I am currently dean of arts and humanities at Sonoma State; 25 years ago, I would have been Savio’s dean when he launched his final campus campaign, against rising student fees. Although Savio had remained a well-known voice on civil and human rights in Northern California in the 1980s and 1990s — speaking out against U.S. policies in Central America and various California propositions he opposed (notably Prop 187, denying health and educational benefits to undocumented immigrants) — he had been a relatively quiet campus presence. But in 1996, Savio went head to head with Sonoma State’s then-president, Ruben Armiñana, whose vision of the university as an elite “public Ivy” was, in the words of the counterculture journalist
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I am currently dean of arts and humanities at Sonoma State; 25 years ago, I would have been Savio’s dean when he launched his final campus campaign, against rising student fees. Although Savio had remained a well-known voice on civil and human rights in Northern California in the 1980s and 1990s — speaking out against U.S. policies in Central America and various California propositions he opposed (notably Prop 187, denying health and educational benefits to undocumented immigrants) — he had been a relatively quiet campus presence. But in 1996, Savio went head to head with Sonoma State’s then-president, Ruben Armiñana, whose vision of the university as an elite “public Ivy” was, in the words of the counterculture journalist Jonah Raskin, “antithetical to Savio’s vision of the California State University as a tuition-free institution accessible to all.”
On November 2, 1996, one day after a bitter campus debate with President Armiñana, shortly after reviewing documents for a lawsuit on the fee increase and having already written a letter of resignation, Savio suffered a heart seizure. He died four days later. He was 53. Because he was an adjunct lecturer with no service obligation to the university, his family received no workers’ compensation.
None of the obituaries focused on the contemporary student-fee debate or the bravery of an adjunct faculty member opposing a university president. The stories reached back, instead, to the 1960s — to a moment that has retained almost mythical status, on a more elite campus, in a more celebrated era.
As an undergraduate, Savio had spent the summer of 1964 — Freedom Summer — in Mississippi, registering Black voters. He returned to Berkeley in the fall with a fiery commitment to freedom in all its forms. At the time, Clark Kerr, president of the University of California, sought to keep political speech off the UC campuses. But students across the political spectrum wanted to advocate for their beliefs, to meet and pass out pamphlets on Sproul Plaza. Frustrated, Savio united left and right in common cause. On December 2, 1964, Savio helped inspire the speech movement’s culminating sit-in with a passionate appeal that would become the most famous dissident speech ever given on an American college campus. A university ought not to be a machine for turning students, “raw materials,” into a product to be bought by the university’s clients, but a place where freedom could be studied, learned, and exercised. If the university couldn’t live up to that ideal, its operations should be interrupted:
There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart that you can’t take part! You can’t even passively take part! And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus — and you’ve got to make it stop! And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it — that unless you’re free the machine will be prevented from working at all!
As Robert Cohen makes clear in his excellent biography, Freedom’s Orator (2014), Savio was not just an extraordinary young mind but a kind of prophet. He utterly changed the way American universities engage with activism and protest.
In 1978, Mario Savio returned to college to study physics at San Francisco State University, another Cal State campus. Since leaving Berkeley, he had served a term in county jail for his protest actions and struggled with personal and mental-health challenges for nearly a decade. Still, he earned his bachelor’s degree (summa cum laude) in 1984, and his master’s in 1989. Savio was interested in a Ph.D., but he was concerned about the strain on his health. And the only doctoral program nearby was at Berkeley. So, like many adjuncts, he began his teaching career without a terminal degree. I reached out to Oliver Johns, his San Francisco State professor, who kindly shared several letters recommending Savio for teaching jobs, all of which testified that he was a brilliant theoretical physicist and an excellent teacher. Johns’s graduate text, Analytical Mechanics for Relativity and Quantum Mechanics, includes Savio’s Theorem, evidence of his potential in that discipline.
Over the next few years, Savio juggled a teaching load in Sonoma State’s liberal-studies program and philosophy department. Politics was something he did off campus. But when he saw the university turning its back on its mission, putting new financial burdens on students, he rallied them to protest.
