Kerr earned an A.B. from Swarthmore College in 1932, an M.A. from Stanford University in 1933, and a Ph.D. in economics from UC Berkeley in 1939. In 1945, he became an associate professor of industrial relations and was the founding director of the Institute of Industrial Relations.
During the McCarthy era in 1949, the Regents of the University of California adopted an anti-communist loyalty oath to be signed by all University of California employees. Kerr signed the oath, but fought against the firing of those who refused to sign. Kerr gained respect from his stance and was named UC Berkeley's first chancellor when that position was created in 1952. As chancellor, Kerr oversaw the construction of 12 high-rise dormitories and was the Regents' choice for president when the position opened in 1958.
Kerr's term as UC president saw the opening of campuses in San Diego, Irvine, and Santa Cruz to accommodate the influx of baby boomers. Faced with a dramatic increase of students entering college, Kerr helped establish the now much-copied California system of having the handful of University of California campuses act as 'top tier' research institutions, the more numerous California State University campuses handle the bulk of undergraduate students and the very numerous California Community College campuses provide vocational and transfer-oriented college programs to the masses.
Controversy exploded in 1964 when Berkeley students led the Free Speech Movement in protest of regulations limiting political activities on campus, culminating in hundreds of arrested students at a sit-in. Kerr was criticized both by students for not agreeing to their demands and by regents and others for responding too leniently to the student unrest. His perceived leniency was key in Ronald Reagan's election as Governor of California in 1966 and in Kerr's dismissal as president in 1967. In response, Kerr stated that he left the university "fired with enthusiasm" just as he entered it.
In 1986, the Clark Kerr Campus of the UC Berkeley opened, named in honor of Kerr. A few blocks from the main campus, it includes residences and sports practice facilities. The Spanish-style residential complex houses 700 students and features landscaped gardens and a conference center. It had previously been the California School for the Deaf, but the University was able to acquire it by having it condemned as seismically unsafe, forcing the School to move, then taking it over.
In 2002, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that the FBI had blacklisted Kerr as part of a campaign to suppress people at UC deemed subversive. President Lyndon Johnson had picked Kerr to become secretary of Health, Education and Welfare but withdrew the nomination after the FBI background check on Kerr included damaging information the agency knew to be false.
Kerr died in his sleep following complications from a fall at age 92.
- U.C. Berkeley news release
- AP obituary
- NPR All Things Considered – Educator Clark Kerr Dies at 92
- account of secret files of the FBI on Kerr, and Kerr's ouster.
- Kerr, Clark, The Gold and the Blue: A Personal Memoir of the University of California, 1949–1967
- Kerr, Clark, The Uses of the University