Monday, July 17, 2023

#198 / "Politics" And Our Community College


This blog posting is to comment on the "politics" of current efforts to rename Cabrillo College, which is located in Santa Cruz County, California. I think it is fair to say that there is no governmental institution in Santa Cruz County that has had - at least in the past - broader or more dedicated community support. 
The name "Cabrillo College," however, as revered as the school may have been in the past - and Cabrillo College, with its current name, has been revered - is now officially slated for the discard pile.
The Cabrillo College Board of Trustees has voted to change the name, on the basis that the college was named for Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, who was a disreputable person, embodying the worst characteristics of racism and colonial oppression, and whose name should not be celebrated or perpetuated in any way. No "new" name has been decided upon by the Board, as yet, so this is an example of the Board knowing what it doesn't like, more than what it does like, but the Board's current plan is to pick some new name, and to do so in August, just a few weeks from now.
SLIGHT DETOUR: The name "Cabrillo College" was chosen in 1959. On the college website, there is a kind of funny reference to the name chosen for the college, and while this humorous reference has nothing, really, to do with the subject of today's blog posting, I just can't pass up the opportunity to share it. Until I started writing my thoughts on the "name change" controversy, I had never seen the historic photo displayed below, which is the funny reference I just mentioned.

In Spanish, "Cabrio" is pronounced pretty much the same way that "Cabrillo" is pronounced. "Cabrio" refers (in Spanish) to a convertible car. "Cabrillo," of course, as already indicated, is a reference to the name of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, a Spanish explorer for whom the college was, presumably, named. It tickles me that someone, way back when, was already making a joke about the college's name - and such a good-humored joke, too.
I say that Cabrillo College was "presumably" named for Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo because some seem to believe that the college might actually have been named not for the explorer, but for the section of Highway One that links the two biggest cities in the county, and that bears his name. I wasn't around in 1959, but I understand that there was quite a bit of competition between Santa Cruz and Watsonville, and that this competition was a significant factor in deciding whether or not to establish a new community college in Santa Cruz County. Where such a college should be located, and what it should be named, were items of significant controversy. As it turns out, the college was ultimately located more or less in the middle, between the cities of Santa Cruz and Watsonville - and along the Cabrillo Highway. The name and the location chosen, in other words, were ways of bringing the community together. The words "Santa Cruz" were not incorporated into the name of the college, which was one proposal on the table, and making sure that the college didn't tilt towards "Santa Cruz" seems to have been key, in picking a name that could unite the entire community.

At any rate, back in the 1950's, as these naming and location issues were being debated, it was not inevitable that Santa Cruz County would ever have a local Community College.  Cabrillo was founded "as part of an ambitious higher education plan for Santa Cruz County. Along with UC Santa Cruz, Cabrillo was part of a broad vision to bring post-secondary education into the area." I am quoting the Cabrillo College website for this history. Let me also quote what the current Cabrillo College website has to say about Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, giving some support to the idea that the college was named for the highway, as much as for the explorer:
Cabrillo College derives its name from the 16th Century explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, an expedition leader who visited several prominent locations on the California Coast in the service of Spain in 1542. Cabrillo's voyage included stops in San Diego Bay and Monterey Bay. The college sits on the homeland of the indigenous Awaswas and Mutsun communities who were taken by force to Missions Santa Cruz and San Juan Bautista during the Spanish colonization of the Monterey Bay region. Today, their descendants form the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, and they maintain close ties to this land. The college was named during an era when colonizers and their stories were commemorated and valued above those of indigenous peoples. For example, in 1935, the state legislature designated September 28 as "Cabrillo Day" to provide an annual recognition of Cabrillo's exploration of the California coast. Similarly, portions of State Route 1 are identified as part of the "Cabrillo Highway." The college was named not long after that state highway designation, resulting in the title Cabrillo College.

The National Parks Service has a rather more "upbeat" description of Cabrillo (the explorer), which you can read by clicking that link. The Parks Service mostly glosses over all the bad parts of Cabrillo's history, but ignoring the bad parts is simply not acceptable to a majority of the current members of the college's Board of Trustees
As I understand the Board's plans, the Board is proposing to vote on a new name sometime next month. In the meantime, the "Letters To The Editor" column in the Santa Cruz Sentinel continues to be barraged with statements both for and against changing the "Cabrillo" name. In all fairness, most letters have been in favor of retaining "Cabrillo College" as the name of the college, and it appears to me that the majority is strongly against any name change. However, who knows? I certainly could be wrong about that! There are plenty of good reasons to replace the "Cabrillo" name - as well as lots of good reasons not to do so.
Sandy Lydon, a longtime and beloved Cabrillo College history teacher, has weighed into the debate on the proposed name change with two recent columns in the Santa Cruz Sentinel. In Part I of his commentary, Lydon confesses to have been "blindsided" by the Board's vote to change the name, which came on November 14, 2022, before any broad-based community discussion took place:

I felt blindsided by not only the decision, but also the way it was justified. After earlier offering community members a chance to express their opinion (which resulted in a majority stating their wish that the name not be changed) the board dismissed that result as coming from “older persons” and voted 6-1 to change the name.

