Three California universities celebrate 50 years

The simultaneous 50th anniversaries of three major public universities in California are setting off a flurry of celebrations, reflections on how the three diverse campuses have grown in half a century — but also some worries that today's and future students may not be as well served.

The anniversaries are being marked this month and next at UC Santa Cruz, UC Irvine and Cal State San Bernardino, all of which began classes in 1965 — in some cases when their campuses were mainly open fields or patches of woodlands. They were established as part of a master plan for higher education pushed by then-Gov. Pat Brown, UC President Clark Kerr and others to ensure baby boomers had access to quality and low-cost instruction.

At UC Santa Cruz, chancellor George Blumenthal will lead this weekend's reunions and anniversary events commemorating the growth of what was a tiny, experimental UC in the redwoods to an institution enrolling 17,000 students now, with major credentials in the sciences and humanities.

"This is a way of recognizing adulthood. It represents the maturation of the campus," said Blumenthal, an astrophysicist.

On Oct. 3, UC Irvine is hosting a public "Festival of Discovery," with music, food, athletics and scientific displays to mark the arrival of students half a century ago at an unfinished, and highly modernistic, campus on ranchland in Orange County. UC Irvine chancellor Howard Gillman, a political scientist, said the event "is a chance to think about what the university meant for the development of the region" and to acknowledge how California's leaders in the '60s created "a balance of excellence and access unequaled in American higher education."

Cal State San Bernardino, which enrolls about 19,000 students, more than half of them Latino, started celebrating with a convocation on Monday.

All those events statewide bolster respect for the past expansion of public universities in California — as well as fears that such achievements will never be repeated, analysts say.

The campuses show that "a huge amount was accomplished in a relatively short period of time," according to Jane Wellman, a senior advisor for the College Futures Foundation, a San Francisco-based organization that seeks to help low-income and minority students.

The anniversaries, she added, are a time to express concerns that public colleges today turn away too many students.

"When the baby boom generation was going to college, the state was making room for them in a big way. Now the investments are just not there, and we need to do this for another generation," Wellman said, noting that the newest UC, Merced, faces funding problems limiting growth.

The state does not need to construct more new campuses from scratch but should expand existing ones where possible and use technology to "build more access," she said.

Similarly, Patrick Callan, president of the Higher Education Policy Institute in San Jose, said the '60s construction "certainly was one of the greatest modern success stories in higher education."

Soon after, student unrest, a political backlash against protests and economic troubles changed things, he said. Still, lessons from those days of expansion are relevant even though the college population then was "smaller, whiter and more middle class than today," he said.

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Solutions should focus on more efficient use of current campuses, for example, by converting summer sessions into regular terms with full offerings, he said.

A highlight of Founders Weekend at UC Santa Cruz is expected to be the reunion of "pioneers," members of the first class of about 600 freshmen and transfer students. They said they were attracted to plans for an alternative UC that would drop such traditions as A-F grades and strict departmental divisions and create small residential colleges within a larger university.

The unorthodox written evaluations of students' academic performance mainly has been abandoned, but the school maintains its college system, albeit with faculty now belonging to campus-wide departments.

When the first class arrived at the site above Monterey Bay, construction was so incomplete that they lived in trailers and ate and took classes in the field house. Eric Thiermann, now 68, said he and other freshmen at the time felt "it would be really challenging and fun to start a university from scratch."

Other draws, he said, included the location's beauty and the low costs — just under $1,000 for the year, including room and board. He left his senior year to finish at UCLA because Santa Cruz did not have a cinema program then. But Thiermann, who went on to direct documentaries, remains loyal to UC Santa Cruz and lives nearby.

He said those early days were "golden times" for students, and he wishes costs could be reduced for today's students.

UC Irvine began marking its anniversary in June 2014 when President Obama delivered the commencement address, marking half a century since President Lyndon B. Johnson dedicated campus construction. The Oct. 3 festival will be followed in the school year with conferences on such topics as migration, climate change and the design of the campus, which now enrolls 31,000 students.

At Cal State San Bernardino's recent convocation, campus President Tomás D. Morales said that the school was established because citizens of the Inland Empire region "didn't accept the status quo, but rather pushed for the same opportunities for education that other regions of the state and the nation provide."

He said the first students in 1965 "were largely non-traditional; they grabbed this opportunity with both hands and used it to enrich their lives, their communities, and the lives of their children and families. And that is still happening today."

As a result of the anniversaries, UC Irvine and UC Santa Cruz are about to be booted off a prestigious list ranking universities around the world that are less than 50 years old. That ranking is compiled by the Times Higher Education, a British publication. In the 2015 edition, UC Irvine was seventh, the highest U.S. campus in a list dominated by European and Asian schools, and UC Santa Cruz was eighth.

Both UC campuses now will compete only on lists for all universities, regardless of age.

"So we have to play with the big boys," said Blumenthal.

Twitter:@larrygordonlat

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