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Covert Operator

September 6, 2012
by Seth Rosenfeld
a speech

How one vice chancellor informed on the Free Speech Movement.

On Friday, March 10, 1961, FBI agents Donald Jones and John Hood arrived at the Berkeley campus for a secret meeting. They had been summoned by Alex C. Sherriffs, a professor of psychology and Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs, and were soon seated in his Dwinelle Hall office. The psychologist presented a disturbing diagnosis of the Berkeley student body.

Ever since those protests against the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) hearings the previous May at San Francisco City Hall, where police fire-hosed Berkeley students down the rotunda steps, Sherriffs had noticed among a small percentage of students “a rising tide … of resentment toward the government and the FBI.” Sherriffs singled out SLATE, an independent political group on campus that had taken to criticizing administration policies and urging students to join in off-campus controversies, including the protest against HUAC.

Disparaging the group, Sherriffs told the G-men that SLATE consisted of graduate students who were suspiciously “well trained” as organizers; other students who were “office seekers and publicity hounds”; and followers who were “misfits, malcontents, and other politically oriented individuals who do not conform to the normal political activity in the University community.”

Even more worrisome, Sherriffs said, was the possibility that Communist Party members might attempt to dominate SLATE or other student organizations. And if the Communists succeeded, they might try to intimidate the rest of the students and control campus debate. In his view, Sherriffs declared, the University should ban any student group that “may have as its motive, open or secret, the discrediting of the University, the Federal Government, or any other well-established American ideals.”

The meeting ended with Sherriffs’s promise to “cooperate in every way with the FBI” and to “maintain the strictest of confidence in this relationship,” according to an FBI report. He would even keep it secret from his erstwhile friend, University President Clark Kerr.

From that day on, Sherriffs served as a key informer in FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s long-running surveillance of First Amendment activities at UC. He reported on students, colleagues, and Kerr, whom he bitterly blamed for not cracking down on protesters. Sherriffs’s informing was part of the FBI’s wide-ranging investigation of campus dissent during the Cold War. His role as the most prominent of several FBI moles in the campus administration was disclosed in more than 300,000 pages of FBI records released to me in response to several lawsuits I brought under the Freedom of Information Act. I began making FOIA requests for FBI records concerning UC in 1981 as a Berkeley journalism student. The once-secret files released as recently as this year are the basis for my book, Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals and Reagan’s Rise to Power, published in August by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

In response to my FOIA lawsuits, the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ultimately ruled that bureau records show the FBI engaged in unlawful surveillance. Further, they “strongly support the suspicion that the FBI was investigating Kerr to have him removed from the UC administration because FBI officials disagreed with his politics or his handling of administrative matters.”

Sherriffs went on to become Governor Reagan’s top education advisor, and then Vice Chancellor of Academic Affairs for the California State University and College system. But though he was one of the state’s most powerful and controversial educators, he died in 2002, at age 84 in Fresno, without a single obituary.

The son of a school superintendent, Sherriffs was born in San Jose in 1918. He received a doctoral degree from Stanford and came to Berkeley to teach psychology in 1944. In those days, he was a self-described liberal Democrat.

Sherriffs taught an introductory psychology course that drew more than 500 students to each class in room 2000 of the Life Sciences Building. He became popular with the fraternities and sororities that dominated campus social life, and then-Chancellor Kerr named him special assistant for student matters. In that capacity, Sherriffs helped handle overly rowdy behavior at football games and beer blasts known as “suds at sunrise.”

But when Kerr became president of the UC system in 1958, he did not ask Sherriffs to join his new staff, instead appointing him Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs at Berkeley. Sherriffs, Kerr later said, complained that he had been slighted.

In classes and talks on campus, Sherriffs decried student apathy and spoke with dismay about “the silent majority.” But he was even more disapproving of the outspoken students in SLATE, a non-ideological, issue-oriented group of liberals and radicals that was a forerunner of the 1960s student movement. Founded in 1958 at Berkeley, SLATE ran a candidate who won the presidency of the ASUC the following year—the first time student government leadership was wrested from the fraternities and sororities. SLATE went on to protest mandatory Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, racial discrimination, and restrictions on student political activity. These were the very restrictions Sherriffs was charged with enforcing.

Increasingly uneasy with SLATE’s rebellious stands, Sherriffs made what the FBI files indicate was his first contact with the bureau, meeting with the agents at his office that March of 1961. Sherriffs thus became what FBI records call “an established source at the University of California.” Information he reported was entered into the bureau’s expanding file on the University, his identity concealed with code numbers.

Sherriffs gave the FBI names of students in political groups such as the Student Council Fair Play for Cuba Committee. He named professors suspected of being in the Communist Party. He also provided a roster of guest speakers at Berkeley, anxiously reporting that the effort to bring “controversial” speakers to campus seemed “well coordinated.”

