The peaceful, though arguably less radical Kresge College. Photo by Phil Carter.
The peaceful, though arguably less radical Kresge College. Photo by Phil Carter.

Is the whimper of financial collapse and the whisper of a conservative push swaying UCSC’s alternative ideology?

“It used to be cleaner here.”

Leslie Patten is walking through Kresge College, the place she called home for four years, and one of the few colleges she knows by name – in her mind, Porter is still affectionately College Seven, and even the idea of College Nine and Ten are enough to make her retreat back to her Bay Area home, never to return.

In fact, Patten hadn’t returned since graduating in 1979. Not once.

But now, at age 52, exactly thirty years since she left the campus she recalls as “something a little more than just a school,” she’s finally ventured back. But her campus, the one characterized by alternative focuses and a liberated student body, is nowhere to be found. In the years following her departure, UC Santa Cruz has become a very different place.

Closing her eyes to take in her surroundings, a pack of students walk past, murmuring to each other in a seemingly constant cacophonous flow of noise. Before she has a chance to share her feelings on returning, she watches a student throws a cigarette butt on the ground, stomping it out.

“Yeah, it used to be a lot cleaner here.”

For the thousands of students who graduated from UCSC during what Patten calls “the golden age of alternative education,” returning to UCSC feels less like the homecoming that might be expected.

Desperate to reach the final leg in her journey back to UCSC, Patten walks forward, keeping mum about the mysterious final destination on her voyage.

“All of what made this university so appealing during my college years is still here,” reminds Patten. “I’d like to think it’s still here.”

Alternative Evolution

For years, UCSC has been praised throughout the country as the pinnacle of alternative education; UCSC has long been portrayed and idealized as a campus with a unique community and liberal ideology, paving the way for progressive curriculum and alternative fields of research.

But times have changed; what once began as a showcase for cross-disciplinary undergraduate education, innovative teaching methods and contemporary architecture has since evolved, perhaps unavoidably, into a public university of the highest order.

“It’s hard to ask a public university to stay the same when everything around it is [now] so different,” admits Patten, shrugging off the idea of the university maintaining it’s unique approach to education as something easier said than done.

It was as early as 1934 that the Regents of the University of California began conceptualizing a university with unique ideological traits. By 1954, Santa Cruz had made a bid to the Regents. By 1966, the first two individual campus colleges, Cowell and Stevenson respectively, were established. This was the liftoff founding chancellor Dean McHenry called “a major research university with the intimacy of a smaller college”

The campus began to gain attention as a showcase for unique teaching methods and undergraduate research thanks to unique and specified academic programs, like community studies for example, which preached the importance of individual action and taught students how to play active and positive roles in their community by acting locally while thinking globally.

The school didn’t waste any time establishing itself as a counterculture educational haven. Within the first year of the campus’ existence, a small group of anti-establishment faculty members launched the history of consciousness graduate program, which continues to utilize a unique interdisciplinary curriculum that ties together the humanities, sciences, social sciences and arts. In 1980, Huey P. Newton, co-founder of the Black Panther Party, graduated from the program with a Ph.D, propelling the department into the public eye. By 1974, the university had also established its feminist studies program (then called women’s studies), concentrated on the social, political and cultural relations between women and gender.

Not only did classes and academic programs at UCSC blow institutional norms, the way students were graded notably broke convention as well. In addition to receiving a written evaluation at the end of each quarter, the campus used a relatively unheard of Pass/No Pass evaluation system, which lasted until the late 1990s.

“It was a beautiful system,” admires Patten. “Much more student-led…we were so focused on learning. It was about growing as a person, not as a student. There was no division of what you would learn ‘in school’ and ‘outside of school’…you were there to grow as a whole.”

The End of the Counterculture’s Campus

Sitting on the large stone steps that overlook Cowell College and the entire Monterey Bay, Patten admits that even after her time as a student, there are still many places on the UCSC campus that she hasn’t been. Despite knowing that some of the places she wants to go – some to revisit after thirty years, others to see for the first time – may no longer be there, Patten gets up from the steps and begins to walk.

She isn’t the only one moving forward; Mike Rotkin, a community studies lecturer and the coordinator of the department’s field studies program, says he has recently observed a polarizing shift in UCSC’s educational priorities.

“UCSC has lost some of its original unique features, such as more interdisciplinary courses and academic programs centered in the colleges,” Rotkin said.

James Carter, an administrative officer for Cowell and Stevenson Colleges, claims that the radical changes in administration policies and funding allocations are the result of the oncoming, ever-growing flow of students throughout the campus.

“The system was designed for a [student body] much smaller than it is today,” Carter said succinctly.

By the late 1990s, paper admissions applications were slowly being phased out in favor of a more efficient digital application, allowing a snowballing pool of students to apply to all UC campuses with a single click. As a result, applications to UCSC began to rise by 3% each year, according to, a well known website that provides post-graduate tools and resources for university-bound students.

