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  • “Thanks to Berkeley . . .”Managing Multiculturalism in an Age of Austerity
  • Michael Mark Cohen (bio) and Leigh Raiford (bio)

This essay links questions of economic austerity, the crisis in public education, and contemporary US racial formations by considering the recent struggle over the privatization of what is recognized as the greatest public university in the world.1 We will approach this confluence of crises by examining the rise and fall of a particular piece of public art erected on the campus of the University of California, Berkeley as part of a slick public-relations and fund-raising campaign, and will consider the piece’s relationship with uc Berkeley as one of the birthplaces of the US Occupy Movement. This is also a personal effort by two members of the uc Berkeley faculty to translate their on-campus activism into a work of scholarship and to thereby synthesize nearly a decade of engagement and struggle to defend public higher education in California through the radical possibilities that remain strong within both multicultural and cultural studies.

We take as our object in this study the “Thanks to Berkeley . . .” photo wall that stood between the fall semester of 2009 and the spring semester of 2011 at a central place on the Berkeley campus, just north of Dwinelle Plaza. During its short lifespan, this public [End Page 185] photography installation served as a staging ground for competing articulations of the twenty-first-century public university. Against the backdrop of the ongoing California state budget crisis and the 2009–10 protests across the state’s public education sector, the wall became, as it were, a space of struggle. On this wall, and in the community’s interactions with it, we recognize, on the one hand, uc Berkeley as an elite institution, as a beacon of ideas, as a space of access and diversity; on the other hand, we see uc Berkeley as a casualty of austerity, as an increasingly aggressive corporate brand, and as a repressive apparatus.

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Fig. 1.

Erecting the barricades on November 19, 2009, at the University of California, Berkeley. Photo by the authors.

The recent economic crisis occurs within the context of a much longer crisis of declining diversity, in which the increase in tuition, coupled with two decades of “color-blind” admissions policy, have been gradually resegregating the public university. Yet on the photo wall we find an organized vision of a multicultural utopia in which free speech reigns and all the people of color are safely middle class. Therefore, we take up questions of race and representation in the post-affirmative-action era and suggest how the photo wall marks an attempt to manage that crisis.2 We ask: How does the “Thanks to Berkeley . . .” campaign endeavor to manage underrepresented minorities through their images? How does it market a facile multiculturalism while failing to practice the difficult, messy, complex, disorderly, and dangerous work of diversity? [End Page 186]

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Fig. 2.

“Thanks to Berkeley . . .” photo wall, fall 2009. Photo by the authors.

“The Majestic Tapestry”

In September 2008, uc Berkeley’s development office unveiled a photography project called “Thanks to Berkeley . . .” designed to promote the university’s most ambitious capital fund drive ever. With a goal of raising $3 billion by 2013, the promotional literature describes “The Campaign for Berkeley” as “a wide ranging effort to secure the University’s status” and to “strengthen the campus’ core mission to serve the public good.” “Thanks to Berkeley . . .” consists of thousands of black-and-white portraits of students, faculty, parents, alumni, and staff, many accompanied by brief handwritten comments by the subjects saying things like “I am going to change the world, Berkeley is going to teach me how” and “It’s a place where people provide the experience.” According to the promotional literature, the “Thanks to Berkeley . . .” photo project offered “a way [End Page 187] for the Berkeley community to meet each other” and to “express its pride and gratitude for all that Cal does.”3

To facilitate this public expression of gratitude, the university commissioned San Francisco-based advertising photographer Christopher Irion to bring his ongoing “PhotoBooth Project...