The trustees justified their votes as something that “other colleges” were doing. Besides, they said, “majorities aren’t always right.” Maybe not, but using ageism (“older persons”) to combat racism is just flat-out wrong. And I was further saddened by hearing Trustees declare that they felt “ashamed” to be associated with the college.
In Part II of his commentary in the Sentinel, Lydon expanded on his concerns about the proposal to replace the Cabrillo College name, as follows:
An Open Letter to the Cabrillo College Board of Trustees and President Matt Wetstein:

The Five Names.
I was disappointed with the five names the committee is trolling around the county. They have the overall feeling of being developed by a committee, which, of course, they are. Committee processes winnow. In fact that’s exactly the way it was described – several hundred submitted names being winnowed down to five with all personalities and edges removed by the process. Like cheese.
Interestingly, in direct defiance of the rules you instituted, 20% of the submissions suggested keeping Cabrillo. Imagine the result if Cabrillo had been permitted?
In the public sessions I attended, most personal choices were prefaced by the phrase, “Well, if we MUST replace the present name, then, I pick …”
None of the five winnowed names have even a hint of the breadth, reach and yes, diversity of the college district. One name in particular (Santa Cruz Coast), reflects an insensitivity to the rivalry between Santa Cruz and the Pajaro Valley.
Lydon, in other words, clearly speaking for many (and quite possibility the majority), does not support changing the name of Cabrillo College, and he certainly does not support any change of name on the current timetable and in the manner in which this proposed name change is being accomplished.

This brings me to the main point of my blog posting today, which is the "politics" of the proposed "name change."
I was, for twenty years, a local elected official in Santa Cruz County, and I like to think I have a pretty good idea of "politics," both with respect to what "politics" is supposed to be about, and with respect to how a healthy "politics" operates in real life. Frankly, as I have been observing how the Cabrillo College name change issue has been playing itself out, I am puzzled by how the Cabrillo College Board of Trustees is conducting that "name change" process. Members of the Board appear to be proceeding in a way that is directly opposite to the way I think a healthy "politics" is actually supposed to work. 
For me, "politics" is a category that applies at the "community" level. "Politics" is the mechanism by which a community makes community-level decisions. Although we are all individuals, and each one of us has individual ideas about what is "good," and "bad," and about what should happen in our community, elected officials do not, generally, understand that their assignment is to do what they, individually, might think is best. They are elected, specifically, to "represent" the people to whom they are accountable, and most elected officials recognize that this is their basic obligation as an elected official.  

We live, in other words, in a "representative" democracy, and the idea is that we will elect people to "represent" us. Those who are elected are supposed to be trying to do what those whom they represent would like to have done.
This is a cardinal political rule, in the way I think of "politics." Elected officials should always be trying to do what the majority of the people they represent want them to do. Elected officials, in other words, are not expected to pursue and attempt to impose their own, personal, opinion if the community has a completely different preference. This is all the more true when lots of people really care about an issue upon which the elected officials must decide.
Of course, an elected official CAN ignore what the people who elected that representative want to see happen, and they CAN vote against what the people they represent would like them to do. Moreover, on lots of issues, most people in the community really don't much care, which means that elected officials have a broad ability to exercise their individual, personal judgment. 
However, when people DO care, an elected official who acts against what is wanted by a majority should expect to lose the next election, because the job of an elected official is to "represent" the voters to whom the elected representative is responsible. In fact, losing one's next election is, perhaps, a "best case" scenario from the elected official's point of view. The "worst case" scenario, for the elected official who decides to put the representative's personal preference against the preference of the people he or she represents, is that the official should expect to be recalled and removed from office immediately. 
Given this understanding of how "politics" works, it should be clear why I am puzzled by what I see happening in this Cabrillo College "name change" process.
At the start, changing the name of "Cabrillo College" to something else was not an issue about which lots of people were thinking. Now, though, lots of people are paying attention, and many feel, like Sandy Lydon, that the proposal to change the name of "their college" has "blindsided" them. In that situation, my idea of how "politics" works is that when this became obvious, members of the Cabrillo College Board of Trustees should have taken steps to make sure they really know what the people they represent want them to do. The few outreach meetings held don't really give that kind of guidance.
Whatever got the "name change" process started, and despite what I am sure is significant support for the proposed name change, it has become clear, during the course of the process, that there is a LOT of community opposition to the proposal to change the name of "Cabrillo College." Given that, making the wrong decision - going against what the majority of the community wants - can do real damage to the college. Many local residents, in fact, think that a "name change" is actually taking away something that belongs to them - something they worked hard for. "I got my degree from Cabrillo" is, in a very real way, an asset of value to thousands of Cabrillo graduates. 

Given this, the thing I would expect from an elected representative is that the elected representative would take steps, before taking any final vote, to make sure that the representative knows what the majority of the people that the elected official represents actually want that representative to do

This is NOT what a majority of those who serve on the elected Board of Trustees has done - and that is what is surprising to me. 

There are some pretty good arguments on "both sides" of the "name change" proposal. My impression, as I have already said, is that the majority don't want to change the Cabrillo College name, but I don't actually know that - and I don't think anyone else (including the elected members of the Board of Trustees) knows that either. 

In such a circumstance, the right thing to do, "politically," is for the Board of Trustees to let the community vote - either to provide "advice" to the elected representatives who are supposed to be trying to do what the community wants, or actually to make the decision, as a community, that the Board of Trustees has already made in the name of the community, i.e., that the name "Cabrillo College" will be stricken from the books. 

If the Board of Trustees doesn't take that approach - if they don't take steps to get a truly "representative" vote on the "name change" issue (and IF members of the public care as much as they appear to), those Members of the Board who are planning to change the name of the college in August should get ready for a recall election (worst case) or losing their reelection campaign next time around. 

For what it's worth, my "political" advice is that the Board of Trustees should put the name change to a vote of the community. In case you want to communicate with the Board Members, here's a list:

  • Donna Ziel, Area One -
  • Adam Spickler, Area 2 -
  • Christina Cuevas, Area 3 -
  • Rachel Spencer, Area 4 -
  • Martha Vega, Area 5 -
  • Dr. J. Dan Rothwell, Area 6 -

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