In Memoriam: Paul Niebanck (1934-2021)

Paul Niebanck sitting behind a desk on campus
Paul Niebanck pictured in 1974, during his tenure as founding provost of College 8. Photo: UCSC Special Collections and Archives.

Paul Niebanck, professor emeritus of environmental studies and founding provost of Rachel Carson College, passed away on Nov. 26, 2021, at the age of 87. Niebanck taught urban and environmental planning at UC Santa Cruz for 20 years before his retirement in 1993. 

Niebanck was born in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia and grew up in the Hudson River Valley in New York. He was legally blind from birth. Niebanck studied at Johns Hopkins University, University of Pennsylvania, and Graduate Theological Union and held academic positions at University of Pennsylvania, UC Santa Cruz, University of Washington, and Portland State University over the course of his career. In the early 1970s, he also worked in the federal government as deputy assistant secretary in the Department of Health, Education and Welfare.

Niebanck joined UC Santa Cruz in 1973 to serve as the founding provost of what was then College 8. He held that role for three years before moving on to become UC Santa Cruz’s first vice chancellor for student affairs. He would also later serve for two years as chair of the Academic Senate.

After his tenure at UC Santa Cruz, Niebanck moved to Seattle and became a visiting distinguished professor at Portland State University. In 2002, he received the Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning Distinguished Educator Award. Niebanck also maintained connections with the UC Santa Cruz campus community for many years following his retirement.

In a letter published in the UCSC Emeriti Association newsletter in 2018, Niebanck wrote, “I enjoyed every minute of my time at UCSC.” And regarding his retirement from the faculty, he wrote, “Immediately and since then, I have missed my colleagues and the unique UCSC commitment to teaching and learning.” 

In 2016, during the Rachel Carson College dedication, Niebanck shared his fond memories of the early days of College 8 via a letter that was read aloud at the ceremony. As reported by City On A Hill Press, Niebanck’s letter discussed how the college’s faculty and students “turned it into a place of beauty and celebration.”

Around the same time as the college dedication, a group of Niebanck’s former students and friends came together to establish and endow the Paul Niebanck Founder’s Prize at Rachel Carson College in Niebanck’s honor. Each year, the fund awards a $2,500 prize to a UCSC student whose work contributes original and innovative insight into environmental analysis and planning. 

Niebanck’s legacy has also inspired his former students to help fund experiential education. In 2011, when years of state budget cuts had threatened the Environmental Studies Department’s capacity to continue offering field-based courses, faculty and alumni came together to raise funding for an experiential learning endowment. Among the donations that helped to build momentum was a $10,000 gift from College Eight environmental planning alumnus and 2011 Distinguished Social Sciences Alumni Award winner Peter Stein, who contributed in honor of Niebanck and Professor Emeritus James Pepper. 

Niebanck’s memory will live on at UC Santa Cruz through his many former students and colleagues and through the institutions and programs that he helped to shape. He is survived by his partner of six decades, Linda, along with three children and five grandchildren.