The College of Letters and Science Turns 60
The College of Letters and Science today is bustling with students and faculty, new buildings and innovative programs. Sixty years ago—when the college was founded with just five fledgling majors—it was still a busy place, but on a very different scale. In 1951, as UC Davis transitioned from a rural agricultural school to the thriving research university it is today, few could have known what a crucial role the brand-new College of Letters and Science would play in shaping its growth and rise to become one of the nation’s top public universities.
The Early Years
In the long-ago Farm School days, the College of Letters and Science only offered basic general education courses. By the postwar years, however, the school had expanded, laying the groundwork for five departments (English, history, botany, chemistry and zoology) to become the College of Letters and Science in 1951. The new college was headed by Herbert A. Young, a chemistry professor who became the college’s first dean; he remained in that role until 1964 and Young oversaw the rapid expansion of the college.
In 1951, UC Davis’ total student population was just 1,562 students. Of those enrolling that fall, only 76 were Letters and Science majors. The college graduated its first majors in 1952; Shirley Downie, a zoology major who graduated that year, recalls that just five College of Letters and Science graduates received their diplomas in a commencement ceremony held in a sunken garden south of the library.
Downie—who met her husband of 60 years while working her way through school at the cafeteria—recollects a simpler, smaller campus. She paid tuition and fees of $46.50 per semester, which included admission to football games as well as health care. “$46.50 was a lot of money for me!” she says.
Another alumnus, Roy Bishop — a history major who entered the university in 1951—similarly worked his way through school, living on campus and unable to afford much for entertainment—not that the town of Davis offered a lot of excitement.
“To give you an idea of how small Davis was, for a date, my friend Joan and I would bicycle out in the country to the Milk Farm restaurant, near Dixon,” Bishop remembers. “The sign is still there [visible from I-80], but the restaurant is long gone. That was our big date! And then there were taffy pulls and Picnic Day — back then, we had hayrides and we’d walk by Putah Creek.”
Social life on campus in the earliest days was constrained by an uneven ratio of women to men. “All the war veterans were back to college, and they wanted to make up for those lost years and get on with their life,” recalls Downie. “There were a lot more fellows than women—1,500 students, and a couple of hundred girls. That wasn’t too bad!”
Professor Emeritus of Physics John Jungerman remembers seeing a similar ratio among students in his classes: “Female students were treated like queens by the male student population,” he says with a laugh. “I think the ratio was about 7 to 1. By the late ‘50s, though, there was a pretty even number of women and men. A lot of women came to the College of Letters and Science because the majors were more attractive to them.”
Those majors, as they developed, were rigorous. “We spent a lot of time studying!” recalls Downie. Bishop concurs, remembering his coursework as a history major. He also appreciated the personal attention and mentoring available at the time.
“It felt like a very small program,” Bishop says. “At UC Davis, I got the opportunity to get a higher education that I’d never thought I’d ever get. No one in my family had ever gone to college. Some had finished high school. So it was an achievement just to get through college, and I got through with honors. I think it’s largely because of the people at the university at the time. They had the personal touch, and they took an interest in making sure I was okay.”
Although the campus of the early 1950s may have seemed quiet, the college’s foundation was marked by a burst of energy as UC Davis expanded to become a general university serving a larger student body made up of California’s growing population. New faculty members were attracted by the opportunity to build new programs and departments from the ground up, as Jungerman recalls. “It was kind of liberating to have the whole future before you, so you could form it rather than trying to work yourself into some established institution,” he says. “When I came to UC Davis, I had a feeling of freedom. The whole world was available. I used to keep a graph of the number of students in the college. It increased about one-third every year for half a dozen years.”
Faculty and resources grew, too. Physics, a department of three faculty when Jungerman was hired in 1951, was originally housed in an old garage (now the art annex) along with the new music (founded by music professor Jerome Rosen who recently passed away) and philosophy departments. Physics was combined with mathematics in the early days and it was hampered by a lack of research equipment: “Of course, there was nothing to work with compared to being in the Radiation Laboratory in the Department of Physics at UC Berkeley,” says Jungerman. “When I came [to UC Davis from UC Berkeley], the chair of the combined math and physics departments prided himself on giving money back to the administration at the end of the year!” In the mid-1950s, however, the physics department—with support from the administration and help from UC Berkeley—began to grow rapidly, adding a Ph.D. program and a large new cyclotron. Jungerman was the first director of UC Davis’ Crocker Nuclear Laboratory, and the building housing the lab was recently renamed John A. Jungerman Hall. Today, the physics department is one of the top-ranked in the nation.
Professor Emeritus of German Clifford Bernd—who came to UC Davis in 1964, and retired this summer as the longest-serving faculty member at the university—recalls similar growth. Bernd, who came from a position at Princeton, was attracted to UC Davis by the opportunities it presented. When he was first recruited, he had never heard of UC Davis, and thought he would turn down the opportunity. But then, he says, “I asked several others, and they said you better take that position fast. I said, ‘What kind of a place is Davis?’ They said, ‘Oh, it’s in California; it’s expanding greatly and they've got lots of money. Super!’” And by the early 1960s, following the implementation of California’s master plan for higher education, there was indeed more money available to expand the university. “There were flourishing conditions here at the time,” Bernd recalls. When he arrived, there was a single foreign languages department; soon, it was soon broken into three major departments, and a Ph.D. program was founded. Similar changes were implemented in many other departments—a key part of the growth that has made the College of Letters and Science what it is today.
