Issue 7 (February 2014)

Soldiers, Cops, Imperialists: A Short Genealogy of UC's Ties to the U.S. Security State

Shane Boyle and Katy Fox-Hodess

The appointment of Janet Napolitano, former Governor of Arizona and Secretary of the US Department of Homeland Security, as the twentieth President of the University of California has sparked outrage among students and workers struggling to build a truly accessible university. For activists, her appointment is an overt signal that the UC will expand the tactics and technology at its disposal to repress, intimidate, and surveil those fighting against the immiseration of students and campus workers. Just like UC Berkeley Chancellor Dirks’ contention in UC Berkeley’s alumni magazine that he was chosen for the position because he was “battle ready,”[1] Napolitano’s appointment shows that the gloves have truly come off and the UC administration is no longer interested in maintaining even the façade that academic credentials are the guiding criteria for university governance. As president, Napolitano will likely intensify the ties of UC research and teaching to the US security state. Thus, her appointment offers an occasion to better understand the enmeshment of higher education within the US security apparatus.

This essay considers the consequences Napolitano’s presidency poses for resistance to the restructuring of the UC following the 2008 financial collapse, and, more broadly, what it suggests about higher education’s changing connections to capitalism and the state today. Our project consists of two parts, with the first attending to the perceived novelty of Napolitano’s appointment. As Darwin Bond-Graham has noted, Napolitano is actually “not different at all” from previous UC presidents “with respect to her career and connections to the national security state.”[2] Rather than see Napolitano’s presidency as marking an entirely new development in the military-academic complex, we are interested in what it reveals about the restructured nexus of higher education, capital, and the state today. We approach this issue historically, by briefly examining the careers of several former UC presidents, which stand as telling precedents for the close relationship between the UC administration and the security state. Our aim is not to dismiss claims about the novelty of Napolitano’s appointment. Instead we hope that situating her presidency within this genealogy can highlight how the social function of public higher education has long been guaranteed and conditioned by its collaboration with the security state and capital. This long history, we argue in our conclusion, provides another vantage point from which we can historicize contemporary campus-based student and worker movements in California and beyond.




The first military man to lead the University of California was its third president, John LeConte, formerly a Confederate officer during the Civil War.[3] After losing his family's plantation, he headed west to join the UC faculty with his brother Joseph LeConte—namesake of Berkeley’s LeConte Hall—who had worked to develop medicine and supervise the production of explosives for the Confederate Army. UC's sixth president, Horace Davis, was the US Congressman who in 1878 introduced the infamous Chinese Exclusion Act. This white supremacist measure restricted Chinese immigration to the US until the 1940s.[4] Davis’ actions are echoed in the record number of deportations of undocumented immigrants from Mexico and Central America Napolitano supervised during her time in Arizona and at Homeland Security.

Perhaps the closest historical precedent for the Napolitano presidency, however, is David Prescott Barrows’ tenure from 1919-1923. Barrows began his political career at the turn of the century as part of the US imperialist apparatus in the Philippines, heading efforts to reorganize the country's educational system to serve American interests.[5] Renowned historian Alfred McCoy has argued that the US occupation of the Philippines shares striking similarities with the current US occupation of Iraq.[6] Both have been characterized by the innovation of surveillance, policing, and counter-insurgency techniques in poor, non-white peripheral regions outside of the US that have then been re-imported to repress dissident, left-wing political groups in the United States, including in universities.[7]

Barrows returned to the US from the Philippines in 1909, where he joined the UC Berkeley faculty as Professor of Education and Political Science. In his long career and many faculty and administrative roles at the UC, Barrows heavily promoted American military interests.[8] A particularly adulatory UC publication from the late 1950’s noted how “Barrows embraced the first opportunity presented by the Citizens' Military Training Camps to acquire military experience, and then became the moving spirit in organizing and training volunteers from among the students and younger faculty members at the University. Many of these were later to serve as officers after the United States entered the war.”[9] Barrows himself served as an officer in Europe during World War I, staying on to play an important role in the first “hot” skirmish of the Cold War, the US attack on the Bolsheviks with the American Expeditionary Forces in Siberia. This experience converted Barrows into a life-long, virulent anti-communist.

Back again in the US, Barrows was appointed President of the UC in 1919. That same year, he joined the California National Guard, retiring in 1937 with the rank of Major General.[10] Barrows served as a battalion commander during the San Francisco General Strike of 1934, when 4,500 National Guardsmen were deployed with tanks and machine guns to contain the strike and protect vigilantes raiding the offices of unions and other left organizations.[11]

Not to be outdone by Barrows, the presidency of Robert Gordon Sproul was guided by his faith in the “symbiosis of the capitalistic and academic industry.”[12] Sproul would prove instrumental in enmeshing the UC with the US military and security apparatus during his 28-year tenure, which began in 1930 and spanned the Great Depression, the Second World War, and the start of the Cold War.

