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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Page Smith: Founding Cowell College and UCSC, 1964-1973


This oral history chronicles the late Page Smith's experiences as founding provost of the campus's first college and his major contributions in shaping the college system here. His narration includes chapters on student culture in the 1960s and 1970s, the pass/fail grading system, his educational philosophy, town/gown relations, campus architecture, the History of Consciousness Program, his relationship with founding Chancellor Dean E. McHenry, arts on the campus and the role of his wife, Eloise Pickard Smith, in the founding of the art gallery at Cowell College which now bears her name. The volume is a candid narration which conveys Smith's contrarian perspective on higher education and the flavor of the campus in its early pioneering years.

Smith joined the faculty in 1964 and embarked on the adventure of creating a new UC campus. The formative concepts shaping UCSC were an emphasis on undergraduate teaching and the creation of small human-scale colleges around which campus intellectual and cultural life would be organized. Smith became deeply involved in creating a close-knit community at Cowell College, and in promoting a number of innovations during the campus's first decade, perhaps the most significant of which was the narrative evaluation or pass/fail system, an abandonment of the old letter grade system.

Smith's interviews are organized into three sections. The first includes Smith's commentary on his controversial appointment as the campus's first provost, early faculty appointments, his efforts to recruit women and minority faculty, and college life. In the second section he discusses issues he confronted as provost, administering Cowell College, establishing the pass/fail grading system, his teaching and curriculum philosophy, the conflict between boards of studies (now designated as departments), and how he defined the provost's role. In the final section, "UCSC's Development", Smith discusses campus-wide topics, including his relationship with founding Chancellor Dean E. McHenry, his opinion of campus architecture, the origins of the History of Consciousness program, and town-gown relations. He also discusses the role of his wife, the late artist, Eloise Pickard Smith, in the founding of the art gallery at Cowell College that now bears her name.

In the final chapters of the volume, Smith candidly discusses his resignation from the University in 1973 after his colleague and friend, Paul Lee, a professor of religious studies, was not given tenure. Smith used this occasion as a symbolic protest against what he considered the rigidity of the "publish or perish" system governing University faculty promotion and tenure. This issue was a major and paradoxical bete noire in Smith's attitude towards academic life since he himself was uncommonly prolific and published over two dozen books. His Killing the Spirit: Higher Education in America (1990) provided an elaborate critique of contemporary academic life.

Smith's legacy lives on in his scholarly work, which he continued after his retirement from the University, with numerous publications, including the 8-volume People's History of the United States, in his many contributions to UCSC and Cowell College, and in his untiring work as a community activist on behalf of the homeless. He was a co-founder (with his friend Paul Lee) of the William James Association in Santa Cruz, the Homeless Garden Project, the Penny University and the Prison Arts Project.

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