After a controversial suspension, a new incarnation of the unique UC Santa Cruz major is reinstated
The UC Santa Cruz community studies lounge is a great place to have a conversation.
Housed on the second floor of a faculty building in Oakes College, just down the hall from a whiteboard that reads “COMMUNITY STUDIES LIVES,” the room has a big round table, couches and chairs, and shelves stacked with past senior “capstone projects.”
Sitting on the couch, students ZoÎ Chertov, Andrew Szeto, and Adam Odsess-Rubin humbly list their accomplishments through the major, prodded by their professor Mary Beth Pudup to expound. The students—all members of the last class to sneak in under the wire after the major’s suspension in 2010—recently traveled to various cities to participate in a field study with different organizations: an urban farming operation in Memphis, an environmental justice group in Detroit, and an activist theatre troupe in New York City.
Among them, they also have a job offer, admittance to graduate school at the University of San Francisco, and a recently produced play in New York.
And this was all made possible by a major that, until recently, lay dormant on its deathbed.
“We had our fingers crossed, and everything else,” says Chertov about the recent reinstatement of community studies, a department that was founded in 1969 and suspended in 2010 due to UC-wide budget problems. “And there was definitely a ‘break out the champagne’ moment” when news broke of its return, adds her classmate Odsess-Rubin.
Community studies is not easily explained. Students define it as a kind of “applied sociology”—a field that focuses both on issues in society and on what people can do to solve them.
In the old rendition of the very interdisciplinary major, students had the freedom to choose virtually any emphasis, from art or media to environmental justice or aging studies. (Its unique makeup and liberal reputation sparked some criticism from conservatives over the years, including, most memorably, right-wing pundit David Horowitz, who used the major as partial reasoning for declaring UCSC “the worst school in America” in 2007.)
The aforementioned field study is a hallmark of the program. Many students choose urban hubs like New York City and some have gone as far as Europe, but many also choose to stay local and volunteer at Santa Cruz institutions such as the Santa Cruz AIDS Project, local farmers markets, and the Homeless Garden Project. Detective Elizabeth Butler, one of the two Santa Cruz police officers killed in the line of duty in February, was a community studies major who stayed local for her field study, completing hers at the Beach Flats Community Center.
Alyssa Gutner-Davis recently finished her field study in the youth advocating department of the Walnut Avenue Women’s Center (WAWC), where she helped teach a public workshop and organized a project where local youths created public displays about a social issue of their choosing. These projects will soon be displayed around Downtown Santa Cruz.
“WAWC was a great organization to do a field study because there were so many opportunities for me to acquire knowledge,” Gutner-Davis says.
Professor Pudup, who will direct the new program, thinks the major’s relative open-endedness might have had something to do with the original decision to suspend it.
“There has always been criticism about students not being supervised and having too much freedom,” she says. “There were a lot of things that blew up at the same time. There were long-standing issues—some people didn’t like the program from [the time] it was founded.”
That ongoing unease on the part of some faculty members grew along with the state’s recent budget crisis, which hit its higher education system particularly hard. The UC Santa Cruz campus suffered a $13 million budget reduction in 2009 alone, and UC tuitions rose about $5,000 per student between 2008 and 2012. On top of this, professors were asked to take furlough days starting in 2009, and the anxiety on the UCSC campus was palpable.
It was in this climate that the community studies department became one of the first casualties. The American studies department soon followed, without much hope of ever being reinstated, though a proposal for a critical race and ethnic studies major is expected to soon replace it.
“There are certain immediate crises that allow long-term disagreements to gain weight and have a greater impact,” Pudup says. “We might have just kept going along, but the budget crisis provided a convenient set of circumstances to allow a lot of long-term, misguided criticism of the program [to come to a head].”
Fast-forward a few years, and the new “Community Studies 2.0” is leaner, and, many hope, more effective. The target enrollment for the new major, which is set to return in the fall for a three-year trial period, is 70 students—about 30 fewer than were accepted previous to the suspension.
Undergraduate advisor Joanie Peterson estimates that the current major lost about 70 percent of its students after its suspension in 2010. However, the new major already has 40 students intending to declare, as well as some interest from Cabrillo students who plan to transfer to UCSC in two years.
The major looks different in other ways, as well. It has transitioned from a department to a program, meaning it will have fewer faculty members and, the intention is, less red tape. The new major will also be supported by Oakes College, and the two will share some resources. Pudup hopes that as it grows and succeeds, more resources will be follow.
“It’s unclear how we’re going to get new faculty under a program model because everything’s doled out through departments, but the university seems, at least, interested in seeing how the whole program model can work,” Pudup says, adding that, “It’s easier to start programs than it is to start departments, where you almost need an act of Congress. You have to go all the way to the Regents to create departments. Programs are a little bit easier—you can do that on campus. I guess I’m willing to take the administration on faith that they’re going to provide resources for programs. We’ll see.”
In addition to have fewer students, community studies has narrowed its focus. Approved by UCSC’s Academic Senate Committee on Educational Policy in early May, the new major will whittle down its emphases to health and urban studies.
“It was clear that we couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty back together again, as far as trying to mount up the program with as many emphases as we used to have, because we had more faculty,” Pudup says. “Luckily the topics that we could focus on turned out to be things that were important, and turned out to be things that students and society are really interested in.”
Barbara Garcia is one testament to the program’s long tradition of success in the health field. Upon graduating from UCSC’s community studies program in 1978, she went directly to Watsonville to help develop Salud Para La Gente, a community clinic at which many community studies majors have done field studies. In 2010, then-mayor Gavin Newsom appointed her as the public health director of San Francisco.
“Community studies provided me the opportunity to take theory of social change and put it into practice,” Garcia writes in an email to GT. “Today, I can say that community studies at UCSC is essential to ensure a future public health workforce that is greatly needed to meet the new Affordable Care Act.”
In the new program, field studies are here to stay, though students will now be grouped by city to encourage collaborative learning. As always, some students will do their field studies in the Santa Cruz area. Among these students, undergraduate advisor Joanie Peterson notes diversity in organizations picked.
“That’s a reflection of both the interests of the students as well as the range of social justice issues our students can focus on,” she says.
Pudup, like everyone else interviewed for this piece, expressed excitement about community studies’ second act. For now, she wants to put to bed the notion that community studies is a strange or controversial major.
“Students are here to get an education [on how] to go out and make the world a better place,” she says. “Isn’t that what community studies is about? And isn’t that what a public university should be about?”