Oakes College founding faculty trace UCSC's roots in upcoming forum

Candid discussion scheduled for Friday, April 27, from 7:30 to 9:00 p.m. in the Humanities Lecture Hall as part of Alumni Reunion Weekend

Founding Oakes provost Herman Blake returns to campus to discuss the enduring values of UCSC and the history of Oakes, now entering its 40th year.
Senior emeritus writing faculty member Don Rothman, Herman Blake's old friend and colleague, will take part in a far-ranging dialogue during UCSC's Alumni Reunion Weekend.

When UCSC admitted its first class in 1965, the country was going through a period of social and political foment.

Idealistic young students were drawn to a university whose founding values were deeply rooted in liberal education across the disciplines — what some called a “grand experiment” taking shape in the redwood-studded hills of the former Cowell Ranch property.

As a someone who recalls those early days of UCSC, J. Herman Blake—founding provost of Oakes College, and currently humanities scholar in residence at the Medical University of South Carolina—is well qualified to talk about the transformative power of education during periods of social, political and economic change.

Soon, he and his old friend and former colleague Don Rothman, UCSC senior lecturer emeritus in writing, will have a chance to share some of those historical lessons and enduring stories during their upcoming discussion and forum scheduled for Friday, April 27, from 7:30 to 9:00 p.m. in the Humanities Lecture Hall.

Their talk will delve deeply into the founding values of UCSC, the growth of its colleges, and the challenge faced by today’s educators: In the current climate, how can they work to bridge economic and social divides, reinforce the links between the humanities and hard sciences, and encourage students to embrace socially conscious careers?

This candid discussion will appeal to anyone interested in UCSC’s history and lasting relevance.  And the two of them will have plenty of stories about Oakes, which exemplifies the groundbreaking, cross-cultural and cross-disciplinary spirit of the young UCSC.

 Still vital and still going strong, Oakes turns 40 this year.

 “One thing hasn’t changed,” Rothman said. “If you attend an Oakes commencement, sit up on the stage and look out at the crowd, look at the families and their faces, you will understand what is at stake here. You’ll see the look on the faces of parents who are there for the first kid in their family to graduate from college.”

Blake was on campus when the college that would become Oakes was taking shape. He vividly remembers dialogues with students who rallied for an all African-American college in 1968. His suggested alternative was a college that focused on ethnic studies while reaching out to African-Americans, Asian Americans, Chicanos and Native Americans as well as European immigrants.

 “I said, ‘when you get to the table, after you were not permitted to sit at the table in the past, don’t just rejoice because you’re at the table,’” Blake said. ‘Ask yourself who is not here, and think about those who are now in the positions you once were, and think about ways in which you can bring them in.”

Access to science education was also a longstanding part of Oakes culture and remains so to this day. Rothman said Oakes’ founders and early faculty were very much aware that students of color and working-class students did not have much of a presence in medical schools or science engineering programs. They were determined to increase that presence, and strongly encourage these students to explore science careers.

The Oakes science community has had a lasting impact on campus.  For instance, UCSC Chancellor George Blumenthal, a distinguished astrophysicist, was a founding Oakes faculty member. William T. Doyle, initial director of the Institute of Marine Sciences, was a founding faculty member and deputy and acting provost of Oakes College.

In the early days, people often spoke of Oakes College as an "experiment"—but experiments tend to be short-lived, while Oakes continues to thrive, Blake said.

“To us the concept experiment meant ‘expedient’, something assumed to be temporary and expendable,” he continued. “However, the values and principles upon which we built Oakes were and still are rooted in age-old values of American society—with an emphasis upon the inclusive and uplifting elements rather than the elitist and exclusive elements. Unbeknownst to many of us, we added African, Latino, Native American, Asian and European values we neither knew nor understood at the time—but they were within us and we shared them.”  

He compared the history of Oakes and UCSC to “a living tapestry still being woven.  In many ways Oakes College invites students with diverse roots to understand their lives and incorporate their roots into that tapestry.”

Rothman and Blake will be on hand to discuss the intellectual, academic and personal history of this influential and still-vital college. Please register for this special event. Seating is limited.