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The Disfranchisement of the Graduate Students

       The graduate students on the Berkeley campus have been in a political limbo. Since September 1, 1959, they have had no representative voice in student government. They have not managed to establish a viable self-government, and, until very recently, there have been no regular channels for communication amoung the departmental graduate organizations. Thus for the last few years, in the face of increasing political awareness on the campus, the graduate students have not been able to make, as a group, any statement of opinion or protest. The effect of this disorganization has been to increase graduate apathy toward campus affairs, and to weaken the voice of the students generally. This report will attempt to recount the events which have led to this situation.

       Graduate student representatives on the Executive Committee of the ASUC before 1959 brought many important issues before that body. In 1957, for example, Ralph Schaffer first introduced a motion requesting the University not to sanction discrimination in fraternities and sororities. This issue, only recently settled, came up repeatedly before EX Com in succeeding years, always with graduate support. 1 When SLATE was founded, the graduate students who voted, overwhelmingly supported its candidates. In May of 1958, SLATE member Mike Gucovsky was elected as graduate representative by 573 votes to 71 for his opponent. 2 Although the number of graduates voting in this election was a rather small percentage of the total, it represented a substantial increase over those who took part in the immediately preceding elections. 3

       In the registration line for the spring semester of 1959, graduates were given a questionnaire from the "Activities Planning Committee" designed to determine their attitudes toward the graduate student welfare problem. This opinion survey requested students to rank their preferences for five alternatives. The first alternative was to keep the present structure of the ASUC, in which graduate students could vote for all student representatives, had representatives of their own, and paid the full activity fee. The second was a request for enlarged graduate representation on the Executive Committee. The third alternative involved the disassociation of graduate students from the ASUC, including loss of voting rights, with a reduction in the activity fee. The fourth concerned the establishment of an independent graduate student association, with perhaps some reduction of fees. The fifth alternative was for an increase in fees to support departmental graduate organizations.

       There is no doubt that the questionnaire was, as Arleigh Williams described it, "a definite and sincere attempt" to gauge graduate student opinion. 4 The final report of the survey, presented to ExCom on April 21, shows a careful statistical analysis of the preferences of the 63% of the graduate students who answered fully. The fourth alternative of the questionnaire, for a separate graduate association, was clearly the first choice of the students, with an adjusted score of 1,146. The third alternative was next, with a score of 1,106, and the second and first options next with less, but still substantial support -- scoring 670 and 347, respectively. The report was firm in its conclusions: "In a manifest way the results appear to indicate, without question, that graduate students prefer to establish a separate graduate student association as over against (any other alternative)." In the light of subsequent events, the final words of the report take on some irony:

What needs to be done if the wishes of the graduate students are to be followed seems clear; the question now is how their wishes are to be implemented. We have only one word of caution to express in this regard. The questionnaire used in the Graduate Student Government Survey made it clear that the students were being asked to express their opinion and were not participating in an election. Whatever proposals for action are ultimately made, their implementation should be pursued only after the graduate students have signified their approval via the ballot box. 5

       A few days after the opinion survey had been distributed, an announcement appeared in the Daily Cal to the effect that a Committee for the Disassociation of Graduate Students from the ASUC was circulating a petition asking complete freedom from the ASUC. The petition protested against two aspects of the ASUC: excessive fees -- it pointed out that beginning the following fall the students would have to pay an additional six dollars as Student Union fee -- and the ASUC's ineffectiveness as a student government, partly because of its entering more completely into the field of recreation. The petition stated: "The ASUC seems to exist in spite of the students, not because of them. . . . It is obvious that the ASUC is directed by others than the student 'leaders' " 6 This petition received over 1300 signatures, almost 25% of the graduate population.

       From these two expressions of opinion, the mood of the graduate students seems clear. They were not interested in taking part in, and helping to pay for, an organization which did not represent their interests. There was, however, little positive feeling expressed that they did not want their interests represented by any organization at all.

       When the issue came before the Executive Committee on April 21, the graduate representatives and others emphasized in discussion that ExCom should act quickly to permit the graduates to decide on the form of organization they wished to form in the spring elections. Arleigh Williams, on the other hand, stressed that the most pressing issue for graduate students was disassociation rather than setting up a new government and said that ExCom should recommend to the Chancellor that the graduates "be given the opportunity to dis-associate." 7 The motion which finally passed ExCom on April 26 resolved "that the Executive Committee expresses its approval of a graduate student association," and set up a planning committee. 8 Two days after this resolution had passed, an editorial in the Daily Cal urged caution in the matter of disassociation: "A major drawback of completely separating a graduate association from the ASUC is that it would inevitably weaken student government. In the past few years the graduate representatives have taken a leading role in the attempt to make student government serve the students, and not merely provide the exercise for political science majors." 9

       Three days later, on May 1, it was announced that the Chancellor's office had approved the disassociation of the graduate students from the ASUC, and that the decision had been reached "on the basis of the graduate survey . . . and the disassociation petition." 10 Until this time the prevalent assumption had been that the graduate students would have the opportunity to vote. Now the Daily Cal editorialized: "The action taken by the Chancellor's office . . . is an unfortunate and alarming example of administrative power used in an area where students should exert authority." 11 A letter to the Daily Cal at this time stated: "Many graduate students . . . suspect a plot to emasculate the growing political strength of grads in the campus community." 12 Finally, on May 22, just before the summer vacation, the Chancellor announced that as of September 1 "the graduate students shall be released from the ASUC as is their desire; the ASUC government shall be composed entirely of undergraduate students;" and that a graduate association "acceptable in purpose and structure" to the Chancellor and President could be established "should the graduate students request a separate association." 14 Here, the EXCom resolution was taken as the official voice of the students and the opinion poll as simply advisory to that decision. EXCom, however, had approved a separate association, not recommended dis-association. Furthermore, the Chancellor's history did not mention that on May 26 EXCom had formally deplored the Chancellor's action as hasty and unauthorized. A resolution was passed "That the Executive Committee go on record as opposing disassociation until so voted by its (the ASUC's) graduate members." 15


