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The Dream Is Over

reveling in the 70's
Jennifer Teeter

On a Clear Day They Could Play Forever: The spirit of celebration and relaxation has mingled with academic rigor at the Santa Cruz campus since day one, although not everyone--primarily new 'get a job' faculty and administrators--feels as good about that as these mid-'70s revelers.

Wondrous ideals and retro innovations are abandoned as UCSC leaves its wild heritage behind and enters a pragmatic new world

By Eric Johnson

READING THE EARLIEST VERSION of the UCSC story, even basic facts appear to blur between the pages. Solomon's House, written by a group of history students just four years after Cowell College opened its doors, shows that from the beginning the Santa Cruz campus was the site of a struggle between a visionary concept and hard political reality.

Already, in 1968, the story varied radically depending on who was doing the telling. But one passage about the flagship school rings clearly true and echoes a sentiment that has been repeated with each turn in the university's short life.

"Cowell College was meant to function as an inspiration for change in the academic world," it reads. "If the faculty and administration ever become content with Cowell as it is, Cowell and Santa Cruz as a whole will be nothing more than ordinary."

Almost 30 years later, many of the visionary elements designed to make UCSC "an inspiration" have been abandoned. The launching of the Baskin School of Engineering, the adoption of letter grades and several administrative changes have created an idea that the Santa Cruz campus has finally become little more than a beachfront cousin to Berkeley and UCLA.

But in conversations with faculty members who've been there since the start, as well as current administrators, the word "ordinary" does not come up. Their versions of what is happening, however, are no less complex and varied than in 1968.

When asked to tell the story of when she first heard about the academic experiment that was going on at UCSC, Chancellor M.R.C. Greenwood was candid about her lack of confidence in her own ability to reconstruct events. "I believe it was when I was a student at Vassar, in 1968," Greenwood says. "Either I've made this up, or else I actually recall that there were students who transferred to Santa Cruz because finally there was something in Northern California besides Stanford. That's the way I remember it, anyway. You know how your mind can sometimes do that?"

Still stinging from a recent Los Angeles Times "hatchet job," which trotted out the "Uncle Charlie's Summer Camp" version of the UCSC story, Greenwood was admittedly defensive. She wants to concentrate on the future--or at least the present. Given an opportunity to discuss the campus today, she is upbeat. She is happy to say that the campus is unique, but not in the mythical way that many people say it is.

As a City Upon a Hill

GREENWOOD IS SPEAKING from a pay phone from San Diego, where she is giving the keynote address at a gathering of top administrators from throughout the UC system. "I think there is a legitimate claim that can be documented and substantiated, that we are the best research university in the country if you want to focus on involvement with faculty," Greenwood says. "We are committed, as are all universities, to discovering knowledge and creating new information. But our faculty know who their students are."

When asked how she sees this fitting in with the founders' vision, she becomes exasperated. "If you want to know the founding principles, go back and read the academic plan that was approved in 1965," she says. "It called for a campus of 30,000 students, with as many as 20 small colleges and two or three professional schools. That was the basis for the founding of this campus. But that's not what people remember. What people remember are the first few things that happened in the early years. And even that is romanticized.

"I just want to get beyond it," she says. "Virtually nothing happened here that wasn't happening everywhere else."

While she is not alone in that assessment, she is a long way from the consensus. Matthew Todd Newberry, professor emeritus of biology, was among the first faculty members who drove up the hill in 1965 to teach in what was, according to the authors of Solomon's House, "a weird amalgam of sophisticated ideology covered with dust, a scruffy nascent utopia."

Newberry remembers the place as being wildly different--in good ways--from any college he'd ever seen. He gives much of the credit to Page Smith, who was appointed by founding chancellor Dean McHenry as Cowell's first provost. "It was unique, but not in the way that it's interpreted today in the 'summer camp' cartoon version of history," Newberry says. "Because what Page was trying to do here was to build a true community of scholars and teachers."

That had been done before in utopian projects that came after World War II, but this was something bigger. This was the University of California.

John Dizikes, professor emeritus of American studies, passionately concurs. "We came here thinking that we were going to construct, in the context of a state institution, a college atmosphere, something big that felt like a small, intimate place. We didn't realize then the virtual impossibility of doing that in a state system. Looking back, I can't believe the audacity. It was such a pleasure. But we didn't think things through."

UCSC Against the World

WHILE THE TRUE INTENT of the founders may never conclusively be found, there is a strong hint available--not exactly carved in stone, but cast in bronze and bolted to a concrete wall up at Cowell College. The dedication plaque states a commitment to "the pursuit of knowledge in the company of friends."

"It sounds so corny until you live with it awhile," Newberry says. "But then it gets right to the heart of the matter. This is what's important."

Newberry remembers the months that led up to his arrival on the campus, and a series of correspondences between himself and Page Smith. "I had never had a full-time teaching job, so I was a little bit nervous. I'd write to Page and ask, 'What do you want me to teach?' And what I would get back was that the picnic table had been moved to another knoll. That scared me. But I think he may have had his priorities straighter than I did."