His concerns reached new heights in the summer of 1964, as he took action that would prompt the campus’s greatest protests yet. He called a meeting with his subordinates to discuss what he saw as three increasingly urgent problems on campus: bicycle riding, bongo playing, and political advocacy on the brick swath of campus by Bancroft and Telegraph, where students set up card tables and passed out leaflets on civil rights and other causes.

Declaring “we could no longer turn our heads,” Sherriffs ordered strict enforcement of the rule against students using University property to advocate for off-campus issues. Students, however, continued to defy the restriction. A showdown came on October 1, 1964, when campus police arrested a civil rights worker and recent graduate in math, Jack Weinberg, for manning a table. Hundreds of protesters swarmed the squad car in the middle of Sproul Plaza and held it captive for 32 hours, launching what became known as the Free Speech Movement.

On December 2, Mario Savio, a junior in philosophy and an FSM spokesman, led protesters into Sproul Hall in the nation’s biggest campus sit-in, triggering mass arrests. On December 8, the faculty voted to back the FSM’s demands, and by the end of the month the regents had conceded students had a constitutional right to engage in political advocacy on campus.

Sherriffs’s failure to prevail against the FSM furthered his fears that the University was falling into the hands of radicals. A colleague saw him searching his office for hidden microphones. “He was worried about the Communists taking over,” recalled Arleigh Williams, then Associate Dean of Students, in an interview by Germaine LaBerge for “The Free Speech Movement and the Six Years’ War, 1964–1970,” by the Regional Oral History Office at Berkeley’s Bancroft Library.

Sherriffs had provided the FBI with confidential student records on Savio, and continued to inform in the months following the FSM’s victory. Acting Chancellor Martin Meyerson appointed sociology professor Neil Smelser as his Assistant in Charge of Student Political Activity. Sherriffs complained to an FBI agent that Smelser’s new post was an attempt to “usurp” Sherriffs’s role. He sought to smear Smelser by claiming he had made positive remarks about an FSM supporter and former Communist Party member, bacteriology professor Leon Wofsy.

Sherriffs would later make reports to the FBI suggesting that philosophy professor John Searle and law professor Robert Cole were nefariously in league with student protesters. In interviews, all three professors said they had no idea that Sherriffs was informing and stated that his reports were false.

But Sherriffs’s main target was Kerr, whom he further blamed after being demoted later in 1965 from his prestigious post of Vice Chancellor. He gave the FBI reports suggesting Kerr was soft on subversives, and kept the bureau abreast of a faction of conservative regents who wanted to oust Kerr.

When Ronald Reagan ran for governor, Sherriffs had his chance for revenge. The protests at Berkeley had become the hottest issue in the 1966 gubernatorial race, and Sherriffs, along with two friends who were also bureau sources (Hardin Jones, assistant director of the Donner Radiation Laboratory, and John Sparrow, associate counsel to the regents) began to feed information to Reagan’s campaign through BASICO, a Los Angeles research firm headed by psychologists Stanley Plog and Kenneth Holden.

Now Plog and Holden could quote Sherriffs and his friends with authority when briefing Reagan on Berkeley. Here were urgent reports from concerned officials at the scene: Radical students and professors were taking over, the mission of the University was being subverted, Kerr must be removed. “When we had this kind of information,” Holden told me in an interview for my book, Reagan “took it as gold-plated.” The candidate already was making much of campus protests, but according to Holden these accounts encouraged him to take on “the whole question of Berkeley in a really powerful way.”

Sherriffs would claim in a 1978 interview for “The University of California and the Free Speech Movement: Perspectives from a Faculty Member and an Administrator,” an oral history by James H. Rowland of the Regional Oral History Office, that “I didn’t do anything for anybody in the Reagan campaign—period.” But records at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library confirm Sherriffs’s role. Reagan took time from his campaign to secretly meet with Sherriffs, Jones, and Sparrow about Kerr’s handling of campus protests, and sent a note thanking them for “providing the true facts on this matter.” The candidate added, “We shall be counting on you for continuing help.”

That November, Reagan won by a landslide, and at his first regents’ meeting Kerr was fired. By the end of Reagan’s first year in office, he had named Sherriffs as his special assistant on education. Sherriffs advised Reagan on University policy, served as a liaison to the regents, and wrote official statements, including the one in which he blamed Bobby Kennedy’s assassination on campus violence he traced to the FSM.

Sherriffs’s office was just down the hall from the governor’s at the state capitol. On his wall, he hung Reagan’s words to student protesters: “Obey the rules or get out.”

Adapted by the author from material for Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power.
Former San Francisco Chronicle writer Seth Rosenfeld began investigating the FBI’s activities on campus while an undergraduate journalist at the Daily Cal in the ’80s. His research forms the basis of his new book, Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).
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