Since the birth of community studies at UC Santa Cruz, Michael Rotkin has supported the innovative program — the two have gone hand in hand. But this year he has stepped out, dismayed at its decay.
“I’m not ready to retire,” Rotkin said. “I’m going to come back and teach part-time.”
Five-time former Santa Cruz mayor Rotkin said the decline of community studies is part of “a bad set of priorities.”
“The effect on the students and the communities that these students serve is really a crime…me personally, I’m fine — in fact it’s embarrassing to whine about my situation,” Rotkin said. “But I’m outraged that they closed down this program.”
Rotkin had planned to resign earlier. He received a layoff notice two years ago in the fall, and was prepared to retire given the program’s condition. But in May, Rotkin learned of the university’s plan to increase summer student fees from $1,010 to $3,640, and did the math.
“I had 111 students going out on field study that summer … that comes to almost $400,000 [in student fees],” Rotkin explained. “I am the total university for these students while they are out on field-study. They don’t have the benefit of the [campus services/amenities] … if I don’t do this work, these students aren’t going to pay these fees.”
Rotkin filed a grievance declaring the university’s layoff decision arbitrary, capricious and unreasonable. He won the grievance, and worked one more year at full-time, and another year at three–quarters time.
“It was good for me personally, since your retirement is based on your highest three years of salary.”
This worked out for Rotkin to the tune of a $20,000 higher annual pension.
Rotkin originally came to Santa Cruz as a Cornell undergraduate, pursuing a summer program. He decided to apply to the graduate program in history of consciousness, and fell in love with the city.
A teaching assistant for community studies during his graduate work, Rotkin was then hired for the Extended University program. After four years of traveling to Fresno each week to teach, Rotkin became a full-time lecturer. In 1979, he applied to be field-study coordinator of the department.
“I did what unions call ‘rate-busting’ — taking two jobs and making them into one,” Rotkin said. “But I liked the job so much I didn’t care about being overworked.”
Twice every year, Rotkin was responsible for the arrangements, travel, safety and related affairs for roughly 130 students, as well as over 1,000 pages of field notes to be read and commented on.
“They’ve gone all around the world,” Rotkin said, listing France, Australia, New Zealand, Ghana, Latin America, West Africa and the British Isles as a few examples.
“I’ve gotten an education from my students as much as they’ve gotten from me all these years,” Rotkin said. “It’s really been kind of a vicarious field study for me.”
Rotkin’s academic background is broad.
“I’ve taught … almost anything you can imagine that involves issues of social change or social justice,” he said.
While the loss of community studies is a complex issue, Rotkin firmly believes it is the result of a fundamental shift in the purpose of a university, toward profit and away from accessible education.
“Community studies didn’t make money — professors would get grants for their research, but those were small … compared to what you get for patents and things you can sell.”
For Rotkin, the evidence supporting community studies’ place at Santa Cruz was clear. Along with challenging the faculty’s theories of social systems and directly benefiting the communities students served, the program turned out model students.
“Most of our theses are masters-level quality work … our undergraduates often win the Deans’ and the Steck Awards for their senior projects, disproportionately to the number of students we have.”
Rotkin referenced the role both students and faculty played in creating community studies, and indicated the fight both must continue to save the program.
“People are capable of change. That’s a pretty fundamental belief of mine,” Rotkin said. “Of course they may not … this may totally tank, but I’m not persuaded that’s the way things are going.”
The former lecturer had a sign on his door: “Politics is the art of getting morally indifferent people to do good things for bad reasons.”
Rotkin is aware much of the program’s future may still come down to “dollars and cents,” but argues that such a value system will never fulfill the mission of the university.
“Let’s train students who think there must be a way to change this,” he said. “Things are not going to fix themselves, but if enough people get organized it is possible to turn things around.”
Though he has left community studies, Rotkin will be teaching a Marxist theory class this summer.