. That event is only a blip on the screen of a decades-long career studying and implementing innovative solutions to the problems facing modern universities. He created the term "multiversity," which helped described higher education as it evolved over the second half of the 20th century.

Kerr's dedication to education most surely came about because of the importance that both his parents placed on learning. His mother, Caroline, refused to get married until she had worked to save enough money for her future children's college educations. When she finally married, it was to Samuel Kerr—an apple farmer with a master's degree from the University of Berlin who spoke four languages. Kerr's father always believed in diversity of opinion, questioning popular beliefs and ideas.

After graduating from high school, Kerr attended Swarthmore College where he was an active member of groups and clubs. He became captain of the debating team as well as student body president. He joined a Quaker service group called the American Friends Service Committee and spent a couple of summers educating workers and the poor on social issues. One of those summers was spent in California.

As part of a group of traveling Quakers, Kerr had fallen in love with the West Coast. He graduated from Swarthmore in 1932 and was accepted into Columbia Law School. He changed his mind and decided to pursue a master's degree in economics at Stanford University, which is located south of San Francisco. He received his master's degree in 1933 and went on to the University of California-Berkeley to pursue a Ph.D. in economics, which he earned in 1939.

During the Depression, Kerr worked for the national government as a labor negotiator on the West Coast. He honed his mediation skills during those times and emerged having assisted in 500 negotiations. Kerr went on to be a professor of labor economics at Antioch College, London School of Economics, Stanford University, and the University of Washington. In 1945, he returned to UC Berkeley as head of the Institute of Industrial Relations.

As the effects of the Cold War spread into academia, Berkeley became embroiled in controversy involving loyalty oaths. In 1949, the regents of the university wanted to fire any professors who refused to sign the loyalty oaths, which declared that you were not a Communist. Kerr, who had signed the oath, advocated for the retention of all faculty even if they refused to sign. His mediation between the faculty and the regents won him favor among the faculty.

In 1952, this favor among the faculty helped him gain the position of UC Berkeley's first chancellor. He was overwhelmingly recommended to the position by the faculty. During his tenure as chancellor he started work on the California Master Plan for Higher Education. The goal of the master plan was to make higher education available to all who wanted it while also guaranteeing the integrity of the University of California. The plan took effect in 1960 and stated that the top eighth of the state's high school graduates automatically qualify for any of the campuses of the University of California. The top two-thirds were automatically eligible for California State University. All others were free to attend local and community colleges.

In 1958, Kerr became the 12th president of the University of California statewide system of schools. He was instrumental in creating three new UC campuses—in Irvine, San Diego, and Santa Cruz. During his presidency, Berkeley became the number-one graduate school in the United States. In 1963, he published The Uses of the University, in which he termed the word "multiversity" and outlined the framework for how modern universities needed to function.

In 1964, Kerr returned to the Berkeley campus from traveling and found students and protesters facing off against the university administration. The Free Speech Movement spurred controversy across the political spectrum and Kerr was asked to put a stop to it. As a trained negotiator, Kerr saw no need for violence and felt the events would pass. Criticism of his actions, or lack thereof, led him to submit his resignation in 1965. At that time, the regents refused to accept it and Kerr maintained his position as protests turned from free speech to focus on the conflict in Vietnam.

In 1966, Ronald Reagan was elected governor of California. He had made campaign promises that involved clearing Berkeley of its protesters. One of his first acts after being sworn in was to call a meeting of the Board of Regents and vote Kerr out of office. Kerr stepped down gracefully and in later years was able to joke about his tenure as president, including his abrupt firing.

Offers for jobs flooded in from across the country for Kerr, but five days later he became chair of the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education. In 1973, he became chairman of the Carnegie Council on Policy Studies in Higher Education. He worked with the Carnegie Council until he was forced to step down because he had met the mandatory retirement age. Afterward, he went on speaking tours, did some consulting, and worked on his memoirs. His memoirs, titled The Gold and the Blue: A Personal Memoir of the University of California, 1949-1967, were published in two volumes. Academic Triumphs was published in 2001, and Political Turmoil was released two years later.

Kerr died on December 1, 2003, in El Cerritto, California; he was 92. Kerr is survived by his wife of 69 years, Catherine; his sons, Alexander and Clark; and his daughter, Caroline. Kerr's influence on education is reflected in the mission, focus, and out-reach of universities across the country. Arthur Levine, formerly of the Carnegie Council, told Tanya Schevitz of the San Francisco Chronicle, "There isn't anyone who had as large a role in higher education as Clark Kerr did in the post-World War II 20th century."


Los Angeles Times, December 2, 2003, p. A1, p. A24.

New York Times, December 2, 2003, p. B7.

San Francisco Chronicle, December 2, 2003, p. A1.

Washington Post, December 3, 2003, p. B6.

—Eve M. B. Hermann

User Contributions:

Comment about this article, ask questions, or add new information about this topic: