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Silicon Beach: Has Chancellor M.R.C. Greenwood abandoned UCSC's founding principles to court the riches of Silicon Valley?

Greenwood Acres

UCSC's long, strange trip from redwood haven to high-tech mecca

By Jessica Lyons

HE CAN'T LOOK BACK without the proverbial rose-colored glasses. Still, UC-Santa Cruz professor emeritus of biology Todd Newberry swears he's as cleareyed as the next guy. Newberry was one of the original faculty members when the campus opened its redwood doors in 1965.

"It was an attempt to reform undergraduate education in the major American state university," Newberry says admiringly of UCSC's early years. "The idea was to see whether we really could deal with faceless education in a major research university. At that time, California was the paragon of state education systems through and through."

Newberry still teaches an occasional core humanities course at Cowell College and works at the Long Marine Laboratory. Sitting across from me at a white conference table, Newberry folds his hands, glances sideways out the window, takes a long pause and continues. "Some people ask, 'Did the experiment succeed?' The experiment was testing the hypothesis that we could reform undergraduate education in a significant way at a state research university. The experiment was the place. The answer to the hypothesis was, 'No, you can't.'"

In the early days of Cowell College, under the leadership of the campus's first chancellor, Dean McHenry, and the founding provost of Cowell, Page Smith--before the days of the Baskin School of Engineering and traditional letter grades--the idea of UCSC as a portal to Silicon Valley would have seemed absurd. The original characterization of the place as a "City Upon a Hill" was borrowed by Smith from the writings of Puritan John Winthrop, the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, who viewed the early New England colonial villages as grand social (and above all, religious) experiments.

Times have changed. Under the leadership of current chancellor M.R.C. (Mary Rita Cooke) Greenwood, UCSC, it seems, can't wait to pull up its liberal arts roots and make a new name for itself as a high-tech mecca in the redwoods and over the hill.

"Now keep in mind, these are not complaints," Newberry instructs. "I absolutely love the place. It's been my life. This is not in bitterness at all--it's filled with affection. But yes, the humanities have starved. Maybe it's because we've seen so many scientists as chancellors. I get the sense that humanities don't really matter, when they should be absolutely central. If the absolute domination of education by scientists is what we are doing [at UCSC], then we are not doing what we set out to do. And that's where your leaders matter."

UC-Silicon Valley

AFTER INITIALLY agreeing to an interview with Metro Santa Cruz for this story, Greenwood had a change of heart and did not return phone calls. But in past interviews, there have been certain buzzwords Greenwood has preferred in interviews to describe her vision of UCSC. "The UC of Silicon Valley," a "portal" to the valley and "a major research facility" are among her favorites. And she's certainly done her darndest to push the campus down the silicon-paved road.

Shortly after coming to the campus in 1996, Greenwood secured a $5 million donation--the largest gift in the university's history--from developer Jack Baskin to jump-start an engineering school. Under Greenwood's leadership, the university has also started a business management economics major.

But the campus is also on the brink of abolishing the Narrative Evaluation System and has also lost esteemed professor and author Elliot Aronson, who has been called the most famous living American social psychologist. In April 1999--two weeks after winning the American Psychological Association's highest career award for research over a lifetime--Aronson and three colleagues received letters from the department chair saying they would be let go for budgetary reasons.

Aronson accepted an early retirement deal six years ago, but had continued to teach one or two classes a year since then, at about $8,000 a course. Stanford snapped him up, and will pay Aronson $10,000 to teach one class in the spring.

But when it comes to the sciences, it seems no expense is spared. Construction on a new $56 million physical sciences building is slated to start next month. Some three dozen redwood trees were cleared from the site north of the science library last week--just days before students return.

Of greater significance was a recently announced shared-use partnership with San Jose State University and the Foothill-De Anza Community College District at the NASA Ames Research Park at Moffett Field. Each partner will contribute $300,000 over the next 10 months to the venture. The goal, read the announcement, was "to develop a world-class, shared-use R&D campus by partnering with industry, academia and nonprofits."

Last July, when Greenwood first announced that UCSC would establish a Silicon Valley center at Moffett Field, Greenwood said linking the university to NASA Ames would allow UCSC to offer expanded graduate and undergraduate courses in computer and electrical engineering, astronomy and space sciences. Greenwood also appeared to throw a bone to the humanities, saying that social scientists at the center might conduct research on social justice and the widening divide between the rich and poor in American society.

Not everyone is impressed with such gestures.

"The telling phrase is for Marci Greenwood to call it a 'major research institution,' " says professor emeritus of philosophy Paul Lee. "That's about as far away from the original mission as you can get."

Since 1997--the first year of the Baskin School of Engineering--undergraduate humanities majors declined, from 950 in 1997 to 926 in 1998 and 832 in 1999. At the same time, engineering majors alone gradually increased, from 251 in 1997 to 238 in 1998 to 290 in 1999. But the numbers aren't all bad. Arts and social sciences also saw small increases, while natural sciences (such as math and physics) saw a small decrease, apparently due to defections to the engineering school. Numbers for 2000 were not available.

To UCSC traditionalists, it's less a matter of raw numbers than emphasis and support, of undermining what made UCSC unique in the first place and thereby robbing academia of a true alternative to the factorylike atmosphere that favors scientific research--and the grant money that comes with it--over teaching.

Although Greenwood defenders among the old guard are hard to come by, neither Lee nor the other original professors interviewed for this story hold Greenwood solely responsible for the university's change in course. But they agree she hasn't done anything to stem the tide.

"She's a Washington bureaucrat, a high-powered lady," Lee says. "But really, it's a Western problem. You get biology to count for knowledge, you eliminate consciousness from psychology, and the humanities are just for Sunday School."

"It's nobody's fault," adds original faculty member John Dizikes, professor emeritus of American studies. "It's the way the culture moves. The emphasis is on wanting a reputation, not teaching a few hundred students, but by writing articles and books. Our university is embarrassingly ready to regard itself as a great university."


Photo courtesy of UCSC Special Collections

Not Your Father's UCSC: UCSC seems ready to abandon its liberal arts roots, championed by first chancellor Dean McHenry (above), for high-tech research.

Climbing the Ranks

GREENWOOD EARNED A Ph.D. in biology from Rockefeller University in New York City, specializing in the genetic causes of obesity. Her work with fat lab rats led her to become a member of the National Academy of Sciences. She later became chairperson of its food and nutrition board.

In 1989, Greenwood moved to UC-Davis, taking the post of dean of graduate studies and professor of nutrition and internal medicine.

She took a brief break from the UC system between 1993 and 1995, when President Clinton nominated Greenwood as associate director for science in the While House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Shortly after returning to Davis, UC President Richard Atkinson called Greenwood for an interview to become chancellor of UC-Santa Cruz. In the spring of 1996, Greenwood became the seventh Slug chancellor.

Atkinson cited Greenwood's Washington experience in recommending her for the job. And according to at least one UC regent, Greenwood's high-tech connections made her a shoo-in for the position, presaging the mandate that Greenwood would later put into action. The campus "doesn't have the ties [to Silicon Valley]," UC regent Judy Levin told the San Jose Mercury News in 1997. "I wanted someone with those connections."

Appointed indefinitely, chancellors are reviewed every five years by the regents. Greenwood is now going on her fifth year. Upon accepting the $173,200-a-year job, she told the regents that she would commit for a decade. She's making $250,000 a year currently, but if past years are any indication, Greenwood will soon get a raise that will put her salary around $270,000 plus perks, like free housing. Between 1996 and 1999, Greenwood received the highest salary increases on a percentage basis of the nine UC chancellors.

If Greenwood does serve as chancellor for a decade, she will be only the third UCSC leader to do so. Founding chancellor Dean McHenry held the post from 1965 to 1974. Chancellor number four, biologist Robert Sinsheimer--the first chancellor appointed from outside the UC system--served from 1977 to 1987. Some original faculty say he was hired during the campus's tumultuous years in order to put Santa Cruz "in its place."

Indeed, Greenwood wasn't the first biologist with Silicon Valley aspirations, although she can take credit for bringing tech dreams such as a Silicon Valley regional center to fruition. But while her bulldozerlike charm has been instrumental in transforming UCSC, the vision of a "UCSV" (UC-Silicon Valley) originated with Sinsheimer, whose contributions to the university include the Keck Telescope and work on the human genome project. He also initiated the ties to the high-tech industry over the hill. His goal of establishing an engineering school, however, was not realized until Greenwood took the helm.

When Newberry and other longtime professors talk about members of the current administration, they use words like "ordinary" and "well-meaning," forever lost in the long shadows cast by visionaries Dean McHenry and Page Smith. These founding faculty don't describe them as leaders, let alone visionaries. The burden of leadership, they say, has been forsaken.

"When you compare then and now, the current administrators get impatient. They think it's nostalgia, but I don't see it that way," says Newberry, who, along with many of the rest of his original colleagues, accepted early retirement in the mid-'90s. "When that [early retirement] happened, after almost all of the original faculty got out, you could almost feel the sigh of relief [from the administration]."

Now the focus has shifted, and today's UCSC leaders want the campus to be known as a number one research institution. Says Newberry: "A lot of people now seem weirdly worried about the place's reputation."

"We tried to do something, give the students a sense of purpose and scope and meaning," remembers Mary Holmes, professor emeritus of art history and one of the original faculty members. "Now it isn't even possible. It was a nice, romantic gesture, but there was nothing after that. The expectation of a good education is gone. It's simply good employment. It's a clear, distinct line to getting a job. The students get what they want, a job, but in terms of liberal arts, it's a disaster."

Almost Paradise

THE GREAT DEBATE over the "publish or perish" rule of academic survival began in the 1950s and '60s. Emphasizing research over teaching, the unwritten rule places extreme pressure on professors and does little for undergraduate students.

