Despite what some might think about the prevailing political views at UC Santa Cruz, the campus is no elephant graveyard. Since the university was founded in 1965, conservative students have organized themselves into political clubs to challenge the liberal majority — no longer.
Since 2009, the College Republicans at UCSC — the former sole conservative student organization on campus — has not filed for official club status through Student Organization Advising and Resources (SOAR), and has remained an unofficial group since.
UCSC is currently the only UC campus that does not have a registered student Republican club. According to past members, registered or not, the club has proven difficult to sustain for a variety of reasons.
“The entire student population hated us,” said Jake Cummins, UCSC alumnus and former treasurer of the College Republicans when it was still registered in 2008. “Our outreach was always unsuccessful, our pamphlets were torn up, things were thrown at us. Anytime we tried to recruit, we had violent protest.”
For Republican students like Mark Oshima, former vice president of the College Republicans from 2011–12, the club was a valuable community resource for the minority of students who wished to use it. But even when organized, the club had difficulty achieving the weight necessary to strike a political balance on campus.
“We had a real problem with number retention,” Oshima said. “It’s hard to keep new members because unlike the Democrats who have a lot of local causes to pursue, for the College Republicans, there’s nothing to do in Santa Cruz.”
Oshima referred to the sparse field of Republican candidates in Santa Cruz running in the upcoming election, which continued to dwindle when Bruce McPherson, a high-profile conservative running for the 5th District supervisor seat, dropped his Republican party affiliation in June.
On campus, the College Democrats at UCSC have a number of active organizers, and signed up 130 people at this year’s OPERS Fall Festival.
In the greater Santa Cruz area, voter registration among students and non-students has reflected a similar trend of Republicans with numbers suggesting a political minority.
According to the Santa Cruz Elections Department, there were nearly 80,000 registered Democrats in the County compared to just 26,000 registered Republicans in the month of June. The seven current members of city council are all self-proclaimed progressive Democrats, as are the eight candidates running for vacant council seats in the November election.
However, Santa Cruz has not always been dominated by progressive Democrats. As recently as the 1950s and 1960s, a conservative business class reigned over a solidly conservative county.
“The chamber of commerce ran the elections,” Rotkin said. “They were the ones who decided who would be the next city council members.”
Rotkin said that starting in the 1960s, many conservatives in town objected to the business community’s aggressive development plans for Santa Cruz. These included proposals to build 12 story apartments in the downtown area and even the construction of a nuclear power plant in the Santa Cruz County town of Davenport.
An environmental movement gained popular support in the city during the 1970s, bolstered by student activists flocking to the new and progressive university. As the vocal student body grew, it began to have an impact on local politics, especially after the 26th Amendment was passed in 1971, lowering the voting age to 18 from 21.
“Students got involved in the freeway development plan that was originally going to put a highway through Pogonip, and they helped stop a convention center that was going to be built on Lighthouse field,” Rotkin said. “A bunch of conservative neighborhoods became very progressive around this time.”
Although the city and university maintain a liberal reputation, a survey of first-year students conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) showed signs that nowadays a significant portion of the student body may be drifting away from its leftmost roots toward the political center.
The survey from HERI showed that approximately 8.2 percent of incoming UCSC freshman class identified as conservatives in 2010. In the same survey, the percentage of far-left students declined to 5.4 from 8.1, while the percentage of liberals declined to 47.3 from 56.3.
Rotkin said despite the increase in moderates on campus, the political dialogue has become somewhat stifled.
“There’s a higher ratio of conservatives on campus than ever before, but the nature of the discussion has moved to emotion rather than actual debates over policy,” Rotkin said. “You can have a serious policy discussion about what ought to be done about [immigration], but I’ve seen people jumped on when they say we have an immigrant problem because it’s misinterpreted as saying immigrants are evil.”
Erica Lee, former member of the College Republicans, said many students with conservative viewpoints avoid discussing politics altogether to avoid provoking their peers.
“If the College Republicans at UCSC didn’t exist, I would have spent all four years of my schooling keeping my opinions to myself,” Lee said.
While looking for a successful club to use as a model for their organization last year, the College Republicans approached their counterparts, the College Democrats, for advice on how to get their club off the ground.
“They asked, ‘what are you guys doing that you would suggest we do?’,” said Max Perrey, the president of the College Democrats at UCSC.
The College Democrats urged them to join SOAR to gain official club status and arranged for policy debates and social gatherings between the two organizations.
Oshima said after a vote from existing members however, they decided not to register again as a SOAR organization. Oshima wanted the club to register with SOAR last year to create an official space at UCSC where conservatives could express their political views, he said.
“That’s part of why I helped start the club again,” Oshima said. “So you could pass around ideas that you wouldn’t say in class.”
Oshima said discussion sections were an example of an environment on campus where speaking freely could be problematic for conservative students weary of upsetting liberal-minded teaching assistants. He described one TA who upbraided him in discussion for criticizing Obama’s health care plan.
“I don’t want to criticize most of the TAs because by and large they’re professional,” Oshima said. “But this TA just said to me, ‘it’s the economy, stupid’ — he literally said that. Afterwards, I just pretended to be a moderate liberal in class.”
For some conservative students, this discretion sometimes extends to the lecture hall. A fifth-year student who wished to remain anonymous said that in several of their classes, professors expressed political views in lectures.
“Some professors will take a political position or statement and drop it into their class when it has absolutely no basis being there,” they said. “For students new to college or taking a class without much of a background in that type of issue, they just sort of internalize it and accept it as part of the truth of what a professor is teaching.”
The club format provided a safe forum for conservative students who wanted to engage in political activism or exchange ideas with like-minded peers. However, several former members said it also created a more visible target for individuals hostile to their political views.
Oshima said people tore down the posters he and other members set up around campus to advertise events and that the persistent antagonism forced the club to think of creative ways to keep their message in the public eye.
“After those posters, we tried to use humor so they weren’t immediately torn down,” Oshima said. “We made ones with pictures of Darth Vader that said come join the dark side.”
Perrey said the political diversity of UCSC would be bolstered by an official Republican club. However, he said the Republicans are not the only political group that lacks a representative organization on campus.
“I think it would be a benefit to UCSC if there was a club for not only the Republican party but people from all over the political spectrum,” Perrey said. “Why isn’t there a Green party club? Why isn’t there a Libertarian club? Why isn’t there some sort of centrist club of decline to state voters of different political persuasions?”
Noah Miska is a self-proclaimed student activist and a member of the Demonstration Advisory Group, a group whose aim is to ensure appropriate administrative responses to protests on campus. He said it should not automatically be assumed that a political balance will be valuable for the school.
“If the question is do [conservatives] serve some purpose in balancing out the political spectrum, one could argue that,” Miska said. “But I don’t think the point of a political debate is to have two polarized sides create some sort of desirable middle, because I don’t think the middle is inherently the right position to take.”
While most of the UCSC Republicans interviewed agreed that a more politically diverse campus would be beneficial for the community, several remained skeptical that it could ever be achieved in the near future.
“It would require either an entire cultural attitude shift among the student populace, or other clubs banding together to tell people to leave them alone to practice free speech … which is highly unlikely,” Cummins said.
Given that the UCSC Republicans have not had a table at the OPERS Fall Festival for the last four years, the organization seems dormant. However, if the UCSC Republicans do choose to register with SOAR as an official student organization, the deadline is coming soon — Friday, Dec. 7.