Who Was Herbert Marcuse?

Notes on a Most Controversial Professor

Many early UC San Diego professors were lured from institutions of the east with the promise of sun and sand, but paradise wasn’t prepared for one philosopher.

Herbert Marcuse was a notable name even when he first arrived on campus in 1965. But his years at UC San Diego would make Marcuse an icon for countercultural youth on a campus swiftly radicalizing along with colleges across the nation.

Professor Herbert Marcuse (left) was a controversial thinker of the time, while his graduate student, Angela Davis, MA ’69, would inspire further generations to seek change.

He didn’t look like a revolutionary—the elderly German national wore a wool suit and tie most days—but his ideology was far from the norm. Marcuse was dubbed “Father of the New Left,” a movement steeped in Marxist ideals and readied for revolution. “His fame was the ability to push great thinkers one more step beyond where they comfortably went,” says Barry Shapiro ’69. “Marcuse questioned and critiqued the philosophies of Marx, Hegel, and Freud, and he finished what they started.” In his book, One Dimensional Man, for instance, he harshly criticizes Western capitalism as totalitarian, preventing people from tapping into other dimensions of their humanity.

Anne-Marie Feenberg, PhD ’76, remembers Marcuse being on her doctoral committee for a PhD in literature. “He had no idea,” Feenberg recalls. “He was so surprised that everybody saw him as a guru of the movement.” But Marcuse was known to walk the walk—joining students on marches and regularly taking the podium at protests, from supporting students of color as they advocated for Third College, to the pervasive anti-war demonstrations.

Desks were often full for his lectures, with people standing in the back, eager to learn from this philosophical pop star. Philosophy major Charles McCurdy ’70 remembers taking Marcuse’s “Theories of Society” class five times—“following successful petitions showing how each course was very different.”

Yet for all the attention Marcuse drew from admiring students, others took notice as well. There was typically uproar when his teaching contract came up for renewal every year, facing calls for his resignation from the UC Board of Regents as well as then-governor Ronald Reagan. The American Legion even offered then-Chancellor McGill $20,000 to buy out his teaching contract, to which he commented, “They must think Marcuse is a football player.”

Oppositions such as these seemed civil compared to other affronts Marcuse faced. On top of receiving anonymous death threats at his house, he was targeted by the Ku Klux Klan with threatening letters. Yet this only activated students even more—a few even acted as bodyguards when Marcuse walked to school.

The academic support for Marcuse also combated outside criticism. Amidst the furor over his appointment, the Academic Senate released a statement of the Committee on Academic Freedom, with Chairman Walter Munk, PhD ’47 saying, “I do not agree with Professor Marcuse’s views, but that is not the point at issue here. A colleague is under attack by people outside the university. … We are unable to halt such criticisms, but we must never yield to outside pressures on academic matters.”

When Marcuse ultimately became a professor emeritus, the uproar over his position faded and he spent less time on campus and more time on the international lecture circuit. He passed away at the age of 81, just before he was scheduled to speak in his home country. But he truly inspired a revolutionary cohort on this campus—former student Lowell Bergman, now a leading investigative journalist, recalls, “I met people I am still in touch with today and share the experience of being in the presence of someone who could truly think in a ‘radical’ fashion, who examined the world and ideas by finding their root.”

And of course, some of his students would become thought leaders and icons in their own right…

Read about Herbert Marcuse’s most well-know student, Angela Davis, MA ’69