New York University historian Robert Cohen, author of the newly released biography of the late Free Speech Movement leader Mario Savio, Freedoms Orator (Oxford), will be among the panelists for a discussion on the movement on Wednesday, Oct. 28, 5-7 p.m. at the Free Speech Movement Café, located in the University of California, Berkeleys Moffitt Library.
The event, which will also include Savios widow, Lynne Hollander Savio, and Pulitzer-Prize-winning UC Berkeley professor emeritus of history Leon Litwack, is bookended by the 45th anniversaries of two events that launched the Free Speech Movement, making UC Berkeley a cornerstone of 1960s activism.
On Oct. 1, 1964, on UC Berkeleys Sproul Plaza, Savio climbed on top of a police car-in socks in order to prevent marring the vehicle-to protest the arrest of a demonstrator on the Berkeley campus. Students had been resisting the universitys attempts to ban political advocacy on campus.
On Dec. 2, 1964, Savio and others organized a Sproul Plaza demonstration against university administration policies on speech. The event drew 6,000 students, resulted in mass arrests, and was highlighted by Savios iconic seven-minute address against the university machine that had become so odious. It may be viewed on YouTube.
With these efforts, Savio did more than anyone to make UC Berkeley a center of student activism in the 1960s, setting the stage for nationwide campus protests of the Vietnam War.
Cohen, who obtained a doctorate in history from UC Berkeley in 1987, is the chair of Department of Teaching and Learning in NYUs Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development. Cohens previous works include When the Old Left Was Young; Dear Mrs. Roosevelt: Letters from Children of the Great Depression; and The Free Speech Movement: Reflections on Berkeley in the 1960s, a co-edited volume.
Litwack, another of the events panelists, was a faculty member at UC Berkeley in the fall of 1964-his first semester on the campus. In the campus strike that followed the Dec. 2 arrests, Litwack released his U.S. history class, declaring it inappropriate to study, if not to celebrate, the rebels of the past while we seek to silence the rebels of the present.
Cohens biography-the first on Savio-makes clear that Savios work as an activist had resonance beyond the Free Speech Movement. The work shows that his three-decade life ended in much the way it began-aggravating a university administration in his advocacy of free speech. Savio was in the midst of battle with Sonoma State University over a proposed fee hike when he died in November of 1996, going into a deep coma after suffering heart fibrillation.
The administration felt that Savio had gone gone too far and left the campus leadership really terminally annoyed, Donald Farish, the Sonoma State provost at the time, recounts in Cohens biography.
Cohen recounts Savios efforts to halt a proposed $300 fee hike on Sonoma State students in the books final chapter, Dying in the Saddle.
Savio saw the fee increase as regressive; sneaking in tuition under another name, it made the university too expensive for low-income students, Cohen writes. This differential fee, proposed by President Ruben Armiñana, would have to be approved by a referendum before it could be implemented. To Savio, the process by which the administration promoted the fee proposal seemed unethical: the administration used its influence to discourage opposition and its resources to flood the campus with pro-fee-hike propaganda while failing to provide equal access to the fees critics. He saw this as a free speech issue, since one sides views were privileged over the others without a fair hearing, making a mockery of the democratic process.
Reporters wishing to speak with Cohen should contact James Devitt, NYUs Office of Public Affairs, at 212.998.6808 or
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