Roberts Reflections

Erica Citret Roberts grew up in San Francisco, “went away to college” at UC Berkeley, and after marrying and living for two years again in SF, returned permanently to Berkeley. Soon she and her husband had three sons, and from the mid-70s to the mid 80s her profession was full-time mother. But she had always planned to return to the Berkeley campus as an employee, and in 1992 took a job in the Forestry Department. She moved to the Comparative Literature Department in 2001, where she worked as the Graduate Student Affairs Officer until her retirement in 2013. After a few years working part-time in Jewish Studies, she retired completely in 2017. We spoke on the phone in October. Following our conversation, Erica agreed to write a bit about the experience of being a student at UC Berkeley in the 1960s and then returning to work as a staff member in the 1990s.

Can you describe what it was like to be at Berkeley in 1964, when you started your BA? What was the campus climate like? Had it changed by the time you earned your degree?

In some ways the campus felt similar to now, and in other ways very different. I would say that the similarities are more substantial, while the differences were more of style. The atmosphere was always very engaged, politically aware, activist. Berkeley already had that reputation and, of course, the start of the Free Speech Movement at the very moment I was starting college only added to it. As a freshman —coming from a quite left wing family already; I remember being the envy of almost all my new friends, whose parents were aghast at what was happening at the school their "babies" were now attending, while I phoned my very supportive parents several times a week to let them know exactly how the newspapers and TV stations were giving false (negative) versions of events—I was completely fascinated and caught up in it, although I wasn't enthusiastic about getting arrested, and I didn't. I loved my classes and kept up with them, but since the faculty were so in favor of FSM, spotty attendance was actually encouraged by all my professors. I can't remember if classes were actually canceled or just boycotted. There must have been a boycott, but as I recall, by the end of the semester attendance and course work were on an even keel.

The differences between then and now were mostly, as I recall, ones of style. Everyone got much more dressed up—students and faculty alike. Dresses, skirts and blouses or sweaters, leather shoes and nylons (stockings, the precursor to pantyhose). Faculty always in suit and tie or sport coat and tie, and virtually all male. And in class no one used first names—ever. I was always Miss Citret, and unless I became friends with classmates I always thought of them by their Miss or Mr names. Faculty were pointedly called Mr or Professor, never Dr. Berkeley seemed to have an unspoken policy about that, as compared to other universities, where Dr was the norm. I always found it curious and a little bit amusing; sort of a reverse pomposity.

I don't know when the formality of these forms of address changed, but they were definitely gone by 1992, when I joined the staff. I thought it was just great that all students--undergrads as well as grad students--took being on a first-name basis with their professors completely for granted. I should also say that by the time I graduated in 1968 styles of dress had relaxed quite a bit. Hippie garb--handmade sandals (several shops on Telegraph Ave.), jeans, ethnic styles, other more--at the time--”counter-culture” dress was common.

Oh, also, here's a big thing: there were tons of dogs on campus. Many students had them, and they ran free all over the place and dog waste was everywhere. Absolutely no one had ever heard of picking up after dogs, poop bags did not exist. People brought dogs to class or else just left them outside until class was over. They were everywhere in campus buildings. Even when I started working on campus in 1992 there were remnants of doggieness. I remember one female grad student often worked late in her lab and always had her German Shepherd with her. She felt safer that way. Suddenly there was an edict that no dogs would be allowed in any buildings any longer, and it was a big deal to her. To me it looked like the final step in a very long process.

I would say that the overall campus climate by the time I had my degree in early 1969 was pretty much exactly what it had been in 1964. Plenty of political engagement (People's Park was still to come), same hostility from campus administration (see below), and support from faculty, same odd formality in dress and address.

I understand that in the mid-60s, there were thousands of staff people working for the university, many of them called "clerk typists." What is your memory of this population (or your memory of your impressions)? What were their attitudes toward students, faculty, administration (and vice versa)?

I remember staff as being nearly 100% older white women, for the most part very conservative. In my mind (for most students, I think) staff and higher administration were linked, students and faculty were allies. The clerk-typist job category was huge since there were no computers and faculty wouldn't have dreamt of typing and reproducing their own class materials. This was all done by this army of staff women, who really seemed to have an antipathy for students and hero-worship for faculty (even if they disagreed with them politically). As I recall, faculty always addressed staff by first name, staff to faculty the formal Mr. so-and-so. That old hierarchy was in place for sure. I remember staff were hostile to FSM, and so was the Chancellor and other high level administrators, even though they were drawn from the faculty. I'm not sure whether conservative faculty were chosen for these positions, or if the positions themselves changed the person's politics.

