Founding Activism at UCSC

Clark Kerr and Dean McHenry’s vision

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Illustration by Celia Fong.
Illustration by Celia Fong.

Before sociology professor Walter Goldfrank arrived to teach at UC Santa Cruz in 1968, he was already actively engaged in the movements shaping American counterculture. In fact, weeks prior to his arrival he was in Mississippi participating in the Civil Rights Movement.

Goldfrank was attracted to UCSC because of the school’s progressive approach to education.

“The student rebellion of 1968 cemented for me an identity of an anti-war, anti-racism activist,” Goldfrank said of when President Lyndon Johnson’s approval ratings plummeted, with students protesting the draft and prolonged military involvement in Vietnam.

As an undergraduate at Harvard, a school steeped in conservative values, Goldfrank went in search for something new on the West Coast. He felt UCSC was the right educational institution because it encouraged students to go against the grain and reinvent curriculum, two ideals UCSC was founded on in 1965 by UC President Clark Kerr and Chancellor Dean McHenry.

Before becoming UC president in 1958, Kerr mapped out the next three potential campuses with the UC regents. He wanted each campus to be different from UCLA and UC Berkeley; both were rivaling each other in prestige as research-oriented universities. The concepts of the three campuses were drafted in the California Master Plan for Higher Education.

During his time as chancellor at Berkeley, Kerr regularly held open office hours for students to come talk about anything.

“There were just an awful lot of people who felt they were lost souls in a big campus — that nobody knew them, nobody cared about them,” Kerr said in a 1987 interview with Randall Jarrell for the University History Series. The series was part of an ongoing UCSC Founder’s Project that documented the early history of the university.

Kerr wanted to incorporate the residential college system that he experienced at Swarthmore College, a liberal arts school in Pennsylvania.

“The theory of the founders suggested that there were too many alienated students at Berkeley,” Goldfrank said. “The hypothesis was that when integrated into smaller communities, students would be less rebellious.”

Kerr appointed longtime friend and academic assistant McHenry to be the first chancellor at UCSC. Kerr combined his experiences at Swarthmore with McHenry’s experiences at Stanford, a research university, to mold UCSC’s identity — a public research institution with smaller personal colleges.

The dense redwood forest in the Santa Cruz mountains was the perfect spot. One summer day, the UC regents and Kerr hopped in a van in search of the new UC campus site. They narrowed it down to the Almaden Valley, Evergreen and Santa Cruz, but when the regents found themselves on a beach in Santa Cruz, they were sold.

“Almaden was hot and smoggy, and Santa Cruz was as beautiful as it is today,” Kerr said in the 1987 interview.

Before establishing Santa Cruz as the location for the new UC, the regents unanimously agreed on opening a site in the Almaden Valley. They found it appealing because it was already an established city and because of its close proximity to San Jose.

The Almaden Valley would have cost upward of $4 million. There were issues negotiating with the land’s ownership. With over 60 people owning the land, McHenry said it would take five to six years to settle this negotiation in court. In the end, the UC regents only got 1,000 acres of the land, the minimum they would accept for a campus.

“As the regents faced problems like that, there was this beckoning call from Santa Cruz,” McHenry said in a 1974 interview.

In 1961, the Cowell Foundation sold 2,000 acres of land for $2 million to the state of California for the creation of UCSC. Kerr and McHenry accepted the offer when the owner was willing to donate a significant portion of the $2 million in increments to expand campus facilities.

Due to the delayed construction of colleges, the founding class of 652 students lived in trailer parks on what is now the Upper East Field. Each trailer park housed eight students with one communal bathroom.

Alumni of UCSC’s first graduating class of 1969 and founding residential assistant for Merrill College Peter Braun remarked how close students were to faculty.

“[Cowell] Provost Page Smith hosted weekly Saturday night dances in the Field House,” Braun said. “Students and faculty were interacting with each other outside of a classroom setting.”

While the colleges were under construction, the East Field House — what is now the multisport gym in the Office of Physical Activity, Recreation and Sports — served as a dining hall, classroom and recreational facility for students. Faculty joined students in daily baseball and rugby games.

As the climate toward the Vietnam War intensified, students felt empowered to voice their opinions. In 1968, the same year Merrill College was founded, the U.S. military was embroiled in conflict in Vietnam. In response, UCSC students held demonstrations in Quarry Plaza and burned draft cards in opposition.

With Goldfrank’s assistance, faculty members founded Merrill College. Its mission was to encourage students to explore global issues with a different perspective — examining the “Third World” in the sense of “prejudice, alienation, and mismanagement of power, environment and human rights.”

“So much of what was going on was very American-central,” said current Merrill College Provost Elizabeth Abrams. “We adopted this vision of looking at the Third World from a non-Western lens to comprehend and appreciate the cultures of others.”

As students embraced their political power, Kerr and McHenry faced accusations of decentralizing the campus to discourage protests.

“One of the [student] speakers accused us of having developed this campus in order to reduce the revolutionary fervor of the students by putting them off here in the wilderness,” Kerr said in a 1987 interview.

Despite the decentralization, students protested during UCSC’s first commencement. Kerr didn’t give his scheduled commencement speech, instead a guerrilla theater of student activists threw their diplomas at Kerr and McHenry.

Student activists took over the stage and gave the honorary degree to imprisoned Black Panther leader Huey Newton. The first graduates of UCSC left a legacy of activism and questioning authority for future generations of students. Kerr himself couldn’t predict the tense political environment of 1969 when planning the college.

“It would have taken foresight beyond anyone’s ability,” Kerr said.

UCSC is still defined by this foundation of activism and is labeled as a progressive, close-knit community dedicated to research.

“There are two competing narratives about the founding of UCSC — one is that the founders’ vision of having smaller colleges is deliberate. The other is that Reagan wanted to stop anti-war protests by establishing a decentralized campus,” Abrams said. “But Clark Kerr and Dean McHenry made this place unique. That truly shows when we have such an amazing faculty and diverse student body today.”