       In the spring election of 1959, the last in which the graduates voted, SLATE had its greatest electoral success. For the only time, a SLATE member, Dave Armor, was elected to the presidency of the ASUC. He was elected by a margin of 33 votes. Of the eleven positions open, four were filled by SLATE candidates. Two of these were graduate representatives, Marv Sternberg and Carey McWilliams, who were elected unopposed by the 874 graduates voting. 16

       Unfortunately for SLATE, the duly elected graduate representatives were not allowed to complete their terms. On September 21, 1959, just after the fall semester had begun, Chancellor Seaborg sent a letter to Dave Armor which stated: "Effective this date, graduate students are no longer a part of the Associated Students of the University of California government and shall not be represented on the Executive Committee." 17 A few days later, EXCom unseated the graduate representatives. They, in turn, obtained an injunction from the Judicial Committee, prohibiting the Executive Committee from meeting until JCom could hear their appeal. After postponing their deliberations for one week to give the ASUC time to prepare its case, the Judicial Committee dismissed the case on the grounds that, "The petitioners in this case are not members of the Association of the Student Judicial Committee has no jurisdiction over any matter brought to it by or on behalf of non-members of the ASUC." 18

       The disfranchisement of the graduates had a serious effect on the fortunes of SLATE. In the fall of 1959 elections three representatives-at-large, for whom graduates could formerly vote, were chosen. None of them were members of SLATE. The three SLATE candidates lacked 282, 399, and 572 votes needed to win a seat. 842 fewer ballots were cast in this election than in the previous year. 19 In addition to its lack of electoral success since the disfranchisement, SLATE has had difficulty recruiting members among the graduate students. This is understandable, since SLATE's primary function has been to run candidates in ASUC elections. Probably not more than one graduate student who has come to the University since the disfranchisement has been actively involved with SLATE for any length of time. 20


       During the spring and fall semesters of 1959, discussions were carried on by a committee to attempt to decide what type of structure a graduate association should have if one were to be established. The committee, under the direction of Vice-Chancellor Sheriffs, was composed largely of graduate students. Once the question of disassociation had been settled, however, there was no apparent sense of urgency to the committee's deliberation. Finally, on February 9, 1960, it was announced that graduate students for the first time would vote on their government. The vote was only to determine whether they desired a "universal" graduate association, since, as it was explained, a voluntary association could always be formed by those interested. 21 On February 10, the Daily Cal editorialized against the proposal, pointing out that this would mean simply another compulsory membership organization. It is perhaps worth mentioning something the Daily Cal did not, that the Kerr directives of October, 1959 had placed sanctions on political statement by the Executive Committee of the ASUC specifically on the grounds that it represented a compulsory membership. On February 15, shortly before the vote took place, the Daily Cal announced that: "According to Sheriffs, to form a universal graduate association requires a majority vote of all graduate students registered. Therefore, all ballots marked 'no', all blank ballots and all ballots not cast will be counted as 'no' votes." 22 This type of no-abstention vote, unprecedented in University student elections, was not necessary to defeat the idea of a compulsory association: the move was defeated by a vote of 2,171 to 1,854, a margin of 217 votes. 23

       Since the defeat of a compulsory organization there have been repeated attempts to make the voluntary Graduate Student Association a useful and widely supported movement. In spite of these attempts, however, the GSA was recognized neither by the administration nor the graduate students as having an authoritative voice in graduate affairs. Its membership never included a larger number than the number of graduates who voted in ASUC elections. Although its purpose avowedly had been in part political, 24 the GSA never provided a center for the political interests of graduate students. Individual graduates have been responsible for several important political acts such as the vigil against nuclear testing in October, 1961, 25 but there has been no significant organizational link between the graduates as a group and the rest of the University community.

       Why have the graduates not been able to sustain an effective voluntary organization? Perhaps the answer lies in the understandable tendency of graduates to interest themselves in ad hoc movements but not to maintain a constant interest in minor problems of politics and student welfare. Perhaps also the actions of the administration have, until now, discouraged the graduate students from a belief in the effectiveness of united protest.

       -- Evan Alderson
           grad., Eng.


1. Daily Californian, February 11, 1959.

2. Daily Californian, May 12, 1958.

3. Daily Californian, April 16, 1957; December 11, 1957.

4. Daily Californian, February 5, 1959.

5. Report as appended to minutes of the Executive Committee, April 21, 1959, pp. 7, 24, 25.

6. Daily Californian, February 17, 1959.

7. Minutes of the Executive Committee, April 21, p. 6.

8. Minutes of the Executive Committee, April 26, p. 3.

9. Daily Californian, April 28, 1959.

10. Daily Californian, May 1, 1959.

11. Daily Californian, May 4, 1959.

12. Daily Californian, May 6, 1959.

13. Daily Californian, May 22, 1959.

14. Daily Californian, September 23, 1959.

15. Minutes of the Executive Committee, May 26, p. 7.

16. Daily Californian, May 18, 1959.

17. Daily Californian, September 23, 1959.

18. Minutes of the Judicial Committee, October 1, 1959.

19. Daily Californian, December 9, 1959.

20. This is the opinion of Robin Room, graduate student and former SLATE executive.

21. Daily Californian, February 9, 1960.

22. Daily Californian, February 15, 1960.

23. Daily Californian, February 29, 1959.

24. Daily Californian, April 18, 1961.

25. The vigil was organized by graduate students Bob Starobin and Brian Van Arkadie.


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