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Martin Meyerson, 84; led UC Berkeley during '60s

June 07, 2007|Elaine Woo | Times Staff Writer

Martin Meyerson, an erudite city planner who led the University of Pennsylvania for 11 years after a brief but tumultuous tenure at UC Berkeley in the wake of the Free Speech Movement, died of prostate cancer Saturday in Philadelphia. He was 84.

Meyerson was dean of UC Berkeley's College of Environmental Design when he was named acting chancellor in January 1965, three months after student protests over the right to engage in political activity and debate had exploded into the Free Speech Movement.

During his six months as campus chief, Meyerson was confronted with a number of crises, including a controversy over graduate student participation in student government, rules for student political conduct and the so-called Filthy Speech Movement, which brought the expulsion or suspension of several students who insisted on the right to utter an obscenity in public.

He was credited with uniting a sharply divided faculty and introducing changes that addressed some of the key complaints of student leaders.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday June 12, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 50 words Type of Material: Correction
Meyerson obituary: The obituary of former UC Berkeley acting Chancellor Martin Meyerson in Thursday's California section said an incident in which Free Speech Movement leader Mario Savio was tackled by campus police occurred early in Meyerson's tenure. It occurred a few weeks before Meyerson was officially named to the position.

"He was very supportive of open dialogue on campus," recalled Bettina Aptheker, a professor of feminist studies at UC Santa Cruz who as a Berkeley undergraduate had been a leader of the Free Speech Movement along with Mario Savio and others.

A New York City native who became fascinated with architecture as a child, Meyerson graduated from Columbia University before earning a master's degree in urban planning from Harvard University in 1947.

As a city planner, he worked for the Chicago Housing Authority and taught at the University of Chicago from 1948 to 1952. He co-wrote with urban affairs specialist Edward Banfield "Politics, Planning and the Public Interest" (1955), a classic analysis of Chicago's public housing projects.

He joined the Harvard faculty in 1957 and directed the Joint Center for Urban Studies of Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology until 1963, when he was hired at UC Berkeley.

He had been dean of Berkeley's environmental design school for two years when he waded into the chaos of the Free Speech Movement as interim chancellor.

In 1964 the Bay Area was racked by civil rights demonstrations, which had drawn scores of foot soldiers from the Berkeley campus.

They were recruited by activists who gathered on a strip of sidewalk at Telegraph Avenue and Bancroft Way that they thought was public property but actually belonged to the university.

When state officials learned that university property was involved, they demanded that the administration control its students. When the university attempted to clamp down on political activity there, the Free Speech Movement was born.

Then-Chancellor Edward W. Strong was hospitalized for exhaustion at the height of the protests in December of that year.

When Meyerson took over as chancellor he was viewed as a nonpartisan in the conflicts gripping the campus. "Very few people know where he stands," sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset, Meyerson's friend and colleague, said at the time.

Three months into his tenure, Meyerson had won the support of the faculty senate, which voted 1,100 to 23 to ask the regents to name him the permanent chancellor.

Those who voted against Meyerson considered him "the choice of revolutionary forces," which amused those who knew him, such as Lipset, who said that "anyone who has read his books would realize that philosophically he is quite conservative."

Meyerson told The Times later that unifying the faculty was his proudest accomplishment, but it wasn't enough to keep him in the job.

Many students quickly soured on him. Early in his tenure, he was present at a university-sanctioned "peace meeting" at the campus' outdoor theater when campus police tackled Savio on stage.

"He didn't get off to a good start," recalled Jackie Goldberg, who was prominent in campus battles as a student leader and later became a Los Angeles school board member and state legislator.

The Filthy Speech Movement erupted in the spring of 1965 when students were arrested for saying and displaying a four-letter word at Bancroft Plaza.

Their actions outraged UC regents, who demanded that the students be expelled. UC President Clark Kerr and Meyerson offered to resign but withdrew their resignations at a stormy regents meeting a few days later.

By early June, it was clear that Meyerson would not become the permanent chancellor, and he returned to his previous post, where he oversaw an overhaul of the environmental design curriculum.

In 1966 he was named president of the State University of New York at Buffalo, where he launched an academic reorganization aimed at increasing options for undergraduates and encouraged student participation in university government.

He became president of the University of Pennsylvania in 1970. Over the next 11 years, he introduced the university's first affirmative action program, created its school of arts and sciences through a consolidation of several colleges and programs, and instituted a freshman seminar program.

He is survived by his wife of 61 years, Mary Ellin Meyerson; two sons; and seven grandchildren.


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