Savio’s name is forever linked to free speech on campus, but what free speech means in 2022 is, as always, up for debate. On any given day, The Chronicle of Higher Education is likely to feature at least one headline about a speech controversy on one campus or another. The story might be about a controversial speaker, a controversial book, or something a professor, staff member, administrator, or student said in class or on social media. It could be about new statistics on what students or professors are afraid to say in class or a decision by a legislature about what can or cannot be said or taught in class. It might even be about a whole new university — the University of Austin — established to give a home to purveyors of “controversial” speech.
Often overlooked in Savio’s famous 1964 speech is a call for screening Jean Genet’s banned experimental film on gay men in a French prison, Un Chant d’Amour (1950). The arrival of Genet’s film in America, in 1964, had touched off a flurry of censorship backed up by police action. Jonas Mekas was arrested and beaten by the New York City police after showing the film that March; police officers later raided a screening in a San Francisco hotel room.
The demand to screen a film featuring sex and violence might constitute a campus free-speech controversy in 2022, if a campus stakeholder were offended by the film or if it were shown in class without discretion or trigger warnings. These issues were not on Savio’s radar. His intended audience in 1964 was primarily campus leadership and, secondarily, fellow students with whom he could make common cause in pressuring those leaders. Savio’s free-speech concerns, that is, were about power: Who has the right to tell another to keep quiet? Savio went to Mississippi in 1964 to challenge powerful state forces repressing Black citizens from exercising their right to vote. Fighting Clark Kerr at Berkeley was of a piece with his previous efforts. Savio believed so strongly in free speech that in 1983 he defended the right of the diplomat Jeane Kirkpatrick to speak at Berkeley, much as he loathed her politics.
In 1996, Savio’s hackles were raised by powerful campus leaders increasing student fees by $300 per year. And as in 1964, Savio’s intended audience was the president, as well as paying students, who could organize to apply pressure for change. But the foundation for Savio’s final campaign was less his undergraduate activism than his recent experience as an adjunct lecturer at a non-elite state university. As Savio’s fellow activist Tom Hayden put it:
When I saw him last, it seemed to me he was in a fitting phase of a noble life. Mario was teaching at Sonoma State University, focused mainly on remedial work with students of color, in a program called the Intensive Learning Experience. Immigrants were being scapegoated for the state’s woes. It was the early 1990s, and California was cutting its higher-education budgets while building one of the world’s largest prison systems. Mario joined those fights, for what was free speech if universities were unaffordable and inaccessible to working people?
The Sonoma State student-fee increase did not pass that year, in large part because of Savio’s efforts. But fees were raised in subsequent years. Sonoma State still has some of the highest student fees in the Cal State system, though the current president, Judy K. Sakaki, has led a successful effort to make the campus more diverse, inclusive, accessible, and welcoming.
In 2012, the Mario Savio’s Speakers Corner on the Sonoma State campus was dedicated as a place to speak out on social-justice concerns. Hollander, Savio’s widow, invited students “to advocate and organize with dignity and responsibility for the causes you believe in.” But 10 years later, Savio’s legacy as a campus free-speech advocate is at risk of being forgotten, in part because the political speech he advocated for — the basic right to gather, speak, and pass out pamphlets — is for the most part the new campus normal.
What has changed is the role of leadership, perhaps as Clark Kerr feared. We have become like crossing guards, endeavoring to halt the dangerous traffic (hate speech, threats of violence) while monitoring the rest (tweets, controversial statements, painful reminders of unjust eras past), separating “heckling from disruption,” as Savio put it, and minimizing the chance of a collision.
Approaching today’s “free speech” issues with Mario Savio the outspoken adjunct lecturer in mind has helped me think through how and when a campus leader should support individual faculty members with social-justice concerns. Toggling between the practical and the principle is the key challenge. The principle is that the powerful should not silence the powerless. The practical is that nobody wins when anyone can say anything they want, and nobody wins when nobody can say anything at all. Savio’s legacy is a reminder that what’s at issue is rights: rights of free speech, rights of access, rights of affordability. The least powerful need the most support.
Administrators have a particular responsibility to adjuncts, whose relationship to the university is the most tenuous, who are entrusted with teaching students but may not be aligned with the institution’s mission. Their actions may cause temporary embarrassment. They may be, in the case of Savio, more passionate about the direction of the university than is comfortable for its leaders. My hope is that in remembering Savio’s time at Sonoma State University and taking seriously his last campus battle as an adjunct lecturer, his profound legacy may become newly relevant.