Illustration by Louise Leong.

UC Santa Cruz Foundation and Special Events Center honored two distinguished persons of excellence at their annual Founders Day Forum and Founders Dinner events last Friday. Jean-Michel Cousteau was the recipient of the Founders Medal, and alumnus Richard Harris received the Alumni Achievement Award.

The Founders Medal goes to the person whose life work reflects UCSC’s values as an institution. This year, Catherine Faris, associate vice chancellor and director of donor relations and development programs and part of the main organizing team, said it was an honor to have Jean-Michel Cousteau accept the Founders Medal because of his exceptional work in ocean conservation.

“He’s recognized all around the globe for filming images of environmental degradation but also images of programs and ideas that have worked,” Faris said. “We believe that through the work UCSC does in marine and ocean sciences that we’re doing the same thing, researching problems, teaching students, helping them become the next scientists that find solutions to environmental degradation. So we’re honoring his lead in that role.”

Jean-Michel Cousteau has dedicated his life to helping conserve the world’s oceans through his films, and trying to convince diplomats as high up as former president George W. Bush to preserve marine life for future generations. Faris said this was important especially as an inspiration for younger generations.

“His role has been to teach children about how to care for the world’s oceans, and the role we all play in how we live our lives to preserve the world’s water systems,” Faris said.

Ann McCrow, director of the UC Santa Cruz Foundation and one of the people responsible for choosing Cousteau, said his exceptional achievement in ocean conservation and education made him stand out among the other candidates and mirrored the ideals of UCSC.

“It is an opportunity for us not only to recognize Jean-Michel Cousteau and what he’s done, but also to align his work with the excellence that UCSC has in this area,” McCrow said. “It’s a way to talk about and demonstrate the excellence that UCSC recognizes and aspires to.”

Founders Day consists of two events: the forum at noon at the Rittenhouse in downtown Santa Cruz, and the Founders Day Gala Dinner held at Coconut Grove. At the dinner, these two awards, plus two others — the Fiat Lux Award to the S.H. Cowell Foundation and the Faculty Research Lecturer Award to Paul Whitworth — were presented. But at the Forum, Richard Harris and Jean-Michel Cousteau were center stage.

“I’m very privileged to be here and also honored to be among young people who are the next decision makers of our country,” Cousteau said, beginning his speech. “When I was a child I was fascinated by marine life, but later on quantities [of animals] became fewer and fewer, and the amount of trash that was in the ocean was just shocking to me.”

Cousteau said he hopes that the young people in the audience would be inspired to do something about the devastated oceans, so the forum was made available to students throughout Santa Cruz, and multiple local schools were invited. Over 200 people were present.

UCSC alumnus and NPR science correspondent Richard Harris, who has been covering the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, wore a Slug tie to the event to show his allegiance to the school, and explained to the audience the magnanimity of the disaster. He was part of the team that discovered that the amount of oil per day gushing into the ocean was close to 50,000 gallons a day, rather than 5,000, which was BP’s initial estimate.

“It’s really hard to picture how much oil that is,” Harris said. “That amount of oil could power all of the United States’ cars and trucks for about five hours. That shows our reliance on this technology.”

Cousteau said that when the oil spill occurred, he was blown away because people are still making the same mistakes as they were years ago.

“It wasn’t the equipment that failed. It was the people,” he said. “It was the decision-makers who were taking shortcuts. We need to take big risks.”

Many of the students in the audience agreed that big risks needed to be taken, as was apparent when question and answer time came, and one student asked why, if we have the technology already, are we still addicted to oil? Cousteau responded with a call to action:

“Go for it. Kick asses.”