Charles Michael Otten (1960)

Emeritus Professor, San Jose State University

My academic career ended a few years ago. It began at Berkeley in 1961, and finished at San Jose State University thirty two years later. My career was good, and my life has been excellent. As Max Weber wrote some values conflict, so I struck a balance between the values of life and work, family and career, location and ambition, fun and duty. In grade school, I knew they were lying when they said you can be anything you want to be. It would have been pleasant to win an endowed chair at Harvard, the Nobel Prize or just an award for the best sociology book of the year, and have a full life and great family. But as Weber pointed out, some values contradict others.

I grew up in a rural, Midwestern area, majored in history at a liberal arts college and became involved in a radical Catholic organization. No, Catholic radical is not necessarily an oxymoron. In the early 50s, we tried to organize college students around anti-nuclear, social justice issues. Then I worked for the Chicago civil service commission and was conscripted into the army for two years. Almost by accident, I landed in Berkeley when the requirements for graduate school were lower than now. Erving Goffman once said he wouldn't have gotten in either so I am in good company.

In the 1960s, Berkeley was the center of a global revolution of social, intellectual, political and cultural change. It was a wonderful learning environment where classroom analysis was directly applied to real life situations. My former military training with tear gas, along with Marxist theory, was directly applied to everyday, real life. A day might go like this: Class with Herbert Blumer in the morning, then a noon rally featuring Malcom X, followed by an evening concert with a weird group called Jefferson Airplane and their light show of colored oil spilled on an overhead projector. Intellectual excitement, political activity and cultural rebellion formed a magic mix. I was young enough to be involved and old enough to know where to stop.

I spent much of my time at the Law and Society center founded by Philip Selznick. The center became an intellectual vortex for the issues of the day, and, with great advice from from Phillip Selznick and Shelly Messinger, I wrote a thesis about the changing authority patterns at the University of California. To my enormous delight, University of California Press published my thesis as major book in their stable. The book greased an easy slide into tenure.

Through major miss timing I got married, started teaching and went out on strike --all within a two month period in 1968. I came to San Jose through a chance meeting with an old friend, and planned to leave within a year or so.  California was distasteful to me. But personal circumstances and a changing job market prompted me to remain in California where the idyllic environment gradually seduced me away from my Midwestern roots.

After coming to San Jose State, I continued doing research on organizational authority and published articles here and there. Following my mentor, Phillip Selznick, I wrote a conflict oriented text.  But unlike Phil's, mine floundered. It was partially a victim of a capitalist buy out to kill off competitors. But I had the pleasure of writing what and how I wanted in the non sociological language.

In the early 80s, my wife and two children spent a semester in Oslo Norway where I was attached to the Work Research Institute. Norway combined the environmental and workers movement with organizational democracy and passed a law outlawing unhealthy work.  Nothing unusual about that, but they defined boredom and lack of personal control as unhealthy. Towards the end of my career, I became chair. Like crime, I thought that studying organizations is better than doing it. To my surprise it turned out to be both satisfying and fun. I was paid and rewarded to talk, socialize, gossip and plan. Planning is more gratifying than doing. The President of the University once said that she hoped the last professor in sociology would turn out the light and lock the door, but for the first time in 19 years, we were able to hire new people who energized us tired, mainly white, old men. Taking advantage of my one and only administrative experience, I ran for dean of the School of Social Science and lost.

I owe a lot to the University of California and the sociology department. It gave me an enormous amount of intellectual capital, political insight and cultural richness.  When my daughter graduated from Cal, it was one of the great moments of my life. To my slight embarrassment, I bought a Cal hat and, for the first time in my life, attended Cal football games.

Like many people from the 60s era, I feel that academia has declined from the golden era of fat budgets, dedicated students, subsidized research and more jobs than professors. Yet graduate training at Berkeley and being a sociology professor was the basis for a good life, satisfying work and useful career. I have gone full circle and now spend time in classes learning to be a painter, not houses, but landscapes.

Dissertation Title: 
From Paternalism to Private Government: The Patterns of University Authority Over Students
Dissertation Book Title: 
University authority and the student; the Berkeley experience