Born in May 1940 in New York City, Orville H. Schell is Dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, a position he has held since 1996.
His father, Orville Hickok Schell, Jr., was a prominent lawyer who headed the New York City Bar Association, chaired the left human rights group Americas Watch from its founding in 1981 until his death in 1987, and co-founded Helsinki Watch, forerunner to Human Rights Watch. He was namesake of the Orville H. Schell, Jr. Center for International Human Rights at Yale University Law School.
Born to money and privilege, Orville Schell attended elite Episcopal Pomfret School in Connecticut. He then attended Harvard University, dropping out in 1960 after his junior year to study Chinese at Stanford University. He studied Mandarin at National Taiwan University, where he matriculated from 1961-64. While in Taiwan, Schell began writing columns for the Boston Globe as its “Man in Asia.”
Schell returned to Harvard, studied Asian history, culture and politics under John Fairbank and Edwin Reischauer, and completed his undergraduate degree in 1964.
In 1964-65 Schell worked for the Ford Foundation in Djakarta, Indonesia.
Schell then pursued Chinese studies at UC Berkeley, earning a Master’s degree in 1967. He became a researcher for sociology and history professor Franz Schurmann, head of the school’s Center for Chinese Studies, on a three-volume work The China Reader (1967, Random House). Schell contributed so much to writing this series on modern China that Schurmann named him co-author. This instantly established Schell as a China scholar, expert and pundit on Asia.
Schell completed all but his dissertation for a Ph.D. at UC Berkeley. As anti-Vietnam War protests shook the United State generally and the UC Berkeley campus in particular, he immersed himself in anti-war activism and journalism.
In 1969 Schell and his mentor Schurmann co-founded Pacific News Service (PNS) as a vehicle for creating and distributing news and commentary that undermined, criticized, and helped mobilize activism against, U.S. policies during the war in Vietnam.
In 1974 Schell was living on a factory commune in the People’s Republic of China during the last years of its Communist dictator Mao Zedong, who died in 1976. Schell’s sorrow at the failure of Mao’s socialist politics was made evident in a Winter 1988 interview with the counter-cultural left magazine Whole Earth Review:
“China was one model in the ’60s and ’70s for Westerners looking for new credos and new alternative belief systems,” said Schell. “Well, it turned out that China consumed itself. It did not necessarily disprove that certain socialist models are completely inappropriate for Third World developing countries. Rather it simply showed that the extremism of the Maoist experiment sabotaged that model…. It’s a great shame that Mao screwed up. His megalomania overpowered his efforts to see if China could be the first country that would find some different way to put itself together and to develop.”
“There isn’t much I’d recommend anybody imitate in China now,” Schell added in that 1988 interview, “because China is becoming an imitation of us…. Now among the young there’s enormous amounts of crime and disaffection and skepticism and cynicism, along with disillusionment, and its analogue, a greed for money. People always reach for money when everything else fails.”
When China was dogmatically Communist, Schell wrote of it as a beacon of hope and idealism. But the more China has inched towards capitalism, the more negative Schell’s rhetoric about that nation has become. In 2004, for example, he described China as practicing “Leninist capitalism.”
In a September/October 1997 interview with the American socialist magazine Mother Jones (on whose masthead Schell is listed as a “Contributing Writer”), he described China’s reformist ruler Deng Xiaoping as “the counterrevolutionary par excellence in history.” He described the nation’s minority of Communist Party leaders as “using their positions both in the party and in the government to make money.” When asked if China is “ready for democracy?” Schell’s answer was “No.”
“Some of [Deng Xiaoping’s successors] fought for almost 50 years for the Marxist revolution,” said Schell, “and I think it’s very naïve for Westerners to assume that that experience, that mind-set, that whole ideology just simply vanished with Deng’s reforms.”
Before his 1974 departure to live in a Chinese commune, Schell already had written three books. One, co-authored with renowned scholar Frederick Crews, was Starting Over: A College Reader (1970). Another was Modern China: The Story of a Revolution (1972). A third, written with Joseph Esherick, was Modern China: The Making of a New Society, from 1839 to the Present (1972).
In 1975 Schell [along with his younger brother Jonathan Schell, who later would write the best-seller The Fate of the Earth and is today employed by The Nation and The Nation Institute] became a correspondent at The New Yorker. He also began to produce a mix of China-related and other books.
About China, Schell has written In The People’s Republic: An American’s First-Hand View of Living and Working in China (1976); Watch Out for the Foreign Guests: China Encounters the West (1981); To Get Rich Is Glorious: China in the 1980’s (1984); Discos and Democracy: China in the Throes of Reform (1988); Mandate of Heaven: A New Generation of Entrepreneurs, Dissidents, Technocrats, and Bohemians Grasp for Power in China (1994); The China Reader: The Reform Years, co-edited with David Shambaugh (1999); and Empire: Impressions of China (2004).
On other topics, Schell has written Brown (1978), a biography of California Governor Jerry Brown. In 1976 he wrote The Town That Fought to Save Itself, about counterculture activists’ efforts to thwart private property development in the San Francisco suburb Bolinas, where the environmental activist Schell had built his own house and established the Niman-Schell ranch and meat company. In 1983 Schell wrote _Modern Meat: Antibiotics, Hormones and the Pharmaceutical Farm.
_In 2000 Schell published Virtual Tibet: Searching for Shangri-La from The Himalayas to Hollywood. This book discussed the construction, and deconstruction, of what this ancient nation now under Chinese occupation has meant to the West. Schell has urged China to grant autonomy to Tibet and to re-admit its traditional leader the Dalai Lama.
During his journalistic career, Schell has served as correspondent and expert on Asian matters for The Atlantic, Harper’s, New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, Newsweek, and the San Francisco Chronicle.
He also became involved in television as a co-producer at Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) production center WGBH-TV in Boston (1984), NBC Nightly News (1987), and CBS‘s 60 Minutes (1991). In addition, he helped produce some of Peter Jennings‘ specials at ABC Television, and he worked for WGBH’s documentary program Frontline in 1994.
In 1993 Schell won an Alfred I. duPont Award-Columbia University Silver Baton for The Gate of Heavenly Peace, a documentary about the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre of unarmed students by the Chinese army.
Schell’s selection as Dean of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism was not without controversy. The head of the search committee, sociology professor and Marxist Troy Duster, refused even to interview one qualified conservative journalist for the job. A lawsuit filed by the Academic Freedom Project of the Individual Rights Foundation contended that Schell’s appointment constituted political patronage, illegal under California labor laws. It also argued that a political litmus test for the deanship illegally denied public employment and First Amendment rights to a conservative applicant because of his political ideas. The lawsuit was dropped after the conservative applicant abandoned the fight.
Schell has filled the UC Berkeley Journalism School’s faculty with a spectrum of leftist professors and lecturers. These have included: Mark Danner, Barbara Ehrenreich, Tom Engelhardt, Stephen Talbot, and Steve Wasserman. (Note: Of these five, only Danner and Talbot were still teaching at Berkeley as of December 2007.)