Thanks to Sproul’s efforts, the UC received astonishing levels of federal and private support for its advanced research laboratories at the height of the Great Depression, even as the university’s operating and instructional budget suffered severe cuts. The participation of prominent UC scientists in nuclear research, like UC Berkeley physicist Robert Oppenheimer, led the Regents to partner with the federal government in managing the national nuclear weapons laboratory in Los Alamos during the war.[13] This paved the way for future postwar contracts between the UC and the federal government’s Atomic Energy Commission. After the Soviet Union successfully tested its nuclear weapons in 1949, UC’s Nobel Prize-winning physicist Ernest Lawrence convinced the Regents to lobby the federal government to open the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory at Livermore, partly for the purposes of producing a fusion bomb. The facility opened in 1952 as an offshoot of the existing UC Radiation Laboratory, and was later renamed the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Beginning in the 1930s, Sproul personally took it upon himself to secure the federal and private funding that Lawrence and others needed for their research and laboratories.[14]

Throughout his presidency, Sproul also used his office to suppress any trace of subversive activity by UC students, faculty, and staff. He did so often in close cooperation with his friend and former undergraduate classmate at UC Berkeley, Earl Warren—future Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court. When Berkeley students began joining leftist groups following the 1934 General Strike, the fiercely conservative Sproul implemented UC’s infamous Rule 17, which prohibited students from taking part in political activities on campus. Sproul’s efforts to repress student activism extended even beyond the university: he worked directly with local police, the American Legion, and then-Alameda District Attorney Warren to surveil and intimidate any students who tried organizing off campus.[15]

Sproul sparked an unprecedented controversy at the UC in 1949 when he pushed the Regents to institute a loyalty oath requiring all employees to disavow affiliation with the Communist Party. Although the Regents already forbade communists from holding teaching posts, they now declared that anyone who refused to sign the oath would be fired, even if evidence of Communist Party affiliation could not be demonstrated. Faculty response to the oath was withering; many refused to sign, and dozens of these “non-signers” were dismissed from their jobs. They were joined by 37 others who resigned in protest. Not until a California Supreme Court decision in 1952 overturned the policy were these faculty members reinstated.[16]

Even as this feud with faculty raged in the early 1950s, Sproul expanded his informal efforts to combat left dissent, again working with Warren, who was now Governor of California. With the UC’s emergence as a critical player in the nation’s security and military complexes, the FBI began leading extensive extralegal investigations of UC faculty as part of the highly secret Responsibilities Program, which aimed to purge communist teachers from the US universities.[17] Through this program, FBI agents would alert Warren’s office of professors they suspected of being a threat to “internal security.”[18] Warren would then pass this information along to Sproul, who ordered administrators and department chairs to investigate the claims. Facing allegations from which they could not defend themselves given that the evidence against them was classified, many faculty at the UC were forced to resign and untold numbers were prevented from being hired.[19]

Napolitano’s appointment, undoubtedly intended to reestablish top-down administrative authority at UC after highly publicized clashes between police and students protesting the budget cuts in recent years, also echoes the appointment of UC’s thirteenth president Charles Hitch, brought in by Ronald Reagan in 1967 to replace Clark Kerr after his handling of the Free Speech and antiwar movements.[20] Only two years earlier, Hitch had resigned from his position as Assistant Secretary of Defense, serving as Robert McNamara’s second in command during the early escalation of the war in Vietnam.

The choice of someone with Napolitano’s resume, connections, and priorities, it should be clear, is no historical departure for the UC. And there is nothing in Napolitano’s past that suggests she will do anything but carry on the ignominious tradition set by her predecessors.




In this concluding part, we briefly consider how the unique characteristics of Napolitano’s appointment intersect with the changed shape of recent campus movements against student indebtedness and the commodification of education. For much of the twentieth century, the stakes of protest at the UC tended to concern the right of students to use the public university as a means to rally the middle classes around a range of social struggles, including labor organizing, anti-nuclear proliferation, civil rights, and the anti-Vietnam War movement. Students of color and working-class students have long argued for more inclusionary admissions policies and curriculum that reflects the diversity of the state of California, marking a notable exception to the tendency toward externally-focused protest at the UC. But what has changed in the past ten years is that rising inequality in broader society and the mechanisms used to ensure exploitation have come to be mirrored more and more in the university itself, thanks to record levels of indebtedness among students, including increasingly large numbers of middle-class and white students. At stake today for activists at the UC, then, is not simply the range of wider social issues that have long been of interest, but a class struggle for the decommodification of education. Crucial to this struggle is building resistance to the transferal of the costs of social reproduction from employers to future workers (students), all within the context of the worst economic period California has faced since the Great Depression.