On the subject of the administration’s hostility to the Free Speech Movement (and I don't think I mentioned this when we spoke), every time I go to the Free Speech Cafe I feel a mixture of amusement and almost fury. If you had told any of us back in the day that one day there would be a place on campus that extolled the movement or Mario Savio we would have said you were insane. The official response at the time was pure nasty suppression, Mario Savio and the other leaders were vilified. I'm pretty sure he died before the cafe was created. I don't know if he would have been pleased or furious. I'm a bit of both. I love the cafe as a gathering place; I'm happy to see FSM honored, but I also see its naming as a bit opportunistic and hypocritical.

You returned to work at Berkeley in 1992 (first in the Forestry Department and then in Comparative Literature). How had the campus changed?

The move away from formality was striking and, I think, really positive. One thing I didn't mention above is that there was always a fraternity/sorority element on campus. When I was an undergrad my friends and I were totally scornful of the "Greek" system. I feel as though the system hasn't changed much in terms of numbers represented, but maybe the "hippie" vs. "Greek" antipathy is less of a big deal.

Would you describe the work you were doing, what you liked about it, what was challenging about it? How did this work change when you took a job as GSAO in Comparative Literature in 2001?

There were always two aspects to my work on campus. The less interesting was learning all the nitty-gritty administrative rules and regulations, both campus-wide Graduate Division, and internal/departmental. The far more interesting part of my jobs always was connecting to and building relationships with students. The person who hired me, Lois Frisch, made it crystal clear that it was really important to listen to students and get to know them. Time spent this way was never to be viewed as goofing off or not working.

When I first started in Forestry I was responsible for undergrads as well as grad students. I was particularly happy to work with the undergrads because although I loved my education at UCB, I always felt absolutely anonymous. There was weak lip service paid to advising undergrads in my day. The advisor's signature on study lists each semester was completely pro forma; no faculty advisor ever asked me much of anything, and I certainly never felt recognized or remembered by any of them. Small classes were a little bit better, but I was used to anonymity and a bit timid. I felt I had to ask the most brilliant question of the century if I was going to go to office hours, so very rarely went. (When I was a grad student at SF State I had two contrary sets of feelings: on the one hand I felt things were way less rigorous, but on the other I knew I learned a lot more in a certain way because I felt free to speak out in class and engage in thoughtful conversation with other students and faculty.) But getting back to Forestry, I was particularly delighted to be part of a more individualized and caring approach to undergrad advising. The smaller, village-like atmosphere of the College of Natural Resources in general contributed to this a lot. At the graduate level I think there was already the sense of villages, and that continues to the present. One year after I started in Forestry, ESPM (Environmental Science, Policy, and Management) came into existence, and at that point I shifted entirely to the graduate program.

When I got to Comp Lit, as I think I mentioned on the phone, it took me pretty much the whole first year to get familiar and comfortable with the way things were done internally at the department level. The expectations for building relationships with students were the same as they'd been in ESPM. Although I don't remember being told so explicitly, it was very clear that the culture in Comp Lit was all about getting to know students well, and advocating for them all the time.

What was your impression of the attitudes of staff toward Berkeley students and especially students' political activity in the 90s or 2000s or 2010s? (This just by way of comparison to your impressions as a student).

I've pretty much covered this above for the 60s--virtually no contact and very little trust. As soon as I became a staff member myself, I understood that staff and students were now allies and actively involved in each other's lives in a positive way that had never been true back in the day. When I was first looking for a campus job, I was struck with how many staff positions had absolutely no daily contact with students, and I was clear that those jobs held no interest for me. I'm pretty sure that in the 60s there weren't any staff positions for academic advising, or at least very few. I never came into contact with any as a student. Faculty did all the advising, even on administrative rules. While there is still a hierarchy for sure today (faculty, naturally, at the top) there is a real collegiality between faculty and staff when it comes to certain categories of advising (I think we talked a bit about this). I remember, as a student, being in total awe of faculty. The more relaxed atmosphere and mutual respect I found starting in the 90s made for a much more enjoyable and productive work environment.