UCSC was born in part as a reaction against publish or perish, as an attempt to place a renewed emphasis on the original purpose of educational institutions. McHenry and Smith's vision was to put teaching above research. Written evaluations were the key, a reflection of the university's commitment to direct contact between professors and students--rather than forcing (or allowing) tenured staff members to spend all of their time on research.

Thirty-five years later, the impending abandonment of written evaluations is seen by supporters of the system as further evidence that the teaching link between professors and students--the thing that made UCSC unique in the first place--has been severed.

Over the past few years, an increasing number of faculty members--largely from the math and science departments--have complained that the written evaluations are too time-consuming, further UCSC's "flaky" image and hurt students' chances at graduate school and post-college employment.

In March 1997--less than a year after Greenwood was appointed chancellor--the statewide academic senate OK'd optional letter grades for all Santa Cruz students. Letter grades were already optional for students in upper-division courses, thanks to a faculty vote in 1981. In February, the academic senate overwhelmingly voted to require letter grades in addition to written evaluations. This fall, faculty will consider abandoning the written evaluations altogether.

UCSC officials blame a purported decline in the campus's reputation on narrative evaluations, but at the same time they are not shy about touting the university's success that came right along with narrative evaluations.

"The kind of education we provide to the undergraduate students, as well as the graduate students ... without questions is as good as provided anywhere in the world," said John Simpson, campus provost and executive vice chancellor, at a recent UCSC brunch.

He then proceeded to rattle off a few prestigious rankings--UCSC was listed 13th-best public research university in the nation. The university also boasts the nation's 15th-highest number of bachelor-degree-earning graduates who went on to earn doctorate degrees.

"I think that shows what a good job we do," he concluded. No mention was made of narrative evaluations.

The Winter 1997 issue of the campus publication UC Santa Cruz Review, which appeared shortly after Greenwood took over, touts UCSC as placing seventh nationally in the number of physics faculty papers cited in other publications between 1981 and 1994. UCSC ranked just behind Brandeis and ahead of Cal Tech. Apparently, the university was not having trouble attracting top-flight physics faculty, despite the Narrative Evaluation System (NES).

"The real issue is whether the narrative system is slower, harder, less efficient," says Dizikes, one of the faculty critics who spoke out against abolishing the NES last year. "Letter grades are not a better system, they are a simpler system, and very few people have the courage to tell the truth."

"The conventional grading system inevitably produced a competitive situation in the class where some people prospered at the expense of others," Smith said in a 1987 interview for the McHenry Library's Regional History Project. "I think that it's one of the most negative aspects of the whole teaching situation. ... I think it's true when the university is described as simply reproducing the competitive situation in the world outside. It is set up to produce often-meaningless distinctions between people. Somebody's an A person; somebody's a C person. Well, you know [sigh], life is so much bigger than that."

Against All Odds

'THE REASON WE CAME here, the reason this campus was opened, was the idea that we could build small units inside the big state university system, that this university would be made up of colleges and that therefore it would be diverse and intimate," Dizikes says. "I teach classes now where I don't know the names of all my students. I find that strange. But anyway, we tried. A lot of faculty tried very hard."

According to a student poll, 70 percent disapprove of the faculty vote to require grades and 90 percent oppose dropping written evaluations.

More than simply a measure of achievement, the system built around narratives encouraged the low student-teacher ratios that made it viable, resulting in more direct exchange of ideas between professors and students. Traditional letter grades are, on the other hand, more conducive to large classrooms and quantifiable subject matters.

"In the beginning, the student-teacher ratios were very low, 10- or maybe 12-to-1," Newberry remembers. "It was like Swarthmore in that area; there were some big classes, but there were many, many little classes."

Now that ratio is 25-to-1. Under Greenwood's leadership the campus has grown to about 11,000 students, and expects to add at least 4,000 more.

The move toward mass production and away from small-scale teaching makes the narratives obsolete, Dizikes says. It also destroys the idea of the university as a place for an exchange of ideas between students and faculty.

"In the historical perspective, against all the odds, we did a few things for a while. It went on for the first 20 or 25 years, and it still goes on in the persons of many fine faculty who are committed to general education, committed to a fine education. But institutionally, the university is very much opposed to it and is anxious to obliterate it. The only reason UCSC still talks about the colleges is to attract students."

And where is our fearless leader now?

"I think [Greenwood] would be perfectly willing to help undergraduate education, provided she didn't have to take resources away from the things she really cares about, which is research," Dizikes says. "It's like a tremendous tide. There's nothing individuals can do to resist it. Sure, it's bleak, but it's realistic."

Holmes has a slightly brighter view of the future. Visions will change, she says, and education for education's sake will be resurrected.

"I'm convinced there will be some revelation in the next 10 years that will consolidate things and create a new vision of the world and a new vision of life. People are always looking for a utopia."

Once upon a time, UC-Santa Cruz filled that void.

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From the September 13-20, 2000 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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