Founders Celebration a night of powerful stories

Alumni journalists told fascinating accounts of being reporters in the field, and honorees shared how their work affirms strongly held UC Santa Cruz values

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Mike McPhate, Martha Mendoza and Carrie Kahn shared their experiences and insights during a Founders Celebration journalism panel.

Three leading UC Santa Cruz alumni journalists talked about the challenge of doing their jobs when newsrooms keep shrinking and politicians in the highest echelons of power keep labeling them “enemies of the people.”

This onstage discussion was one of the highlights of the Founders Celebration Dinner, held at Porter College on Saturday. The night was a time to recognize excellence and service to the community, with honorees including:

  • Fiat Lux Award recipient John Laird (Stevenson ’72, politics), a trailblazing public servant. Laird, first elected to the Santa Cruz City Council in 1981, went on to be one of the first openly gay mayors in the country. A former state Assemblyman, he was appointed California Secretary for Natural Resources by Governor Jerry Brown in 2011;
  • Faculty Research Award recipient Lise Getoor, a professor in the Computer Science and Engineering Department at UC Santa Cruz and founding director of the UC Santa Cruz Data, Discovery, and Decisions (D3) Data Research Center; and
  • Alumni Achievement Award honoree Natalie Batalha (Ph.D. ’97, astrophysics), astrophysicist and lead scientist on the NASA Kepler Mission. In 2015, she joined the leadership team of a new NASA initiative dedicated to the search for evidence of life beyond the solar system. NASA's Nexus for Exoplanet System Science (NExSS) brings teams from multiple disciplines together to understand the diversity of worlds. Kepler has demonstrated that Earth-size planets abound in the galaxy.

During their lively onstage discussion, Martha Mendoza (Kresge ’88, journalism and education) Associated Press correspondent and a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner; Carrie Kahn (College Eight/Rachel Carson ’87, biology), NPR international correspondent based in Mexico City, covering Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America; and Mike McPhate (Kresge ’00, anthropology major/journalism minor), founder of the California Sun, a daily e-newsletter that curates general-interest news about California, regaled the audience with their tales from the field.

Mendoza spoke about getting yelled at by Trump supporters at rallies, while waiting in vain for a chance to express common cause with attendees—“I’m a mom, you’re a mom. You live here, I live here. We both want clean water.” McPhate mentioned the nasty emails he often receives, just because he happens to live in and write about California. He also said that there are now half the number of journalists working in California as there were 20 years ago.

“Being a journalist in 2018—we are a dying breed,” Kahn said. “NPR has very few outlets left in the world. Wire services are slowly closing. I’ve been in Mexico City the last few years. I’ve seen friends take buyouts or get laid off and been replaced by freelancers.”

She also mentioned a group of journalist drinking buddies that gets smaller and smaller.

“It is a difficult time for journalists,” she said.

But these three influential reporters showed no signs of cynicism or exhaustion, in spite of blowback from members of the public who heap scorn on even the most prestigious media outlets, and questionable outlets that conflate opinion and editorials with genuine reporting.

“If I can sound an optimistic note, there is a ton of energy, optimism, and entrepreneurship going on,” McPhate said, mentioning the success and influence of nonpartisan, nonprofit member-supported news organizations such as Calmatters.org.

“I don’t think people are ever going to stop being interested in stories,’’ McPhate continued. “People aren’t reading less than they used to. Demand is always going to be there. It’s a matter of fixing the business side.”

Besides, the three panelists understand the value and impact of on-the-ground journalism. Mendoza shared her experiences reporting and writing a hard-hitting story, with Garance Burke, about deported parents losing their kids to adoption. She said UC Santa Cruz helped prepare her for the wrenching experience “of going to El Salvador and asking a mom what it was like to have her daughter taken away. (UC Santa Cruz) gets people out of their comfort zone, talking to people in homeless centers, in jails. I don’t think you can get through this university without talking to people you aren’t comfortable with.”

This immersive reporting is a far cry from what goes on in many news outlets, “which just compile the news,’’ Kahn said. “Someone just reports what another (news source) said, and no one is on the ground.”

In this open spirit of dialogue, Mendoza warmly acknowledged a group of student protesters who had gathered outside the Founders celebration. The protesters argued that UC Santa Cruz is charging exorbitant tuition while too many underfunded students are without stable housing, textbooks, and other essential needs.

Mendoza also remarked on her beginnings at UC Santa Cruz, when she took Conn Hallinan’s journalism class and found a focus and outlet for her political awakenings. Mendoza went right to work in a newsroom immediately after graduating from college. 

Another emotional highlight of the evening was the acceptance speech of Alumni Achievement honoree Natalie Batalha, who spoke of raising a small child on campus while taking on a full workload of classes.

She said the Astronomy Department not only accepted her but also championed her for being a mother and a student. She recalled Chancellor George Blumenthal—during his tenure as an astrophysics professor, and long before he took office as UC Santa Cruz’s 10th chancellor—checking up on her after the devastating 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and bringing her diapers for her baby when she was living in family student housing.

“It was that kindness, that sense of community that really marked me during the time,” Batalha said.

She also remembered bundling up her small children to see the comet Hyakutake as it soared across the night sky in the spring of 1996.

“I took them to the top of the Great Meadow to meet with some fellow grad students,” she recalled. One of her young daughters looked into the sky and pointed and said, “What is that?’

“She had seen the comet before I’d even told her what we were going to do, and demanded to know what it was,” Batalha told the crowd.

This small child’s question turned out to be the beginning of an impressive academic career.

“Twenty-two years after seeing that comet in the sky, that little girl returned this year as a postdoctoral fellow in the Astronomy Department,” said Batalha, drawing roars of approval from the crowd. She was referring to her daughter, Natasha Batalha, who is working with the planetary scientist Jonathan Fortney, a professor in the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics and director of the Other Worlds Laboratory.

John Laird, Fiat Lux recipient, also got an enthusiastic response when he mentioned that it was “50 years ago last month when I arrived at UC Santa Cruz.” He said that if anyone had told him he would be standing up on stage one day, receiving an award for outstanding achievement, dedication, and service in support of the university, “I would have been surprised. I struggled at the beginning. I learned how to write, analyze, and think—not what to think, but how to think.”

All that hard work and problem-solving paid off. Laird labored over an honors thesis on the history of water development in California. Now he’s just wrapped up eight years as the government’s point person on water policy in California.

Early in the evening Chancellor Blumenthal—who recently announced his plans for retirement at the end of this coming academic year, after what will be 13 years leading the university— spoke with pride about improved town-gown relations, and for the strides the campus has made, “staking a claim to excellence, advancing diversity, and encouraging philanthropy.”

Blumenthal also had a role of bringing the Founders Celebration to campus after attending a similar event at UC San Francisco. “They say imitation is the greatest form of flattery,” he noted.

The emcee for the evening was Cynthia Chase (Merrill ’01, psychology), the inmate programs manager at the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office, former director of the nonprofit Gemma program for formerly incarcerated individuals, and former mayor of Santa Cruz. She noted the large number of influential alumni in the crowd.

“You can’t swing a Banana Slug in here without hitting a former mayor,” she observed.