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Fencing University House: the symbolism, economics, and practicality

Sam Davis, professor emeritus, architecture | October 11, 2015

There is a plan to build a fence around University House, the chancellor’s residence on the northern portion of the campus, to increase the security of the occupants. Now on its third design iteration and already through the campus review process, the construction is poised to move forward. The safety of the chancellor is essential, but I believe there are other and better measures to address the issue. A fence is an ineffective and expensive solution that presents the wrong image for a public university.

Berkeley has experienced recurrent protests over the last six decades, some of them lasting weeks and involving thousands of participants. The Free Speech Movement, anti-war protests, People’s Park, tuition increases, and the Occupy Movement all predate this administration, yet no fence was proposed until now.

Campus police claim the house has become a more frequent target of protestors, who have also become more aggressive. Recent incidents of protestors approaching University House late in the evening, and others crashing a private event were the impetus for the chancellor to request a fence. There were no reports of physical threats or arrests. In 2009 protestors surrounded the house late at night and caused vandalism to the exterior. It’s been more than 20 years since a protestor armed with a machete actually entered the house itself and was killed by police.

Symbolism

Walling off campus buildings, even a residence, runs counter to the notion that this is a public institution to be viewed as open and accessible to its citizens. Yes, there is a fence around the White House, but this is not the U.S. President’s house, and we have seen recently that even that fence can be breached.

Selecting this particular building indicates a seeming disregard of others who might be vulnerable, such as deans whose offices are often the sites of sit-ins, or scientists who have been targets of animal-rights activists. It also creates the perception of an imperial chancellorship. I doubt either of these is true, but public relations is an important aspect of leadership.

Practicality

A fence, even one seven feet high as proposed, is hardly a deterrent. Someone seeking to breach it needs only a ladder. It is, in fact, more of a perception of security than an actual safeguard. In the past several years the campus has added many levels of security to University House, which likely accounts for its relative safety. Video surveillance, motion detectors, along with a campus police presence are already in place. Other relatively simple measures such as more exterior lighting, panic buttons, or even a safe room within the house, would provide extra levels of security likely more effective, and less expensive, than a fence.

The campus claims that it spends more that $350,000 on 24-hour security, but it is unclear if this is in addition to the normal police staffing or that existing resources are reallocated to this location. In either case, a fence will not eliminate the need for a police presence.

Improvements to University House must be approved and funded by the Office of the President. Despite cutbacks in nearly every aspect of the Berkeley campus, UCOP has approved expenditures for this fence, which are substantial and growing.

Design

Because University House is a landmarked structure, no ordinary fence will do. The materials and details must be in keeping with the architecture. The initial design was a wrought iron fence at the top of the knoll upon which the house sits. This is likely the least conspicuous location and the least expensive were it an open design and not the proposed seven feet high.

The campus Design Review Committee was never asked if a fence was an appropriate feature for the campus, but only if the design was fitting for the location. In this limited role, it suggested moving the fence away from the building and to the bottom of the entry stairs near the driveway. Here it would be disassociated from the house.

For reasons unclear to me, this design was deemed not sufficiently secure, and was rejected in favor of a fence even more remote from the house. The further from the house, the longer the fence becomes. In order to keep within the original UCOP funding allotment, this longer fence became the less expensive, and more utilitarian, chain link.

As it was being installed, it became clear that this design impeded movement around this part of campus. Faculty and students protested, and the chancellor acceded to the suggestion that it be moved closer to the house as the Design Review Committee had suggested. At present, the design has reverted to a decorative wrought iron fence at the base of the knoll and inside the line of the driveway.

All this has costs. Not only was the chain link fence partially complete, but now the current version of a decorated fence has a larger circumference than that nearer the house. The initial costs of $200,000 increased to $400,000 for the chain link version. Now it is very likely much more will be needed.

Alternative

Leading UC Berkeley entails living with, and managing, protests. In so doing a chancellor and a chancellor’s family have a right to both protection and a sense of security. If providing these is neither possible nor economically feasible, then an alternative is for the chancellor to live off campus.

There is precedent for university leadership to not live in the house provided.  Only a few of the University presidents over the last 30 years have lived at the Blake Estate, the house in Kensington bequeathed to UC for use as the president’s residence. Granted, that house needs renovation, but even when it was in good repair it was not used. President Gardner did not live there because it did not fit his family’s needs.

If the chancellor choses to live elsewhere, the residence portion of University House could be provided to a faculty member. Recruitment of faculty is increasing difficult because of high housing costs. Living on campus might be the needed incentive for attracting a high-level recruit. The first floor and basement public rooms could still be used for campus functions.

A seven foot high fence, be it at the top of the hill or the bottom, will turn a handsome, historic and hospitable house into a fortress.  That is a high price to pay environmentally and symbolically for something of questionable utility.  The fence is a misguided idea that needs to be reconsidered. It has already generated too much cost in money and public goodwill.

Comments to “Fencing University House: the symbolism, economics, and practicality

  1. Despite the positive comments to this posting, both here on the site and privately through email, the fence is now under construction. It appears to be 7′ tall and at the bottom on the knoll.

  2. Sam, You’ve done a great job of articulating what many of us have been thinking. For those of us who attended UCB in the mid and late sixties, protests and security issues are nothing new. Yet not until now has the notion of a high and largely symbolic fence been proposed. I walk through that part of campus regularly; what was a beautiful, open area has been made cringe-worthy since the fence-building began. However one looks at it (financially, aesthetically, socially) this is certainly a sad state of affairs.

  3. Well said, Indeed. Now the question is who, in a position to make a change in policy, will read these cogent arguments? Would the Chancellor himself, please, read and act.

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