Newberry says early hiring decisions were based on whether a prospective faculty member would fit in with the team. "We weren't thinking, 'OK, we have an etymologist, now we need an ichthyologist.' Being a nice guy mattered. That's not a criterion anymore, but with Page it was. That changed very soon, and in a sense it was an abandonment."

Neither Newberry nor Dizikes blames anyone for corrupting the true spirit of UCSC. Instead, they see historic inevitability. "The times overtook us and were not very helpful," Dizikes says. "Vietnam overwhelmed everything. Students did not concentrate on reconstructing the institution, but on changing America."

Vietnam was followed by Watergate. Gov. Ronald Reagan, no great friend of public education, attacked the university at its financial foundations. Then came a tax revolt and Proposition 13.

The times polarized the state and the nation, and the divisions that had seethed under the surface of the campus since day one bubbled to the top. Some were personal: When the university refused tenure to Alan Chadwick, the beloved creator of the Farm and Garden Project, several members of the founding faculty walked off in protest. Other battles were bureaucratic, such as the dispute between those who felt that the separate colleges should retain power to hire and fire faculty, and those who favored departmental control. Every little squabble was amplified by the political rancor of the era.

"This experiment could not have occurred at a worse time," Newberry says. "But I think it's wrong to say that it failed."

His good friend John Dizikes disagrees. "We failed," he says bluntly. "I'm not bitter, but the fact is that we didn't achieve what we wanted to do."

Dizikes says his memory of the whole endeavor is tinged with irony. "The radicalness was not that we were trying something new, but something old. We were trying to recreate what had been done at Oxford and Cambridge. We weren't imagining the future, we were recreating the past. Americans do not like small things--our culture admires power, scale, bigness, efficiency. We were running in the face of the deepest cultural tendencies."

Page Smith
Cruz Control: Page Smith, eminent historian and first provost of Cowell College, was determined to turn UCSC into a community of scholars and teachers.

Photo by Kent Eaton

Small Wonder

SMALLNESS WAS built into the UCSC experiment. Clark Kerr, then-president of the UC system, instructed the Santa Cruz campus' designers "to make it seem smaller even as it grows bigger." The original academic plan, which chancellor Greenwood recognizes as the ultimate founding document, named the colleges as "the basic unit of planning, and of student and faculty identification."

Much of the brief plan is given to laying out the idea behind the small-college system. "Because of the unusual nature of the academic program and the need for experimentation with new methods and procedures," it reads, "much latitude must be left to the individual colleges and those who staff them."

That set up an immediate conflict. Nationwide, professional academics make their careers by advancing within their disciplines. Research universities gain their reputations by building well-rounded departments. Colleges, however, are overwhelmingly concerned with creating a healthy learning environment--in Santa Cruz, a community--where teachers and students can exchange ideas.

To accommodate that conflict, it was decided at the outset that the hiring and promotion of all faculty members would be done by committees set up by both colleges and departments. That created a cumbersome system fraught with infighting, while frustrating some faculty members and keeping others away. Finally, Chancellor Robert Sinsheimer did away with the system in 1986 and gave all hiring power to the departments.

In response to Sinsheimer's decision, the Student Union Assembly fired off a critique which concluded: "We are faced with a picture of liberal learning, interdisciplinary teaching and collegial ideals eroding under the pressure of student careerism, entrenched departmental power and a traditional disciplinary reward system."

Killing the 'Chicken'

PATRICK MANTEY, dean of the Baskin School of Engineering, is glad that the tag-team hiring plan was ditched. A Stanford grad with 20 years at IBM, Mantey was recruited to come to UCSC in the mid-1970s. He turned the job down, largely because he didn't like the two-committee setup. "I didn't like the idea of being responsible to both a dean and a provost," he says. "I felt like I would be serving two masters."

But Mantey, who joined the university just after Sinsheimer's restructuring, says he had hated turning the job down the first time around because he had always been fond of UCSC.

"I had walked the campus before there was a campus here," he says. "I saw what it started out to be and what it became in the beginning. And I was glad to see it return to the charter that had been knocked off the tracks."

Mantey was troubled by another characteristic at UCSC circa '75--stretching from one end of the campus to the other, he saw what appeared to him to be a student population on vacation. "I walked away shaking my head," he says. "They all looked like they'd been on a backpacking trip for a couple of weeks. Every one of them. There was so much conformity, it felt like West Point or Annapolis."

Or Uncle Charlie's Summer Camp is more like it.

Over the years, UCSC's reputation for flakiness grew, even as it quietly achieved recognition as a first-rate university. This era's administrators and professors may rue the fact, but it has been one aspect of UCSC's identity all along.

In 1968, it went by a different name. From Solomon's House: "Blame it on the Greeks. From them we get the word 'school.' In the beginning the word meant 'leisure.' Or the Romans. In Latin the word 'campus' means 'playground.' Camp Cowell, so the College has countless times been called. A playground where it appears that leisure predominates."

