UC Berkeley: The Closure of the School of Criminology, 1976

Historical Essay
by Josh Hardman
Part 3 of 6 in A History of Repression at UC Berkeley.

Vollmer and Sproul, 1936
Photo: Online Archive of California

The Berkeley School of Criminology was the mission of Berkeley Police Department’s first Chief - August Vollmer - who hoped to professionalise California’s police force via the teaching of “police science” [1]. The first full-session criminology program was offered in 1931, and focused on training police officers in practical skills such as psychiatry, microbiology and toxicology. The School itself was created in 1947 in the face of opposition, due to the lack of a clearly articulated vision. It is important to note that the successful formation of the School was due in part to Sproul’s sympathy to the proposal, and in part to legitimisation by groups outside of the University - notably the Berkeley Police Department. It was this fragile balance of legitimisation from both inside and outside the University that enabled the School of Criminology to exist despite the tensions and direct challenges [2] that occurred throughout the next few decades.

Having adhered to the status quo throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, Berkeley’s School of Criminology began to house a faction of radical criminologists in the late 1960s. This was surely a symptom of the “dramatic political upheavals” [3] and activation of the Berkeley campus during this period, through events such as the Free Speech Movement and Vietnam War Protests. This new, radical wing of the School manifested itself via the application of Marxist theories, support for efforts such as community control and monitoring of the police, prisoner solidarity movements, and the publication of counter-hegemonic works [4]. This new radical clique, led by charismatic faculty members such as Tony Platt and Herman Schwendinger, disrupted the bases of internal and external legitimisation the School precariously existed on. Steeped in a radical Marxist lens that was both a product of, and nourished by, the climate in Berkeley at this time, the radical school forcefully rejected the notions of objectivity professed by their peers and colleagues in the school, with a small group of students and teachers forming a Union of Radical Criminologists in 1972 [5]. The radical School drew the ire of Ronald Reagan by condemning the Governor’s heavy-handedness in the People’s Park demonstrations of 1969. The subsequent appointment of Chancellor Bowker in 1971 - supported by Attorney Meese who served under Reagan – paved the way for the inevitable ruin of the School [6].

As the administration began to engineer the closure of the School, there was an outburst of support and resistance [7] from both within the campus community and from academics across the world. Protests were widely advertised and well attended, with the Black Panther newspaper running stories on the demonstrations [8]. However, it was the lack of support from the professional community, on which the School had relied on throughout its turbulent past [9], that precipitated the death of the School. Having strayed from its origins as a “professional” program toward a more academic and critical focus, the School was no longer able to solicit legitimacy from its historical sources, and on the wishes of the Berkeley administration it was closed on July 15th, 1976, with the surviving faculty being placed “under the ideological guardianship of the Law School” [10]. The closure of the School can be understood as a process of, and interaction between, institutional change and personal disputes, which resulted in multiple periods of uncertainty regarding the appropriateness of the School’s existence. Until the mid-1960s, each period of uncertainty had been quelled by concerted support from outside sources, though it was the lack of such support, and the wishes of the administration to repress the radical critiques advanced by the new faction, that led to the School’s closure. The events that culminated in the school’s dissolution demonstrate how crucial Berkeley’s administration perceived the soliciting of support, prestige and legitimacy from external institutions to be: in this case the Berkeley Police Department played a pivotal role.

Continue Reading...

Part 1: The Early 20th Century
Part 2: The Loyalty Oath Controversy, 1949-51
Part 3: The Closure of the School of Criminology, 1976
Part 4: Fighting for Tenure
Part 5: Nuclear Weapons and Whistleblowers
Part 6: The 21st Century: GMOs and Corporate Agendas


[1] Koehler, Johann. 2015. "Development And Fracture Of A Discipline: Legacies Of The School Of Criminology At Berkeley". Criminology 53 (4): 513-544. doi:10.1111/1745-9125.12081.
[2] Such as the Master Plan, which aimed to place all vocational programs under the purview of the California Community College system.
[3] "Editorial: Berkeley's School Of Criminology, 1950-1976". 1976. Crime And Social Justice 6.
[4] Shank, Gregory. 2008. "Paul T. Takagi Honored". Social Justice 35 (2).
[5] Shank, Gregory. 1999. "Looking Back: Radical Criminology And Social Movements". History Is A Weapon.
[6] Bowker, Albert H., interviewed by Harriet Nathan, University History Series, Regional Oral History Office, Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley, 1991. Note: Bowker speaks bluntly about various events mentioned in this history, most notably the School of Criminology and Harry Edward’s tenure case.
[7] Ibid. Note: Bowker took a firm stance on these demonstrations, ordering police to clear out the occupation of the criminology building while he and his wife retreated to a motel. Bowker chillingly recalls “I remember that practically all of my senior officers, the president of the student body, and everybody were there saying, "No, don't do it; there will be bloodshed."”, to which he responded “Sometimes you have to crack a few heads.”… “It was quite bloody…”, 19
[8] Shank, Looking Back, 1999
[9] Bowker, interviewed by Harriet Nathan, University History Series. Note: This series of interviews with Bowker elaborates on the centrality of external support and legitimization for the School’s survival, noting “Clark Kerr had once or twice tried to abolish the School of Criminology… and had failed because the establishment of police and public safety complained so much…” p. 16.
[10] Platt, Tony. 2014. "Editor’s Introduction: Legacies Of Radical Criminology In The United States". Social Justice Journal 40 (1), 3