Illustration by Owen Thomas.
Illustration by Owen Thomas.

Before the College Eight arches were built, before morning coffee in the plaza and before the new Rachel Carson College sign was placed, founding College Eight provost Paul Niebanck remembers students waking up in motel rooms and trekking up to campus. It was 1972, and a giant mural of sailboats on the Monterey Bay greeted them from their makeshift college building — what is now Kerr Hall.

“We turned it into a place of beauty and celebration,” Niebanck penned in a letter read to attendees of the Rachel Carson College dedication on Oct. 6. “Each Thursday afternoon on the patio, we produced a jazz and blues jam to which students from all over campus came.”

Fast forward 44 years and the college that once operated out of a single building now spans over several acres on the west side of campus. Though there aren’t weekly jazz sessions, the newly named Rachel Carson College has expanded beyond what Niebanck could have ever expected.

While facilities have changed, the core values of environmentalism and spirit remain the same. Hundreds of community members, UC Santa Cruz staff, students and alumni gathered to celebrate the naming of Rachel Carson College, announced on Sept. 15. Carson was an American conservationist, marine biologist and author who made great strides in establishing the modern environmental movement.

“It’s a college named after someone who did pathbreaking work on environmentalism, on raising the consciousness of the people towards environmental concern,” Chancellor George Blumenthal said. “This was pathbreaking work, and we like to think of ourselves as a pathbreaking university.”

Best known for her book “Silent Spring,” published in 1962, Carson exposed the dangers of pesticides — specifically DDT, an insecticide widely-used on crops at the time. The book’s release caused widespread public concern and prompted President John F. Kennedy’s administration to study Carson’s claims. As a result, the use of DDT on agriculture in the U.S. was banned in 1972 — the same year College Eight was founded.

Joining the ranks of Sebastian Kresge, Charles E. Merrill and Benjamin Porter, Rachel Carson stands out as being the first women to have a college named after her at UCSC.

“I’m really happy we’re pushing that it’s Rachel Carson [instead of just Carson],” Rachel Carson Council — formerly College Eight Senate — chair and third-year student Noah Thoron said. “The first female college is a really important step forward.”

Rachel Carson College’s theme is Environment and Society, so Thoron said the choice felt like a natural fit, especially because first-year students are required to read “Silent Spring” during their core class.

“Reading from the person we’re named after couldn’t be more powerful,” Thoron said.

Along with a new name, the college will be gifted $4.5 million endowment and an additional $1 million to establish a chair in ecology and environmental justice. With a 4 percent increase every year, the endowment will provide educational opportunities for students and fund research within the theme of environment and sustainability. Plans for the money are currently in the making and will be finalized by provost Ronnie Lipschutz.

“One thing we’ll be able to do is support the minor in sustainability studies,” Lipschutz said. “Secondly, we’re developing collaborations with other programs and projects on campus. One of these projects being supported by this endowment is the creation of the S lab, which students will use to create projects and research in sustainability.”

Claudia and Alec Webster (center) join Chancellor George Blumenthal and others for the unveiling of the new Rachel Carson College sign. Photo by Matthew Forman.
Claudia and Alec Webster (center) join Chancellor George Blumenthal and others for the unveiling of the new Rachel Carson College sign. Photo by Matthew Forman.

UCSC students have a long history of involving themselves in global environmental issues. In 1975, the flagship environmental concern was the declining population of the peregrine falcon. As a direct result of Rachel Carson’s book it was discovered DDT poisoned the birds food source, causing their eggs to thin, which resulted in underdeveloped offspring.

The UCSC Predatory Bird Research Group went straight to work incubating eggs and placing them back in the wild in order to preserve the species. By 1999, the bird was officially off the endangered species list.

Today UCSC students, specifically Rachel Carson College students, are working on projects to conserve water and preserve the forest during the California drought. Students can also take a 2-unit class through Rachel Carson College on falcons called “Peregrine Falcons Return.”

Alec and Claudia Webster of the Helen and Will Webster Foundation were the final speakers at the event and the benefactors of the endowment. They chose the name Rachel Carson for her heroism and accomplishments. The Websters, who worked and currently live in Santa Cruz, are encouraged by the innovation they see from the UCSC student body. They said their faith in the new generation was the inspiration for the endowment.

“This is an investment in the students of UCSC,” Alec Webster said to the audience. “I am a firm believer in compound interest we expect to know there will be a resolve tomorrow.”

At the end of the ceremony, George Blumenthal, Alec and Claudia Webster and Ronnie Lipshutz and others unveiled the new sign for the college. The gold paint shone on the polished wood that marked the culmination of the college’s new naming.

“What we are hoping is a small thing really —  we are asking all of you to go forth and change the world,” said Claudia Webster to the crowd.