When Gary Merrill transferred from Chapman College in Southern California in 1972 and made his way north to UC Santa Cruz, the campus had just taken shape and was tucked away behind a thicket of redwoods. A meadow surrounded the trees like a golden moat.

Merrill graduated from UCSC in 1973 — the university had opened its doors in 1965 with only 625 students enrolled. The original vision of the seventh UC campus was uniquely creative and interdisciplinary, a brave new model for undergraduate education in a public university.

A visual of a few buildings in Oakes.
Illustration by Willow Gelphman. Photos by Pixabay users blickpixel and fill.

“I was attracted to UCSC because of its commitment to the undergraduate education experience, which included small class size, the faculty-to-student ratio, freedom to define a personal learning pathway within a major, the opportunity for independent learning, and especially the absence of grades,” Merrill said. “In those days, students were given real feedback on their academic work through narrative evaluations.”

It’s been 48 years since Merrill graduated, but the campus he loved so long ago still feels new. In a discussion panel titled “UCSC’s Early Days: The Creation of an Uncommon Campus,” retired campus architect Frank Zwart and founding faculty member Bill Domhoff shared some of the ideas and decisions that made UCSC what it is today.

A view of Kerr Hall from the front.
Illustration by Willow Gelphman. Photos from Pixabay.

Campus construction began in the summer of 1962. UCSC’s first chancellor Dean McHenry and UC President Clark Kerr championed the idea for UCSC to be the first UC campus with residential colleges modeled after Oxford and Cambridge Universities.

As McHenry and Kerr put it, the goal of the residential colleges was “to seem small while growing large.” The thought process was that this would enrich campus life for students, They would have a smaller community to connect themselves to but still enjoy the benefits of a larger school. Cowell College, which was founded in 1965 and named after the nearby Cowell ranch, was UCSC’s first residential college.

“Throughout my career as campus architect, the notion of additional colleges was often discussed — we came to call it ‘the problem of the colleges,’” Zwart said during the event. “But I think the pressures for centralization and concerns over cost prevented moving beyond ten.”

Stevenson college next to three towering trees.
Illustration by Willow Gelphman. Photos from Pixabay.

The residential colleges were not the only factor that set UCSC apart from other universities at the time. The campus gained a reputation for being a hub of counterculture. Merrill believes that the campus attracts people with a strong orientation toward social justice.

“[Students] were all liberal arts people I called searchers and seekers,” said Bill Domhoff, reflecting on his years of teaching at UCSC. “They didn’t want to go to the traditional places and go be in their mother’s sorority or dad’s fraternity.”

However, Merrill thinks UCSC has succumbed to the pressure of becoming a more traditional system of education. Because UCSC was the experimental branch of the UC system, there was no formal grading system, only course evaluations. Merrill said he remembered getting a three-page evaluation at the end of the quarter from one of his professors. Now, students receive letter grades. Merrill attributes this to larger class sizes, but it also reflects UCSC’s aspiration to be like other universities.

Cowell fountain spewing ribbons of water.
Illustration by Willow Gelphman.

Currently, the university has an enrollment of 17,207 undergraduates, a far cry from the 4,349 students that attended UCSC when Merrill was here. This also disrupted the student-to-faculty ratio Merrill had loved. Students were able to work closely with their professors, but with larger classes, this has become harder to achieve, Merrill said.

“Although the academic structure of UCSC has changed dramatically, along with the number of students,” Merrill said. “I believe that present-day UCSC students do still reflect a strong commitment to social and environmental justice issues.”