City Upon A Shining “Science Hill”

Perhaps the clearest statement of UCSC’s horrible transformation is captured by a simple robotic voice, the voice of the Metro bus system’s androgynous speaker who automatically announces each stop as it approaches. When the system was first installed it announced only the major stops around town, “Mission and Bay,” “Metro Center,” “Soquel and Branciforte.” I recall riding it one day a few years back up to campus. The voice announced each stop on the way up Laurel Street. When the bus entered campus it went silent. But then the one announcement came, the one stop worth mentioning, (according to UCSC and the city’s bus operator that is), “Science Hill, U-C-S-C.” I wondered why at the time Science Hill got to be the main stop on campus given its distance from the Quarry Plaza and administrative buildings.

UC Santa Cruz has always called itself the “City On A Hill.” Truly it is, at least for 9 months out of the year. But the phrase is worth unpacking, especially given the campus’s past, present and future. UCSC adopted the moniker early on, back when it was something of an experimental campus in the UC system, one that would focus on undergraduate education and the liberal arts. The phrase is a reference to the “City Upon A Hill,” mentioned in one of John Winthrop’s 1630 sermons. Winthrop summoned the title as an inspiration and challenge to the English colonist at Massachussets Bay:

“we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken...we shall be made a story and a by-word throughout the world. We shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God...We shall shame the faces of many of God's worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into curses upon us til we be consumed out of the good land whither we are going.”

In other words, UCSC, the City On A Hill is nick-named after the self-aggrandizing ideal that puritan settler colonist bestowed upon their invasive force during the European conquest of North America through joint stock corporations and religious transplants. It’s interesting that within the City On A Hill that is UCSC, it is “Science” that has now come to occupy the tip top of the “Hill.” This is not mere coincidence or symbolism. UCSC’s administrators along with the UC Regents and powerful business interests and benefactors based out of Silicon Valley (like Jack Baskin) have sought now for several decades to recast UCSC into a major research university with hard science and engineering at its core. In doing so they have adopted the self-righteousness and mission-zeal of puritan colonists, even if their ideological drive is different. They have truly colonized UCSC and now they expand into the woods, the “natives” be damned. Profit, prestige and power rely on physical expansion and transformation into a knowledge factory.

This remobilization of the “city upon a hill” runs parallel to other invocations of the phrase. In his farewell address to the nation, Ronald Reagan waxed emotionally:

“The past few days when I've been at that window upstairs, I've thought a bit of the ‘shining city upon a hill’ [America]…. And how stands the city on this winter night? More prosperous, more secure, and happier than it was eight years ago…. And as I walk off into the city streets, a final word to the men and women of the Reagan revolution, the men and women across America who for eight years did the work that brought America back. My friends: We did it.”

Of course Reagan’s idea of bringing America back was to slash social spending on health, education, and housing, to scale back the gains made by the Civil Rights Movement, to stonewall the women’s movement, pour trillions of dollars into high tech weaponry including nuclear arms, and give trillions more in handouts to the wealthiest corporations. Reagan’s vision for the city upon a hill was, in these respects, remarkably like the more particular vision that UC administrators and Regents have had for UCSC all these years: after several decades we find the quality of undergraduate education falling, housing prices stretched, working class students priced out and indebted; students of color – especially blacks – have been virtually expelled from UC; departments such as Feminist Studies are marginalized and where is Ethnic Studies!?; and there has been a creeping militarization of the campus alongside the coming of corporate big science and corporate styles of management. My friends: they did it.

UC President Clark Kerr pronounced the UC Santa Cruz experiment dead not long after it had begun. It was clear after only a couple decades of operation that the campus could not sustain its small size and isolated character. In truth, the idea of the “Oxford on the Pacific,” (this was Kerr and Dean McHenry’s second favorite nick-name for UCSC) was always an elitist scheme that was ill-suited to serve the people of California. For most of its existence UCSC has been an institution benefiting California’s most privileged, mostly white communities by polishing their sons and daughters. However, Kerr’s vision of the multiversity that UCSC’s administrators are now pursuing full speed with their LRDP and various big science institutes and contracts is no more socially just or environmentally sustainable than the original plan for the City On A Hill. In fact, it’s much worse.

In the several decades after UCSC’s founding the school was swept up in a remarkable upsurge of democratic activism led by women and people of color. This movement helped to open up universities nationwide to previously excluded populations while critiquing the goals of education and knowledge production as we had known them until that point. The university was recast into a more inclusive space that produced knowledge and diplomas with higher purposes than profit or vulgar patriotism.

But the pendulum is swinging back. Corporate America and the political Right have other plans for higher education and scientific research, and they increasingly have the power to enact these plans. What’s going down on Science Hill today along with the plans for campus expansion up into the hills is part of a larger picture. The political-economic shakedown is simple. Social resources are being funneled into programs and plans that will benefit private interests, businesses, and certain ideological agendas. Pure and simple.

If UCSC is a proverbial City Upon A Hill, a “shining example” to be followed by all others as this name has demanded since Winthrop’s sermons, then just what does the LRDP mean for the future of higher education and science in America?