[Currents headergraphic]

July 19, 1999

UCSC's first years: An alumnus remembers

Editor's note: In the following personal essay, a member of UCSC's 'pioneer class' tells of a reunion during this year's Banana Slug Spring Fair celebration and reminisces about the campus's early years.

By Anthony J. Mohr

They called us California's luckiest teenagers. That was 34 years ago when 600 students, fresh out of high school, opened the University of California at Santa Cruz.

About 150 members of the "pioneer classes" returned over a picture postcard weekend this past spring. We reconnected with each other among the redwood trees and meadows that still cover most of our campus. We wondered what impact, if any, this school had on us after three decades of adult reality.

The question is not academic, for we are the products of an experiment. In the early 1960s, Clark Kerr, then president of the University of California, and his old college roommate Dean McHenry envisioned a UC campus consisting of residential colleges where students learned because they wanted to. Historian Page Smith, provost of Santa Cruz's first residential college, told the press, "It is hoped that at Cowell (College) the fun, surprise, and delight of learning can be emphasized."

UCSC's first freshman class consisted of (with six or so exceptions) white 18-year-olds from California's then excellent public schools. There were no seniors or sophomores. Eighty juniors lived off campus. The only "adult supervision" came from the faculty--and their average age was 31, more than 20 years younger than we are now.

Since the dorms were still under construction, we resided in trailers, eight to a coach, eight trailers to a star-shaped cluster, eight clusters in all. We were isolated on what had been a 2,200-acre ranch overlooking the town. A sign on the road read "Watch for Animals." On occasion steer wandered through the trailer clusters.

The place was a carefree warren, starting with orientation week. As we arrived, those already checked in stood on the road and applauded. Forty teenagers would jump in front of a car shrilling, "Hip hip hooray!" One guy hopped into a convertible and introduced himself to the occupant and her parents. The next day we paraded down Santa Cruz's main street inventing UCSC cheers as we went.

Page Smith asked us to read Nietzsche and Joyce over the summer. On September 29, 1965, during orientation week, six professors, including Bert Kaplan, William Hitchcock, and Mary Holmes, participated in a "grand inaugural debate" in the gym. (Since no auditoriums existed, all lectures and meetings took place there.)

The topic: "The Genealogy of Morals and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man are books which mislead youth." The event was raucous and fun because we were sharing the same learning experiences--in a college resembling a summer camp no less. Another summer reading assignment was The Children of Sanchez. We named the gravel path dividing the boys' and girls' trailers Tintero Street, after the red light district in Mexico made famous by Oscar Lewis' book.

All of us frosh took a full year of world civilization. Three mornings a week Professor William Hitchcock riveted the class with lectures that the chancellor dubbed "a masterpiece, every one." Hitchcock's first reading assignment was H. D. F. Kitto's The Greeks. In keeping with the topic we gave each other Homeric nicknames; one woman became "killer of men, breaker of horses." We held a dance at 4 a.m., on our equivalent of Mt. Olympus, to greet an incoming comet.

When we studied the dawn of Christianity, everyone toted a Bible. Lacking heritage and upperclassmen, we created our own traditions, rhythms, and boundaries. We barred competition. There were no grades, no rank in class. Every course was pass/fail. No athletic teams existed beyond informal groups. We governed by town meetings. The agenda committee--our closest analogy to a student council--was chosen by lot, and the chair rotated on a round-robin basis. Fraternities were banned.

Kerr, McHenry, and Smith succeeded brilliantly with the professors they recruited. Hailing from the nation's best schools and committed to making UCSC "a new Oxford on the Pacific," the faculty offered us oceans of their time. Office hours stretched to all day, every day. We played together, ate together. They mentored us through their courses and, at times, our personal crises.

A reporter from UC Berkeley's Daily Californian predicted: "Later on, as the school gets larger and more impersonal, as the campus routines become more subtle and bureaucratized, as the faculty gives more time to research and less to students--as the machine enters the garden--one wonders if dissatisfaction will follow." We answered that statement in our little newspaper The Pioneer: "It is true that students are perhaps more optimistic than the situation would merit, yet it is precisely this optimism that will insure the success of the venture."

We remain the largest collection of ebullient optimists I know.

"Our shells are getting a little worn out," one lady observed, "but look in our eyes. That light's still on."

Ditto for the professors who remain with us. G. William Domhoff wears two hearing aids but still talks a mile a minute even when it's almost midnight. We have the know-how, the modalities, to sustain life well into our 80s with no deterioration in quality, he told me Saturday night. Head shaved, eyes sparkling, he is writing four books and still teaches.

We are now in our fifties. That was Bert Kaplan's age when he taught us psychology. He had almost completed three books when he arrived at UCSC in September 1965. He never finished them because he was too busy teaching us. Professor Kaplan may have passed 80, but his voice is still deep. Now he wants to start an alumni university to which we can return and from which we can access tapes of classes, including William Hitchcock's world civ lectures. Will you help me put this together, Kaplan asked on Sunday morning. And the 80 or so alums who heard him thought about it. You could feel the group wondering: "How can we do this and still run our companies?" "Still drive the kids to school?" "Can I help if I live in L.A.?"

I think we will help Kaplan. Two members of the pioneer class already are. The reason relates back to the impact of that first year. Bill Dickinson observed, "I often marvel at the fact that in 1965-66, for a mere $267, we got to participate in something that is probably unique in human history: the launch of a public university with a student faculty ratio of something like 1:10 with no sophomores, seniors, or graduate students. We enjoyed a much greater level of intimacy with the faculty than was true in even very elite liberal arts colleges. I continue to be friends, decades after the fact, with certain faculty members and academic staff."

Most of the original professors who remain came to the reunion and lingered with us, even beyond midnight. William Hitchcock is gone, but his spirit saturated the reunion. His former students ached to hear even a snippet of his lectures. They are supposed to be on tape; and one of the weekend's themes was to find those tapes.

Dickinson again: "It was an era that had as one of its slogans, 'Don't trust anyone over 30.' And the plain truth for me is that I trusted quite a few over-30 UCSC people."

Bert Kaplan and his colleagues are still looking out for us. We let them point the way from 18 to 52. We will trust them to see us through the next 30 years. The ability to keep the light burning in an aging shell and trust at least some in the generation ahead of us--that may be UCSC's gift to its pioneer class.

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