Platt speaks at a microphone, his hands raised
Tont Platt, author of The Scandal of Cal: Land Grabs, White Supremacy and Miseducation at UC Berkeley. Credit: Janis-Lewin

For author and scholar Tony Platt, two places on the UC Berkeley campus serve as reminders of Cal’s uneven approach to confronting the dark parts of its past.

The first is the former LeConte Hall, home to the physics department. Originally named after two of Cal’s earliest and most prominent faculty members, John LeConte, a physicist and the university’s first president, and his brother Joseph, a naturalist and geographer, the brothers’ surname was stripped from the building in November 2020. A review of the LeContes’ history determined their beliefs did not reflect Cal’s values, the university announced at the time. They had grown up in Georgia in a family that enslaved 200 people, supported the Confederacy, brought their racist views to California in 1869, and applied some of those views to their science.

UC Berkeley trumpeted the de-naming of LeConte Hall, which Chancellor Carol Christ called “good news.”

Plaque reading: Dedicated to John LeConte and Joseph LeConte by the Class of ’98. May 14, 1898
The granite plaque on the UC Berkeley campus honoring the LeConte brothers. Credit: Frances Dinkelspiel

Yet just a stroll away from the former LeConte Hall, now referred to as Physics South and Physics North, sits a 19th-century granite plaque honoring the two brothers. “Dedicated to John LeConte and Joseph LeConte by the class of [18]98,” the memorial reads. It wasn’t removed when Cal unnamed the physics building because the entity charged with considering name changes, the Building Name Review Committee, only addresses structures, not other memorials, Platt was told by university spokesperson Dan Mogulof.

“The fiasco of the LeConte plaque is not an isolated example of the university’s half-hearted gestures,” Platt writes in his new book, The Scandal of Cal: Land Grabs, White Supremacy and Miseducation at UC Berkeley, which Heyday Books will release on Aug. 29. 

Platt, a Berkeley resident who has connections to Cal dating back to 1963 (after getting his doctorate there, he taught in its now-defunct School of Criminology for seven years) excoriates the university for its obfuscation of the past in his 13th book. 

UC Berkeley trumpets itself as the nation’s leading public university, home to the Free Speech and other social justice movements, as an engine of innovation, and as a bastion of academic inquiry and excellence. Yet, Platt writes, it refuses to honestly reckon with the dark parts of its past, a history that involves colonialism, plunder, grave-robbing, the promotion of white supremacy and modern atomic warfare.

Book cover of Scandal of Cal. Subhead: Land grabs, white supremacy and miseducation at UC Berkeley

The sins Platt outlines in his deeply researched book are many, too many to delineate in a short article. Some arguments — such as his criticism that Cal has long been a pro-military institution because its early leaders fought in various disputes, including the Mexican and Civil wars, and it mandated that its male students train for war — are less persuasive than others. But Platt is convincing in showing the university’s missteps from its founding to the present day.

The first sin may be how UC Berkeley has rewritten its early history to start with the university’s founding rather than the 1,000-year habitation of what is now the campus by the Ohlone people. Cal has acknowledged that Natives used the area as “camping grounds,” but is not forthright, Platt says, that the land was extensively settled by the Ohlone people, who had a major village along Strawberry Creek for a millennium. While groundskeepers and faculty members uncovered graves and ceremonial objects over the decades, the findings were deliberately excluded from formal administrative records, Platt says. 

2 book talks scheduled in Berkeley

American Cultures Center, Tuesday, Sept. 5, 4 p.m.

Berkeley Law, Thursday, Nov. 2, 12:50 p.m.

Cal now acknowledges it sits on the ancestral and unceded land of Chochenyo-speaking Ohlone people in some written communications and meetings, but Platt points out there are no markers or plaques on campus to honor the campus’s previous dwellers. There is a plaque by the creek noting the time in 1772 when a Spanish explorer stopped there, “thus linking Berkeley’s origins story to the Spanish Empire,” he writes. “There are no plaques to connect us to our Ohlone roots.” 

In addition, the establishment of Cal was an act of theft, a land grab made possible by the passage of the Morrill Act during the Civil War, another point the university ignores, contends Platt. The act gave land from the “unpeopled public domain” to states to fund colleges setting up agricultural and mechanical schools. California got 150,000 acres. Of course, much of this land was inhabited by Natives, but it was stripped from them anyway, Platt says. 

UC got tens of thousands of free acres and sold much of it to raise about $700,000 ($19.2 million in today’s dollars) to fund the new university. It not only sold “excess” land in the 19th century but also in the 1940s when it seized land and displaced Natives to build Los Alamos Lab for the Manhattan Project.

