UC Santa Cruz turns 50, a bold experiment realized

Campus begins yearlong celebration of its trailblazing history and groundbreaking impact on the world

UC Santa Cruz’s founding chancellor, Dean McHenry, second from right, at the installation in 1966 of the original carved solid redwood sign that has defined the main campus entrance.
McHenry was the new campus’s biggest booster. In this iconic photo, he posed for a Time magazine publicity shot in 1962, three years before the campus opened. (Photo by Vester Dick; Courtesy of Covello & Covello)

In 1965, UC President Clark Kerr described the brand new campus at Santa Cruz as “the most significant educational experiment in the history of the University of California.”

Fifty years later, the bold new model of higher education that emerged from the fledgling campus has helped change the world’s understanding of countless ideas and issues: from astrophysics to organic farming, from ocean health to human rights, from artistic and literary expression to genomics and cancer research.  

“We were founded knowing that challenging the status quo wasn't part of the problem: It was the solution,” says Chancellor George Blumenthal, who joined the campus as an assistant professor of astrophysics in 1972 and became chancellor in 2006. “Our founders knew it was how we could change the world. And we have—in foundational science, in environmentalism, and in humanity.”

As UC Santa Cruz continues to forge ahead in 2015, the campus will mark its 50th anniversary with a variety of events throughout the year, including exhibits of iconic art and photographs, special activities during the annual Alumni Weekend in April, and a series of events in the fall that will celebrate the campus's roots, demonstrate its growth, and showcase its future.

“It’s a golden moment for UC Santa Cruz,” notes Chancellor Blumenthal.  “We are celebrating our past and embracing the future. The challenges facing the world demand that we remain in the forefront of research and education.”

When UC Santa Cruz opened in 1965, it was one of three new University of California campuses that would dramatically expand the opportunities available to California students and researchers. These universities were the answer to California’s post-war baby boom.  

While the San Diego and Irvine campuses followed a more traditional model, UC Santa Cruz established itself from the beginning as a center of doing things in new and different ways. Modeled on Oxford University in England, UC Santa Cruz was designed as a cluster of decentralized small colleges, where students could have daily contact with their professors, while still being part of a large research university.

“Our thesis is simple,” said Dean McHenry, the campus's first chancellor, in 1966. “In a college setting, where a small number of students and faculty go about their daily business in close proximity, it is just that much more difficult to forget that the students are individual, unexchangeable, irreplaceable human beings.”

Over the past 50 years, UC Santa Cruz has grown from just 652 students in the first class to more than 17,000 students today. Much has changed, both on campus and in the world at large, but the bold spirit of inquiry and experimentation that characterized UC Santa Cruz from the start continues to foster transformative student experiences and groundbreaking research.

“As part of celebrating UC Santa Cruz’s rich history, we are focused on what’s next,” notes Chancellor Blumenthal. “Whether it’s tackling cancer with genomics and big data, launching the next generation of environmental leaders, or pushing the frontiers of social justice and artistic expression, our eyes are on the future. We’ve always been–and will never stop being–trailblazers.”

For more information about the 50th anniversary—including an interactive timeline of the campus history and achievements, and high-resolution early photos from Special Collections at the UC Santa Cruz McHenry Library—go to 50years.ucsc.edu.