Kresge College UCSC University of California Santa Cruz

Gary Merrill was driving his Volkswagen van to his apartment on the UCSC campus when he saw four naked women lounging on his roof. After gawking a moment too long, he proceeded to run his van into a ditch. It was the early ’70s, and as I came to find out while researching this story, this was more or less completely normal—both the nudity and the gawking.

Kresge College had just been built, and Merrill was one of the first students to join. Like its students, the young college—UCSC’s sixth—was establishing its own identity amid the political and social turbulence of the decade.

“It was very much in its formative year. It was a remarkable experiment in social democracy and new forms of education,” Merrill says. “It went a little bit under the nose of the formal administration. As an undergraduate, I had what seemed like a full voice in what was happening, so that was exciting.”

This was an era when Kresge’s provost, Bob Edgar, once asked Merrill and some other students to house-sit while Edgar and his wife were out of town. And house-sit they did, says Merrill with a laugh, though he declines to go into further detail. “It was great fun,” he says.

Founded by Edgar along with Michael Kahn, Kresge was an experiment in what undergraduate education could and should be. Students would create their own majors, collaborating with legendary UCSC professors like Philip Slater and Gregory Bateson along the way.

“It was just a profound group of people all committed to changing how education was working for undergraduates,” Merrill says. “It was a grand experiment, and I was happy to be there.”

Students at the time lived in co-ed apartments adjacent to their professors. They held “tea groups,” which were extracurricular gatherings requiring that students do nothing but think and be in the moment, without any other agenda, and talk about whatever came up. They also famously hosted Kresge Day, where everyone collectively consumed large amounts of hallucinogenic drugs. Some students lived in the forest, foregoing housing altogether. They weren’t graded and were encouraged, if not required, to question the status quo daily.

Kresge students, along with their Porter College neighbors, were often at the forefront of antiwar demonstrations and protests. Mushroom foraging was a must, protest-macing was a rite of passage, and free thinking was required. If UCSC was an experimental college, Kresge was completely unhinged.

“People let me be an anarchist there. I’m not sure if I really was, but I thought I was,” says David Lowery, vocalist and guitarist for Camper Van Beethoven and later, Cracker, who was a Kresge student in the early ’80s. “I wanted students to have as much autonomy as possible, and that was the sentiment that was going on there. That’s where Kresge is really important, and also pretty much ungovernable.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, the UC establishment came down hard on Kresge for its nontraditional approach. And when there was a move to implement grades and replace the banana slug as the school mascot, Kresge was at the forefront of the protests.

“It was specifically an attempt to make the campus more mainstream, and changing the mascot, narrative evaluations to grades, an engineering school, were all pieces of that,” Lowery says. “Kresge was a resistance, and when Porter College wasn’t stoned out of their minds, they were helping too.”

Kresge was too radical for many, including its own namesake, the Kresge Foundation—founded by Sebastian Kresge, co-founder of Kmart. The foundation withdrew its financial support, leaving the college severely underfunded to this day.


Radical Shift

Kresge is still known for promoting iconoclastic thinking and self-expression, shaped by what came before it. But things at the college are about to change. To accommodate the aging buildings and annual increase in student enrollment, Kresge will undergo its first major renovation. The 11 residential buildings that currently feature apartment-style units with kitchenettes and private bathrooms will be relocated or torn down and replaced with new buildings.

“A great many of the buildings will be radically redesigned or replaced,” says current Kresge provost Ben Carson. “Our aim is to fulfill the same spirit as innovative spaces designed for collaborative spirit, even if the architecture is in many cases new or unrecognizable.”

The $170 million housing project will feature 400 suite-style dormitories and 150 apartments. The idea is that first-years will occupy the suites and continuing students will have the apartment option.

“From a developmental standpoint, for frosh the apartments aren’t ideal,” says capital planning director Steve Houser. “It’s hard to build community beyond small groups, and [apartments] can tend to isolate folks who may be struggling.”

But Kresge is known for that apartment-style housing, and is the only place on campus that offers private kitchens and bathrooms. Many students choose to live in and be affiliated with Kresge because of this.

“We have a natural filter for students who are ready for that independence, and a style of living that is more ready to live in an adult community, and that has had an influence on what Kresge is as a culture,” Carson says.

Though largely supported, the renovations have been met with some skepticism from older Kresge affiliates who, like many others, have a profound respect and appreciation for the architecture of Kresge, which is an anomaly in itself. The L-shaped street layout and irregular freestanding buildings reject the traditional linear university layouts seen across the country.

“The architecture is meant to foster a bright and rich collaborative experience that breaks down boundaries,” Carson says. Though this idea still stands, Kresge’s amenities have since worn out. Kresge has been slated for a large-scale project for years, waiting until the time—and funding—was right.

Kresge’s renovations will come as a new student housing project is built right next door. Carson, along with other project managers, hopes that Kresge will serve as more of a conduit between Science Hill and the Arts Divisions. There will be a 600-person lecture hall installed that administrators hope will bring not only more classroom space, but also more energy and diversity to the college.

Some are waiting to see how the renovations play out, hoping the changes won’t sell out Kresge’s legacy—or merely be a cosmetic band-aid for the fundamental questions about the college’s future. Kresge-affiliated professor and former provost Paul Skenazy remembers a time that Kresge was more pivotal in student education and development, and believes that as students and faculty have grown apart, it has lost some of its identity.

“The educational side of the colleges isn’t as strong as it used to be. You don’t get that cohort with the same faculty and the college itself—the ability for the college to influence others is different,” Skenazy says. Currently, UCSC students are required to take their affiliated college’s “core” course for one quarter. In Kresge’s case, the course’s focus is social justice, power and representation. Provost Ben Carson says the core course changes and evolves each year, with next year focusing more on journalism and contemporary nonfiction.

After more than a decade’s absence, Skenazy returned to Kresge to teach core last fall. The class itself wasn’t different than those from the ’80s and ’90s, he says, but the demographic had drastically changed—much to his delight.

“When I left in 2005, Kresge was still primarily a white college. Now that’s not the case. It was a different world to walk into, and was everything I had aimed for as a teacher,” Skenazy says. “When UCSC started, it attracted the upper-middle-class artsy family, but there is something very exciting about the fact that it’s a different group of people at the university now. That’s the other side of change.”

UCSC’s demographics have indeed shifted to reflect the population of California, with 31 percent Latino students and 33 percent white students, though its numbers for African-American students and Native American students stand at less than 2 percent.

If Kresge is shaped by its students, it will continue dynamically changing beyond even the physical rebuild in the coming years. Its renovation, need for funding revenue, and overall changing identity will make for a college very different than the Kresge from nearly 50 years ago.

“The specifics have changed,” says Skenazy, “but the sense of engagement, I hope, has not.”

  • Bob Haskell

    What are referred to here as “Tea groups” were really “T-groups” (the letter T – for Training). A minor detail, I suppose. Since I was there. We did, however, sometimes drink herbal tea, now that I think of it.

  • sick of corruption

    I remember when Talking Heads used a Kresge dorm as their dressing room. They weren’t very friendly, but man, they were cool. They played a great show there.