“Native people’s homelands financed Berkeley’s development,” writes Platt.

Another dark spot in Cal’s history and one the university should do more to acknowledge, Platt said, burst into public consciousness this summer. The new movie Oppenheimer, which has earned more than $700 million since its July release, tells the story of the Manhattan Project and the creation of the world’s first atomic bomb. It centers around UC Berkeley professor J. Robert Oppenheimer and his colleagues, Hans Bethe, Edward Teller, Emil Konopinski and John Van Vleck, who studied fission bomb design on the fourth floor of the former LeConte Building in 1942. Ernest O. Lawrence had a lab nearby. Oppenheimer brought many of these scientists to the Los Alamos laboratory in New Mexico to develop the atomic bomb. Oppenheimer also helped decide to drop the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing hundreds of thousands of people.

Yet Cal holds no public commemoration of its role in ushering the world into the atomic era, Platt writes. Oppenheimer is mostly invisible in Cal’s public spaces. There is a plaque outside his office on the fourth floor of the physics building and a window display, but no other commemoration. 

Platt thinks Cal should be honest about its past and its continued connection to the military-industrial complex. Acknowledging the university’s role would also be a learning experience for current students, many of whom don’t know that history. 

“The university acts very much like a corporate entity, you know you publicize the positive things,” said Platt in an interview. “And you try to keep quiet about anything that might bring disrepute. So that’s fine for a corporation. But a university should be more open to introspection and reflection and investigation of its own personal history.”

Platt questions why it has taken Cal so long to return Native remains

Exterior shot of anthropology museum
The Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology at UC Berkeley. Credit: Justin Katigbak for ProPublica

Perhaps the most distressing parts of The Scandal of Cal have to do with the university’s possession of 9,000 Native remains (Platt thinks the number is higher) and around 500,000 ceremonial objects of Native people from California and around the world. In 1990, the federal government passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (California passed a similar law in 2001) which set up guidelines for how universities and museums should treat and return Native American human remains and cultural objects.

Cal has been widely criticized in government and news reports for not treating the remains with respect, not returning them more promptly, not consulting with Native tribes, and erecting unnecessary barriers to their return. A state audit in 2020 called UC’s compliance with ​​NAGPRA, “inadequate.” The most recent damning report came from a series ProPublica and NBC News did earlier this year, which pointed out UC Berkeley had returned about 22% of its massive holdings — the largest in the state — back to the tribes from where they came.

In April 2023, based on information from the news reports, 13 U.S. Senators on the Committee on Indian Affairs sent a letter to UC President Michael Drake to “express our grave concern over recent reports that institutions of higher learning such as yours have failed their statutory mandate to ‘expeditiously return’ cultural items and ancestral remains of Native Americans.”

In a June 16 response to the committee, Chancellor Christ acknowledged that UC Berkeley had not fully complied with NAGPRA in the past, but said she believes the situation has turned around. 

“We acknowledge and apologize for the wrongs committed by UC Berkeley against Native American people, particularly with respect to how the University has handled its repatriation responsibilities,” Christ wrote. “We recognize and regret that in the past, representatives of the University, and others, removed ancestors and sacred belongings without tribal permission or consultation, and that those ancestral remains and belongings were held for the purpose of research and teaching. We have apologized directly to Tribal representatives, and we are currently engaged in a broad range of efforts to expedite the repatriation process and improve the campus’s relationship with Tribal Nations.”

In 2019, Christ ordered all teaching and research with Native remains and artifacts be halted, she wrote. She also moved oversight for the process into her office. 

Since 2020, the campus has repatriated 1,000 ancestors and thousands of cultural items. “To provide context, that is basically equivalent to the number of repatriations the campus completed in the preceding 30 years,” she wrote.

The letter also advocated for federal recognition of the Ohlone tribe. That recognition would expedite the return of some ancestral remains as quickly as next year, she said.

Platt, however, has doubts about Cal’s newest efforts. Record keeping over the decades was bad, making identification difficult. Those records have finally been digitized but they are still chaotic, Platt contends.

Platt also points to the January resignation of the faculty director of the Hearst Museum of Anthropology, Lauren Kroiz, as evidence the university is still not sufficiently complying with NAGPRA. In her resignation letter, Kroiz points out Cal’s failure to implement “a cohesive plan” for returning the human remains, its inadequate staffing to carry out any plan and its inability to “provide mechanisms to increase transparency and accountability for NAGPRA and CalNAGPRA repatriation work.”

The Hearst Museum is currently closed to the public so staff can work more diligently on repatriating the remains it has stored for more than 100 years.