The rise of UC interest and admission forced UCSC administration to rethink some of its more original practices. By 2000, due to pressures from the UC system’s Board of Regents, UCSC faculty altered the campus grading system, stipulating that only 25% of a student’s classes could be graded on a pass/no pass scale and all others needed to be letter-graded.

Intent upon completing her journey, Patten walked through a lush clump of trees, saturated with rain, and separated enough for sunlight to beam through the jagged tree branches. She is looking for a shrine she and a former roommate built their sophomore year in an area of upper campus forest known as ‘Elfland’. Along the way is a litany of red cups, some filled with lingering drops of whatever it is red cups are filled with these days. There are empty bags of potato chips, crushed cigarette butts and the occasional article of muddied clothing.

Finally, Patten comes to what she believes is the location of the shrine. Other student-made creations sit nearby, such as an enclosed tree house that she claims had a working front door at one time. After climbing a small, remaining bit of hill, Patten is greeted at the top by the periwinkle blue bumper of a Toyota Prius, and the College Nine and Ten parking lot.

Patten looks around the seemingly endless miles of concrete. She stands in silence and takes a deep breath. She walks forward, disappointed, stepping on another red cup.

The Road Ahead

UCSC’s future seems to be on a similarly doubtful path; in a faculty senate meeting at the end of May, Chancellor George Blumenthal publicly announced sweeping budget cuts brought on by a drop in the state’s educational funding.

While Blumenthal has stated that every department would be affected by cuts, a substantial number of those cuts made already have been centered in the Social Science and Humanities divisions – two of the departments that once gave UCSC its name and, most importantly, its identity.

Many members of the faculty, staff, and student body feel they’ve simply been left to “get by” in the face of the cuts.

Micah Perks, Kresge College provost, was drawn to moving from Ithaca, New York to Santa Cruz for the university’s reputation for alternative education. Now, she finds herself trying to stop from being cut the very classes that pulled her here.

“We’ve decided to protect [some] offerings,” Perks said. “I am teaching one of the classes to save some money… I think we need to live up to our reputation as alternative and interdisciplinary in more creative ways.”

According to the National Research Council, UCSC ranks second nationally in academic research relating to space sciences, the astrophysics and linguistics graduate programs are in the top ten in the nation, and our economics department ranks ninth in the entire world in the field of international finance.

Yet in 2007, neo-conservative writer David Horowitz called UCSC “the worst school in America,” calling out, with particular malice, the feminist studies and community studies programs for their “liberal lean”. Within two years following Horowitz’s claim, a majority of departmental funding had been rerouted to the strictly science-based departments, while the arts, social sciences and humanities were left understaffed and under-funded.

Some academic programs were able to withstand the university’s newly focused ideology and funds. Others quickly hit the chopping block.

“I do think that [the university] shares [Horowitz’s] view of the need to focus the university on hard sciences, the need to maintain distance between the campus and the real world, and, in general, the desire to downplay the public service function of the institution,” Rotkin said. “The UC system in general, and the social science Dean in particular, does not share the now traditional values of UCSC and its students or faculty.”

Administrative officer Carter sees the next ten years at UCSC as crucial in defining how the university will continue to thrive, especially as the state retracts financial support and various parts of the school are forced to compete for smaller pools of money. Where that money ends up, Rotkin said, is on the shoulders of faculty and students.

“If we are passive about the changes that are currently being planned and implemented, the unique and critically important educational alternative that UCSC provides will have disappeared,” Rotkin said.

Since its inception, UCSC has managed to shift many of its surrounding community’s ideologies. The attraction to a larger, more liberal demographic caused the left-minded counterculture of UCSC to transform Santa Cruz from a conservative small town with a strong Republican base, into a left-leaning hotbed of political discourse. In addition, UCSC’s organic farm and garden program is the oldest in the nation, a pioneer for the expanding green movement and organic obsession.

Regardless of the university’s turning tide, it’s the kinship between community and campus that have students and staff alike hoping for a radical shift back to UCSC’s unique roots.

“I hope in the next ten years that [UCSC] has invested in and strengthened its existing programs and worked to make it easier for interdisciplinary learning,” Kresge provost Perks said.

Patten’s uncertain and winding road through UCSC comes close to an end as she stands, staring, before the Porter Squiggle.

“Can you believe that in my four years, I never once sat up here?” Patten breathlessly exclaims, hands jetting around with enthusiasm.

Despite sitting there, bathing in the glow of a sun that is beginning to set on the Santa Cruz hills in its always-beautiful way, it was hard not to wonder why Patten’s three-decades-overdue return to Santa Cruz, would culminate at the red squiggle nonchalantly passed by students hurrying from class to class each day.

“It’s these things that you remember,” she said, equal parts guidance and monologue in her voice. “What’s always stuck with me has been the smaller parts of this campus and community. Those are the things that never change.”