The pages of Solomon's House, of course, are filled with descriptions of the rigorous education already available at UCSC. But it also tells the story of the Chicken Course.

Properly titled in the catalogue as "The Chicken in History," the class was an invention of Page Smith's. Perhaps in this postmodern academic era, it would be appreciated for what it was: an innovative effort to see history in a new way--in this case, through the eyes of a chicken, the most unglamorous of creatures, perhaps, but one closer to humanity than almost any other.

To UCSC's critics, the Chicken Course said it all. It revealed the school to be hopelessly quirky, a silly irrelevancy. On campus, it was seen as a stroke of genius. Smith, after all, was the author of a five-volume history of the American Revolution considered to be the masterpiece of popular narrative history. If his methods were unconventional, good.

Newberry remembers sitting in on the Chicken Course. "Dean McHenry even taught a section," he recalls. "Sure it was unusual. Naturally, we were kind of making fun of ourselves. And so outsiders made fun of us, too. But students loved that class."

The critics saw this brand of pop-intellectualism as pandering. As further evidence that UCSC lacked the seriousness required to be admitted into the elite ranks of academia, they pointed to the fact that students were not graded on their work.

The narrative evaluation was not a Santa Cruz innovation--some of the postwar experimental colleges already had professors writing detailed critiques of students' work--but it is practiced at no other state institution in the country.

Just this year, students were given the option of receiving letter-grades, although two-thirds chose to stick with the narratives. Even the dreaded "F," which had been abandoned early in the university's life, was resurrected.

Mantey thinks it's about time. Newberry, who isn't too worked up about the issue, believes the evaluations are much more effective in promoting learning and not nearly as complicated as the critics say.

"All we're doing is replacing ampleness and clarity with opaqueness," he says.

Matthew Todd Newberry
Robert Scheer

Evolution Theorist: Matthew Todd Newberry, professor emeritus of biology, sees the changes at the university in scientific-poetic terms.

New Worldly Order

A BIOLOGIST WITH A POETIC bent (he quotes Tolstoy and T.S. Eliot as often as he refers to natural systems), Todd Newberry draws a metaphor from his field of study to sum up his feelings about the place where he's done his life's work. "If people believe that we should simply now be our beginnings writ large, then what they're asking for is some kind of grotesque mutant," he says. "It would be like a colt growing into a horse and retaining the same dimensions. You can't grow from a 1,000-student campus to a 10,000-student campus and stay the same. And you can't begin forever."

Instead, he says (mixing phylogeny and ontogeny), UCSC has undergone an evolution, a metamorphosis. When he and the rest of his colleagues accepted early retirement a few years ago--in a cost-cutting measure that looked like a final purge--it was, as he sees it, a natural progression.

"A generation left, and it was a generation that in many ways was perceived as a bunch of naysayers," he says. "It's like in an ecological system--when the metamorphosing organisms leave the lagoon, those that remain say, 'Well, that takes care of that guy. Good riddance.' "

Dizikes is also philosophical, again framing the changes within the big picture. "What could be more appropriate than the taking over of the university by computer sciences?" he asks rhetorically. "What runs America's universities is science. When taxpayers put up their hard-earned dollars for research, it's not for research into Dante or Hemingway. We're running piggyback on the sciences, all on the freight train of industry. And industry is forward-looking--it's not interested in medieval studies or Japanese poetry."

Mantey borrows from Newberry's field and uses the same metaphor to describe what he sees as an extremely healthy university. "In my mind, an institution must evolve, figure out what it does well and continue, and learn from what it did wrong and change," he says.

Mantey openly supports student careerism--which is a slur in many academic circles. But he says UCSC's strengths in the arts and humanities help make his engineering school stronger.

"I hope it will also enrich the educational opportunities for people who aren't in the engineering school to get to know some engineering students and find out what they're like," he says. "This creates a more diverse group of students."

On a crisp, sunny autumn day at the new UCSC, it's easy to see that diversity. Students from every heritage amble, read, toss Frisbees and talk on cell phones amid the redwoods, oaks and bay trees among the $72 million worth of fancy new facilities.

It has paid off for the "scruffy utopia" begun in the 1960s to grow into an institution that feels right at home in the commerce-driven 1990s.

Nevertheless, it's also still possible to imagine that the spirit of adventure that launched the place is still there. The big question remains--Which comes first, the chicken or the golden egg?

Metro Santa Cruz presents a forum UCSC: Whatever happened to the dream of a city on a hill? on Thursday, November 6th at 7:30 pm at the Museum of Art & History, 705 Front Street. (408) 429-1964. Panelists will include Matthew Todd Newberry, Professor Emeritus of Biology; Linda Wilhusen, Vice President, UCSC Alumni Council; and John Laird, Former Mayor, City of Santa Cruz. The forum will be moderated by Eric Johnson, News Editor, Metro Santa Cruz.

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From the Nov. 6-12, 1997 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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