Bill Todd, a California state senator representing the Napa Valley, has introduced SB 161, which would require UC Berkeley and other campuses with Indian remains to hire a full-time repatriation coordinator by July 1, 2024. The campuses will also have to develop a detailed plan and budget to return the remains and create a plan for consulting with tribes. The bill is making its way through the Senate.  

Cal is a ‘hoarder’ of bones — a reflection of its colonial mindset

Text of an old document that includes description of what UC Berkeley would be "glad to receive: "Indian antiquities, skulls, weapons, stone implements, dresses and other illustrations of aboriginal life"
A section in the 1878 University of California Register soliciting contributions to the school’s collections. Credit: Register of the University of California, 1878-79; highlighting by ProPublica

Platt wrote about UC Berkeley’s callous handling of Native remains in his 2011 book Grave Matters. But he has learned so much since then, necessitating The Scandal of Cal, he said.

About three years ago he helped form the Truth and Justice Project to understand why Berkeley had not complied with ​​NAGPRA. The purpose was to get the university to act more forcefully. 

Platt served as a researcher for the project and delved deep into the university’s archives during the pandemic. He found documents that he had not discovered previously (they weren’t withheld from him but no one pointed them out), including unreviewed collecting and field documents from the Hearst Museum.

The new information transformed his understanding of how and why Cal collected so many Native remains. Previously, Platt and others thought that the push was driven by the Department of Anthropology, headed for many years by Alfred Kroeber. (The hall bearing his name was also recently de-named). He thought the university collected bones to study them as part of its embrace of eugenics, a racist science that hypothesizes there are genetic differences between races that account for variations in intelligence. While the interest in eugenics is a partial explanation, Platt discovered that Cal had been collecting human specimens from around the world from its earliest days, years before the anthropology department was founded in 1901. He believes that approach reflects a colonial ideology.

While the Le Conte brothers’ racist views were extreme, many other early leaders of Cal held white supremacist views, writes Platt. They believed that whites could act as a civilizing force — an attitude reflected in the university’s slogan Fiat Lux, which means “let there be light” and comes from Genesis in the Old Testament. The university imagined it was settling a place of darkness and was bringing light to an uncivilized area.

No one was more devoted to that colonial mindset than Phoebe A. Hearst, the widow of the mining magnate and former California senator George Hearst and a long-serving UC Regent. She paid for expeditions to Peru, Mexico and Egypt to bring back mummies, skeletons and artifacts. 

“She understood that Berkeley needed to be competitive with Europe’s colonial powerhouses in the business of stockpiling Indigenous ‘specimens,’” Platt writes. 

Hearst then became deeply involved in creating, supporting and even controlling the Department of Anthropology, including its budget. Its professors started a concerted campaign to collect Native specimens. That included the mass desecration of Native graves around the state, done without permission of any tribe. In 1876, Cal announced it was in the market for “Indian antiquities.” Amateur collectors soon learned that Cal would pay cash for skulls and bones. Cal eventually collected so many that they couldn’t keep track. The anthropology department started sorting them into crates filled with skulls, crates filled with femurs, crates filled with pelvises, and so on.

To Platt, Berkeley became a “hoarder” institution devoted to accumulating remains. Cal did no research on 90% to 95% of the bones, he said.

“The university took a great deal of pride in this,” said Platt. They “publicized the number of human remains brought back to campus and artifacts collected. It made me think of California as a colonial state and the University of California thinking of itself as being the leader of this new world that they were creating in the western parts of the United States.”

UC Berkeley needs to examine the Hearst family and the role it played in promoting racism and other theories that do not reflect the university’s values, Platt writes. George Hearst, whose mining fortune funded much of Cal’s early development, came from a slaveholding family. As a state assemblyman, he voted in 1865 against ratifying the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery. His son, William Randolph Hearst, who donated funds to build the Greek Theater, became a newspaper magnate and used his papers to start a war with the Philippines. But the Hearst name is sacrosanct at Cal, and Platt is dubious that any such examination will ever happen.

Platt thinks that the university should launch a truth-telling investigation into its past that includes public hearings and broad community participation. It should acknowledge its economic debt to the Ohlone people and explore the university policies that negated and exploited their existence. 

“The university has not done any internal investigation of what happened,” Platt said. “I suspect that they worry about opening the door to that investigation because then you get into the topics of … taking over the land that belonged to Native people, taking over land in Los Alamos where the atomic bomb was developed from Native people. It means supporting eugenics and white supremacist ideas. For a university that studies so much in the world, it has never studied itself.”

Correction: A previous version of this story used the wrong first name for Department of Anthropology head Alfred Kroeber.