By Julian Schoen
UC Santa Cruz has used all its resources to establish itself as a reputable academic university, yet many claim that the school’s image remains that of a stoner Mecca, with students trapped in “Summer of Love” memories and lost to the hippie stereotype.
In 2006, the Party School Network listed UC Santa Cruz as the fifth-best party school in the nation. The Princeton Review, in 2005, created two new categories to rate ‘alternative’ party schools: the “Birkenstock-Wearing, Tree-Hugging, Clove-Smoking Vegetarians” schools and the “Reefer Madness” schools. UCSC scored 12th and ninth, respectively, in these polls. And in 2003, Rolling Stone magazine labeled UCSC as the “most stoned campus on earth.”
About ten percent of UCSC’s total applicant pool consists of out-of-state students. It is unsure whether these students are attracted to the prestige of the university or the debauchery of its student life — or both. Determined to set the record straight, faculty, out-of-state students, and academic pollsters have spoken up against the media’s depiction of UCSC to reveal what the real perception of the university is around the country.
Paul Hempstead, a first-year Kresge student, is a resident of Winnetka, Illinois. Winnetka and Middle America are “pretty conservative,” he said, “much different” from Santa Cruz .
While Hempstead had read the Rolling Stone article, it was Santa Cruz’s “beautiful environment” that enticed him, he said.
“[The article] made me wary to come here,” he said. “I was looking for a school that was heavily interested in the outdoors.”
In 2003, Outdoor Magazine named UCSC the most beautiful campus in America, home to some of the best trails, rock climbing, and biking. Hempstead disregarded the stoner image, attracted by the campus’s natural beauty.
Yet Hempstead was most enthusiastic about Santa Cruz citizens’ engagement in meaningful actions and dedication to preserving culture.
“Santa Cruz has a great respect for things with character and depth,” he said. “It is in places like this where the underground is cherished.”
Michael McCawley, staff associate director for the Office of Admissions at UCSC, feels that UCSC’s social reputation is only a small factor in students’ decisions to choose the university.
“For a lot of students, Santa Cruz presents an award-winning faculty and complex research institution,” McCawley said. “My feeling is that we have a lot of images, but looking beneath the surface, UCSC is a great place for an undergraduate education.”
MarÃ­a Ledesma, Student Regent for the 2006-07 school year and a doctorate student at UCLA, concurred.
“I think [reputation is] one more thing students use [when looking for colleges], but not the only thing,” Ledesma said. “It will be influential, but is not the deciding factor. UCSC is known worldwide for its scholarship.”
Michael Staab is not a UCSC student. A freshman at NYU and a native of Ocean City, New Jersey, Staab was not swayed by any of the articles he read about UCSC.
Staab said the UC system is well known throughout New Jersey, and represents a beacon for higher education.
“The UC system isn’t about the counter-culture,” Staab said. “Some of the best research in the country occurs there, and it truly is a wonderful establishment.”
He added that residents of New Jersey idolize the environment of California and Santa Cruz.
“Me and my friends all surf, so we feel a connection to California,” Michael said. “A lot of people leave New Jersey to go to California. It’s seen as paradise.”
In the “America’s Best Colleges 2007” issue of U.S. News & World Report, UCSC ranked 76th when compared to all four-year institutions in the nation. The UC system as a whole “ranks very highly.”
Robert Morse, director of data research for U.S. News & World Report, described the criteria used to create this ranking system.
“We look at a school’s reputation, how financial aid is distributed, faculty resources, graduation and retention rates, and how difficult it is to get in,” Morse said.
He added that amongst the nation’s public universities, UCSC ranks 33rd, and attracts many students from outside of California.
“Going to school in California is attractive to students from out-of-state,” Morse said. “[UCSC] is in a beautiful city, has a different atmosphere, and a socially conscious reputation.”
Eric Williams, a first-year student at Merrill College, hails from Westfield, New Jersey. His main incentive for coming to UCSC was to “get the biggest change” from his hometown.
“I wanted a 180-degree change,” Williams said. “Everyone thinks differently in Santa Cruz. New Jersey is more conservative.”
Westfield, Williams explained, is the epitome of the New York City suburb. An affluent town, Westfield is so overly developed that it resembles a giant mall.
To Williams, Santa Cruz was the exact opposite of his hometown. He was not drawn in by the media’s portrayal of the university. Instead, Santa Cruz’s beautiful setting, resistance to overdevelopment and reputation as a prestigious UC school lured Williams here.
As a public school, UCSC gives residents of California priority over any out-of-state or international applicants. However, non-Californian students provide a well-rounded perspective to the university, which is dedicated to the idea of community. Are these students applying to bring their unique points of view to the Santa Cruz community, or are they merely enticed by its reputation?
Accepting students from other states, McCawley said, only enhances the feeling of camaraderie treasured by UCSC. By using the college system, the university drives students to build relationships within their specific communities. This bonding provides a more intimate setting, easing the transition into college life.
Out-of-state and international students bring a unique worldview to this community, strengthening social consciousness beyond the borders of California.
“Diversity, in its broadest sense, is a good thing,” McCawley affirmed. “It only enhances the incoming class.”
Kevin Browne, executive director of admissions and university registrar of UCSC, is quite familiar with the rumors that characterize the university.
One common misconception is that UCSC was proposed to be the UC campus that countered Berkeley’s counter-culture, responding to the revolutionary movements in a controlled, socially unconscious manner. Browne, in explaining the campus’s true history, cleared up this fallacy.
The University of California, Santa Cruz was established in 1965. According to Browne, Clark Kerr, who was president of the UC system at the time, wanted Santa Cruz to serve as an alternative to the “large, urban research centers” of UC Berkeley and UCLA.
To achieve this goal, Kerr decentralized UCSC’s academic facilities.
“[Kerr] envisioned UCSC more along the models of Cambridge and Oxford,” Browne said. “It was built around central research conducted by independent colleges.”
The ten colleges, Browne said, were “aimed at creating a more human scale environment with educational experience.” Able to specialize in specific fields, the colleges allow students to manage complex research in a smaller setting that is friendly to undergraduates.
“UCSC allows undergraduate students to study things they would have to be graduates at other universities to study,” Browne said.
With Cambridge and Oxford as its models, UCSC shares these universities’ commitments to intellectual achievement. According to Browne, UCSC ranks first nationally in astrophysics and second only to Berkeley in the number of students who go on to pursue Ph.D.s.
Many critics of UCSC look to the annual holiday of 4/20 as their reason for debasing the university. A student body that devotes one day of the school year to smoking pot in a meadow must be a reflection of the university, they suggest.
MarÃ­a Ledesma is familiar with this type of college behavior.
“Some may critique 4/20, but that’s just the reality of a college campus,” she said. “Not all students condone this behavior.”
Browne said the 4/20 celebrations on campus are in no way representative of UCSC as a whole.
“How many of the people on 4/20 were UC scholars and not high school students?” he asked. “It does not define what this campus is, nor do the ’70s.”