Napolitano’s appointment helps make apparent the significance of higher education in the reconfiguration of the state and capital following the 2008 financial collapse. Moreover, it provides a fresh opportunity to consider the stakes, limits, and challenges that face campus-based movements if the university is to remain a charged site of resistance to the austerity-driven reforms being pushed by the California state government. Among other things, this means reevaluating the usefulness of the electoralist strategy advocated by many faculty, administrators, and public sector unions aimed at compelling the state to refund public education.

We must also grapple with the material and ideological conditions of possibility for the intensification of the academic-security state complex, as they relate specifically to university faculty. One of these material conditions concerns the privileged class position of tenure track faculty at the UC relative to lecturers, teaching assistants, campus workers, and undergraduate students, which may help to explain the particular form faculty (non-)response to UC austerity politics has taken. Ideological conditions include the twin dangers of left-leaning faculty buying into a doctrine that holds “there is no alternative” to privatization and securitization, while liberal faculty members argue that electing Democrats to office will fix UC’s problems.

How then should we understand the responsibility of the faculty given the intensification of privatization and securitization at the UC?

First, some practical considerations. Given the state’s inaction on the issue of education, it is clear that the electoralist strategy is not working. The Democratic majority elected last fall reneged on a number of promises regarding the apportionment of funds from Prop. 30, which includes a permanent freeze on tuition increases, and the Governor has pushed to raid Prop. 30 funds to finance the prison system. By contrast, two years of intense mass mobilizations by students and staff have resulted in the reversal of furloughs and a two-year freeze on tuition increases.

Second, some principled considerations. The faculty are the group on campus with the most economic security to confront the administration on privatization and securitization. We are currently facing a situation in which the pretense of consent has been dropped in favor of open coercion: the appointment of the former head of the largest security organization in the country—known for curtailing civil liberties and deporting record numbers of immigrant families—as the head of our public university. There is a clear imperative for the faculty to stand up to this and other abhorrent actions on the part of the UC Regents. It is up to the rest of us to expand and intensify what we’ve been doing all along: fighting back.




Shane Boyle received his PhD in Performance Studies from UC Berkeley and is currently a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University.

Katy Fox-Hodess is a PhD student in Sociology and former Head Steward and Chair of UAW 2865/The UC Student-Workers Union at UC Berkeley.




[1] Sean Elder, “Administering Change,” California Magazine (Summer 2013),

[2] Darwin Bond-Graham, “The University of California and the Military Industrial Complex,” Counterpunch (July 18, 2013),

[3] “UC Presidents” in “University of California History Digital Archives,”

[4] Ibid.

[5] Kenton J. Clymer, “Humanitarian Imperialism: David Prescott Barrows and the White Man's Burden in the Philippines,” Pacific Historical Review 45:4 (1976).

[6] Alfred W. McCoy, Policing America’s Empire: The United States, the Philippines, and the Rise of the Surveillance State (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2009).

[7] Ibid.

[8] F. M. Russell, W. G. and Donald E. Neuhaus, “David Prescott Barrows, Political Science: Berkeley and Systemwide,” in University of California: In Memorium (1958).

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] See Sidney Lens, The Labor Wars: From the Molly Maguires to the Sitdowns (New York: Doubleday Anchor Press, 1973); Art Preis, Labor’s Giant Step (Atlanta: Pathfinder Press, 1972).

[12] J.L. Heilbron and Robert Seidel, Lawrence and His Laboratory: A History of the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), 106.

[13] See Gray Brechin, Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006); Will Parish, “A People’s History of UC Weapons Lab Management” (February 2006),

[14] These efforts are detailed in ibid., especially 116; 208-211.

[15] See Seth Rosenfeld, Subversives: The FBI's War on Student Radicals, and Reagan's Rise to Power (New York: Macmillan, 2012), 36-37.

[16] Bob Blauner, Resisting McCarthyism: To Sign or Not to Sign California’s Loyalty Oath (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009); Free Speech Movement Archives, “The Loyalty Oath at the University of California: A Report on Events, 1949-1958,”

[17] Rosenfeld, Subversives, 28-43.

[18] Quoted in ibid., 29.

[19] Ibid., 29-35. See also Seth Rosenfeld, “The FBI's Secret UC Files,” San Francisco Chronicle (June 9, 2002).

[20] “UC Presidents” in University of California History Digital Archives.