Order of the Golden Bear

Berkeley Magazine, Summer 1999

The expansive steps of Sproul Hall are synonymous with free speech. Yet, for nearly 100 years, perhaps the freest speech of all at UC Berkeley has taken place nearby, in the secret room of an old log cabin.

Since 1900, a hand-picked group of campus men, and, much later, women, has gathered in Senior Hall, a woodsy cottage tucked between the men's and women's faculty clubs. There, twice a month, members of the Order of the Golden Bear discuss the day's most pressing issues, which over time have ranged from maintaining decorum at football games to affirmative action. The rules of debate are simple. Titles such as chancellor, professor, administrator or student body leader are left at the door. And all discussions are conducted with frankness, respect, tolerance and confidentiality.

"It's the oldest free speech forum on the Berkeley campus," said Nadesan Permaul, the campus's director of transportation, who joined the order in 1975. "Members are not mobbed, yelled at or shunned."

Until 1970, when it voted to include women, the order also was the campus's most secret organization -- and for men only. For most of the club's history, only male students in their senior year and select men from the faculty and staff could join.

The club has about 2,000 lifetime members, among them well-known figures such as Robert Gordon Sproul, Walter Haas, Clark Kerr, William F. Knowland, Zoe Baird, Robert McNamara and Leigh Steinberg. The others, while not as famous, are no less dedicated to Berkeley.

Originally, the order was established to divert the attention of rowdy students to more serious goals, said member Steve Finacom, a planning analyst in Planning, Design & Construction and the group's unofficial historian. Troubled by students' boisterous behavior at the turn of the century, Benjamin Ide Wheeler proposed the fellowship while campus president. He believed an elite, prestigious club, modeled after the secret societies of East Coast Ivy League colleges, would infuse student culture with purpose and leadership.

Members are chosen for their dedicated service to campus. Student members, for example, are culled from the leadership ranks of Cal's honor societies and organizations including fraternities, sororities, debate teams, the UC Marching Band and the Daily Californian.

"It is very prestigious to be asked to join," said Lynn Nakada, acting assistant director of the Office of Student Affairs, who was initiated in 1973. "Over the years, the order has built strong, informal networks."

Typically, between 10 and 40 members attend meetings, more if the agenda includes controversial subjects. Non-members are not allowed to observe the sessions. Initiation dinners, held twice a year, draw about 200 members.

Unlike many organizations, the order never votes on an issue. "Attending a discussion is an enlightening and often humbling experience," said Finacom. "You almost always learn that the campus issues are more complex and nuanced than you thought. There are passionate discussions, but because there are no votes, people are willing to talk about views rather than fight for a particular position."

While the club no longer is secret, its pledge still is, and many other old traditions also remain intact. For instance, all meetings end with the song, "The Golden Bear," written by Charles Mills Gayley in 1895. Gayley, one of the order's early sponsors, later added a special verse -- just for the order -- that, while never written down, has been taught to the newly initiated for nearly a century.

Even rustic Senior Hall, designed by John Galen Howard and built in 1906, has remained largely unchanged. Behind a main room used by others on campus, a hidden door leads to the order's meeting place. There, a warden still sits on a throne carved from the trunk of a redwood tree.

Discussion topics fall under the age-old headings of "For the Good of the Order" and "For the Good of the University."

There no longer is a scribe to painstakingly summarize each meeting in a leather-bound book, careful not to identify any individual speaker. But Nakada said confidentiality remains the key to the uniqueness of the Order of the Golden Bear.

"It's the only place I know where everyone is an equal," she said. "There are no titles and no roles. It's a true safe haven."

by Jacqueline Frost



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