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History

The Berkeley Forum at the University of California, Berkeley was created in 2012 to revive a long-lost culture of free and open discourse in the nation’s universities. Modeled after world-renowned University Unions and debate societies, the Forum provides a non-partisan platform for the discussion of ideas by inviting distinguished speakers to the UC Berkeley campus. However, the Berkeley Forum is distinct from other organizations of its kind. While vastly younger than almost any other University Union in the world, the Forum has already shown promise to someday become as influential and pronounced as the Oxford Union.

Organizations such as the Harvard Political Union and the Yale Political Union were once celebrated by the nation for bringing political debate and discussion to the world. But as times have changed, such University Unions have failed to remain as relevant as they once were. Students who had the power to affect political climates and incite social change through debate have lost their influence. Passion for democratic education has dwindled, and debate societies have crumbled. Hence, in a time where social, political, and cultural developments have all but halted on college campuses, the Berkeley Forum seeks to reinvigorate the basic principles of open discourse.

Founder Pierre Bourbonnais developed the idea of the Berkeley Forum in May 2012 with a simple question of free will. The idea turned into a plan, and the plan became a mission. That very mission – to reaffirm the value of a liberal arts education by regularly organizing debates, panels, and talks by distinguished persons – has remained the organization’s driving force since inception. What began as a mere idea quickly took off to develop into the fastest growing organization on the UC Berkeley campus.

Founding members of the Forum met with the Associated Students of the University of California in August 2012 to discuss the creation of the organization. Soon thereafter, in November 2012, the Berkeley Forum was officially founded. Fully aware of the importance of professionalism in hosting the nation’s greatest thinkers, the Forum’s members set out to prepare for their inaugural event.

“The Federal Budget Fight,” a panel discussion featuring former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, was hosted by the Berkeley Forum on March 6, 2013. Boasting a crowd of nearly 200 students and community members, the event proved to be a great success and confirmed the long-standing need for a new University Union. Students who had never attended such an event – let alone help in planning it – were presented with an opportunity that had been missing for far too long. Riding this initial wave of success, the Berkeley Forum went on to host increasingly popular and engaging events in the 2013-2014 academic year.

On November 11, 2013, the Forum hosted Harvard professor and political activist Lawrence Lessig as he spoke out against money’s role in American politics. In the spirit of free and open discourse, Dr. Lessig presented controversial arguments to which most audience members hadn’t yet been exposed. His address ended with him urging audience members to act on the information he had provided. Only a few months later in March 2014, US Senator Rand Paul came to speak at the Berkeley Forum. The potential 2016 presidential candidate discussed the NSA's surveillance activities and their implications for individual liberty, finishing with a highly emotional appeal and a bold call for political action. Thus, much like the Lawrence Lessig event, Rand Paul’s address applied the Forum’s advocacy for a liberal education to the real world. Introducing brand new insights and opinions through the Berkeley Forum, Rand Paul set a powerful precedent for all future Forum events to follow.

As with most sources of political commentary, University Unions have fluctuated in their global influence over time. Unfortunately, they have prolonged outdated practices through decades of dwindling popularity, and have recently disappeared from the public eye. However, the Berkeley Forum seeks to reverse that pattern. Accomplishing in just two years what most other unions could not accomplish in ten, the Forum took initiative on a widespread need for sociopolitical discourse and created a resilient organization dedicated to the proliferation of free speech and thought. In years to come, the Forum hopes to reestablish a passion for democratic education in people across the nation and around the globe.

Historical Timeline

August 28, 2012Founding members meet with the UC Berkeley LEAD Center to discuss the creation of the Forum
October 9, 2012The Executive Committee of the Berkeley Forum has its first meeting
November 14, 2012 Founding members meet with UC Berkeley Vice Chancellor Harry Le Grande for approval
November 27, 2012The Berkeley Forum is officially founded
January 24, 2013Founding members seek to expand the Forum’s membership through recruitment
March 6, 2013The Berkeley Forum hosts its inaugural event, “The Federal Budget Fight”
November 8, 2013The Berkeley Forum hosts Lawrence Lessig
December 17, 2013The Berkeley Forum is sponsored by the Haas School of Business
February 21, 2014Forum members go to Lake Tahoe for the organization’s first retreat
March 19, 2014The Berkeley Forum hosts Senator Rand Paul
March 20, 2014The Berkeley Forum appears on the front page of the New York Times
April 14, 2014The Forum’s website, forum.berkeley.edu, undergoes a massive overhaul
April 25, 2014The official Facebook page of the Berkeley Forum hits 1,000 ‘Likes’
July 27, 2014The Forum prints and distributes its first donation packet