Photo by Rosario Serna.
Photo by Rosario Serna.

Mike Rotkin is a busy man. He is a lecturer, a union leader, the coordinator of the UC Santa Cruz community studies field study, an activist, a father, a husband, the faculty adviser for Fish Rap Live! magazine, a former Santa Cruz mayor, chairman of the local ACLU chapter, and a City Councilmember. He also kayaks, enjoys sports, and spends time outdoors.

What doesn’t he do? 

Drive a car. 

How does he do so much? He sleeps five hours a night, doesn’t waste time in front of the television, and wakes up each morning genuinely excited to be doing what he does. The man of many masks sat down to talk about his role in this community and the issues facing the city and the university.


City on a Hill Press: You came to Santa Cruz in 1969 and entered UCSC’s history of consciousness graduate program the following fall. That is when you became a TA for the budding community studies program. You have watched the program grow, as a lecturer in community studies and the field coordinator in. Why did you stick with community studies for so long? 

Mike Rotkin: I really believe in and like the hands-on method that they use for students getting an education about social change. We were one of the first programs in the country to actually ever do that. We may be the first major ever, actually, organized around a required field study. It’s one thing to read about social change, and it’s another to actually get involved. I thought it was a great program and I liked the way it was organized from the very beginning. 



CHP: You are a local president as well as a vice president of the UC-AFT, representing lecturers and librarians in the UC system. What is your role there, and what has driven you to remain an active member for the past 18 years? 

MR: I grew up in a union family, my parents are strong supporters of unions, and I’ve always wanted to belong to unions wherever I worked. When I came to Santa Cruz there was no union representing lecturers, so at the time I joined AFSCME, which represented service workers, but I wanted to belong to some union when I was working here. I actually was on the Central Labor Council in Santa Cruz for 10 years. 

I think working people need unions to defend their self-interest. Unions fight for a better world in broader kinds of terms. 

I think what people might imagine of the University of California is that, because it’s a university, that it’s a rational institution. I would have assumed earlier on, if I didn’t know what I know now, that it’s a just institution that looks after its students and employees and so forth, but sadly that’s far from the case. People need a union to defend their basic rights, to ensure that they are paid decently for their jobs, and to be recognized as contributors to the institution. 

The librarians are being abused by the university. For one example, they are paid less, about 15 to 20 percent less, than the equivalent librarians in the CSU system. 

You would expect the university to recognize the importance of what librarians do for them, but they don’t. It requires a struggle to make that happen. It’s a very sad lesson for a lot of us to learn that it’s a lot more than being right and having a rational argument on your side — you actually have to organize and put direct pressure on the administration if you’re going to get the things that you deserve out of life. 


CHP: You’ve been a lecturer at UCSC for 36 out of the 40 years you’ve been at UCSC. Why aren’t you tenured? 

MR: Well, the University of California, like most modern universities, and in fact the whole corporate world, has been moving more and more away from permanent employees with security towards temporary workers. 

Currently about half the teaching in the UC system is done not by professors who are on the tenure track, but by lecturers and other non-tenured professors. Lecturers are sort of second-class citizens. Once you’ve taken a job as a lecturer, it’s very difficult to get the university to even consider you for a tenure track job. 

I was originally offered a job as an assistant professor on the tenure track system, but at the time Dean McHenry called me up and asked me if I would be willing to take a job as a lecturer. And when he described to me what the job was, I said sure, I’d be willing to be a lecturer. I’ve never been on the tenure track. 


CHP: I know that you grew up in a politically active family, worked for VISTA — the domestic equivalent of Peace Corps — and have made “radical” and far-left critiques on the United States in the past. For example, you originally campaigned for Santa Cruz City Council as a “socialist/feminist” and ended up in the position of mayor of the city. You served on the City Council for what will be about 26 years, on and off, by the time you leave the council in a year and a half. Correct?

MR: Right. I saw my parents put together civil organizations and political organizations in local communities. I went to Washington with my father in 1963 and saw Martin Luther King deliver his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. So it was a pretty political family. Also, very active in the Democratic Party, so I spent a lot of time as a kid licking stamps and envelopes, licking stuff, to get the Democrats elected.

Back when I was at Cornell, the way I got out of the draft in the 1960s was that I was declared a security risk to the United States. I was given a 1-Y classification, which meant I would only be called up if the United States were invaded. They finally found the right classification for me.


CHP: After years of consistent dedication to UCSC, you received two pink slips to terminate the first and second halves of your job… 

MR: I should be able to be here another year, but unless [Dean Sheldon Kamieniecki] changes his mind, I will be gone July 1, 2010. 

Unless the Academic Senate wins their struggle to make the dean rescind his pink slips to me and other people in our department, our departments, I think, will be shut down in a year. 

Now the dean’s been saying that’s not the case. But the community studies program, without a field studies coordinator, does not exist. It’s just injurious of him to suggest that we can have a program without a field studies coordinator and he himself, I think, realizes that when he says things like “Well, make the field study optional.” But optional field study is absurd. The whole department is organized around a field study. 


CHP: What are you most proud of that has come out of the community studies program over the years? 

MR: I’m most proud of the long-term impact that our students have had on the city of Santa Cruz, working with the nonprofits and political groups. An awful lot of social services just wouldn’t exist without the work field studies have done. 

Our students have had a big role in changing the way people think in this town. 

There used to be all Republican representatives in Santa Cruz, now they’re all Democrats. Our students have played a key role in that transformation. People are always saying, “You can’t change a town” or “You can’t fight City Hall,” but I think our students have shown that that’s not the case. I’m proud of the role that I’ve played in helping that happen. 

I’ve spent the last 25 years building these services, so the fact that they’re cutting them now is just heartbreaking. At a time when the president is a community organizer, you finally have programs like this doubling in size. We have students coming to the university literally asking, “What program should I take to be a community organizer?” I’ve never had that question before. So we’re at a point where the program should be growing, not closing down.