The College of Letters and Science may have started small, but today it has grown to be the largest of the ten colleges and professional schools at UC Davis. It offers more than half of the university’s majors to more than 9,000 College of Letters and Science undergraduate and 1,400 graduate students, and employs nearly 600 faculty members. Over the past 60 years, the number of alumni has grown to 75,000—more than the entire population of the city of Davis today.
Thanks to those loyal alumni, in 2010-11 the college received nearly $8 million in philanthropic support. And in 2009-10, its faculty received $43 million in research awards. Those donations and grants have helped research and education grow and thrive in the College of Letters and Science despite today’s challenging budgetary climate.
The college today includes three divisions: Humanities, Arts, and Cultural Studies; Mathematical and Physical Sciences; and Social Sciences. Each of these areas is governed by its own dean. And all three divisions boast significant achievements. Prestigious, high-profile institutes, projects and research centers bridge the disciplines and include the Center for Mind and Brain, the California Lighting and Technology Center, and the UC Davis Humanities Institute. College faculty leadership in such international research efforts as the Large Hadron Collider and the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope exemplify the areas of excellence that are throughout the college. The arts, too, continue a tradition of excellence; the college counts well-known artists such as Wayne Thiebaud among its emeritus faculty, and Deborah Butterfield and Bruce Nauman among its alumni.
Famous writers associated with the college include Yiyun Li, associate professor of English and a recent MacArthur Award recipient and poet Gary Snyder, professor emeritus of English. Other star faculty members include evolutionary psychologist Sarah Hrdy, professor emerita of anthropology; Geerat Vermeij, distinguished professor of geology and a MacArthur Award recipient; Leah Krubitzer, professor of psychology and also a MacArthur Award recipient; and Pulitzer Prize-winner Professor of History Alan Taylor.
A Bright Future
With such a distinguished faculty, talented student body, and diverse range of disciplines, it’s no wonder the College of Letters and Science continues on a path towards a bright future for generations to come. But given the current budget climate, both challenges and opportunities lie ahead, according to UC Davis’ new Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor Ralph J. Hexter.
Hexter came to UC Davis in January 2011 after serving as president of Hampshire College, a small liberal-arts college, and before that as executive dean at UC Berkeley’s College of Letters and Science. In an interview, Hexter—a classicist by training—said that he sees the broad education provided by the College of Letters and Science as a foundational part of all university students’ education, whatever their home disciplines might be.
“There is a continuum of education at the university, from more fundamental education in the College of Letters and Science, to more translational education such as in the Colleges of Engineering, Biological Sciences, or Agricultural and Environmental Sciences,” he says. “No matter where a student might sit along this continuum, it is important that all students have the basics. Chief amongst them is the ability to write well. Writing clearly is the best marker and testimony to clear thinking.” The University Writing Program, one of the top in the nation according to US News and World Report, is housed in the College of Letters and Science and offers writing courses for all of the disciplines in the university.
Looking forward, says Hexter, the College of Letters and Science will provide an education that benefits students for generations to come: “What may be new is the need to understand the cultures and histories of all fellow global citizens,” he says. “Whether a student is in the College of Letters and Science or not, he or she will use the resources in the College of Letters and Science to gain insight and promote a growing understanding of our world as it is today, and how it may be in the future. The Chancellor and I want to see more undergraduates have a truly international experience in their time at UC Davis. The evolution of our new global view means that all students will be well served by learning a language other than English.”
According to Hexter, the future of the College of Letters and Science lies precisely in educating such global leaders and in innovative new interdisciplinary partnerships—a way of capitalizing on the breadth of excellence at UC Davis. “We must not dilute our resources, but we can see areas of study in the future that cross domains—for instance, anthropology and law,” he reflects. “There is a new human rights minor, residing in the College of Letters and Science, that is both fundamental in its study of philosophy and ethics, and translational into the very aspects of our humanity.”
Such partnerships and exciting new educational fields represent an enormous future opportunity for the college’s scholars, he says. “Our resources are strained, but the communications revolution has led to demands in productivity. We are only at the first stages of understanding what this total availability of information means for us,” he says. “It is a challenge and opportunity for faculty to do really inventive and new forms of teaching.”
Opportunities abound for the college. Ambitious plans include the Campaign for UC Davis, a fundraising initiative that aims to raise $1 billion for the university and $70 million for the college alone. That $70M will help fund a new art museum to showcase UC Davis’ $30 million collection and serve as a teaching space for students in the study of the visual arts; a recital hall to address the university’s need for additional performance and teaching spaces; more endowed chairs to support the university’s mission to cultivate the research and teaching of top faculty; and student scholarships and fellowships, among other exciting goals.
As the College of Letters and Science faces the challenges of educating an ever-growing population of students requiring a top-notch global education, the students and faculty of today’s college may find that they have more in common with early days of the college’s founding than they might think. Today’s College of Letters and Science commencements have a lot more than five students (three annual ceremonies to celebrate the graduation of 3,000 students per year); the physics department has long since moved out of a garage; you can’t bicycle to the Milk Farm for a date; and add at least two zero’s next to the 1951 tuition of $46.50. But the adventurous, entrepreneurial, can-do spirit that characterized the College of Letters and Science from its earliest days is alive and thriving on campus today, and it’s that spirit that will lead the college to even greater growth and successes in its next 60 years.