Kresge College: A village of independent voices

With its focus on student input and critical thinking, Kresge College—a hotbed for autonomy and creativity—attracts students who want to take creative and intellectual risks and forge their own paths

March 16, 2018


Kresge College, with its unique architecture and layout, provides a one-of-a-kind sense of place for adventurous students. Photos by Carolyn Lagattuta.
Artistic flourishes, including this brightly colored mural, add a splash of life to Kresge College.
Kresge's steps are one of the college's best known landmarks.

At Kresge College, everything is artfully askew. Buildings line the walking paths at unusual, seemingly random angles. The stairs connecting Kresge’s two main walkways tumble together in such a wild jumble of shapes that it feels like a stretch to call it a staircase.

Here and there, walls and ceilings pop with bright primary colors. It would be a mistake, however, to think that these features are a result of haphazard designers. Kresge’s bold construction, an early example of postmodern architecture, creates just the right environment for students who want to take creative and intellectual risks and forge their own paths.

Just ask Kresge’s provost, Associate Professor of Music Ben Leeds Carson, an exemplar of out-of-the box thinking who wrote an opera based on Star Trek that drew capacity crowds to the Music Center’s Recital Hall in the summer of 2016. “We’re a grassroots community in Kresge,” Carson said. “I know I can count on students to speak with conviction and passion, and to act with compassion.”

Kresge is not the kind of place where staff and faculty ignore student input. Instead, their voices are a key factor in decision-making. “Sometimes we do more following than leading,” Carson said, referring to professors and administrators deferring to student voices.

Carson holds weekly office hours for Kresge students to share their views and concerns. Students are major participants in the ongoing Kresge College renovation plan, which is updating Kresge structures with the goal of creating more housing.

With its focus on student input and critical thinking, it is no wonder that this hotbed for autonomy and creativity has incubated so many successful writers, activists, and entrepreneurs. Pulitzer Prize–winning Associated Press reporter and author Martha Mendoza (Kresge ‘88, individual major) is just one of the newsmakers who got her start here.

“As a Kresge student, and with mentorship of Kresge faculty Conn Hallinan, Roz Spafford, and Paul Skenazy, I was able to write my own major, pursuing my studies in journalism and education by taking the courses, internships, and independent studies that I was most interested in,” Mendoza said. “This was critical to my growth at that time.”

Other notable Kresge alumni include Douglas Foster (Kresge ‘76, individual major), professor of journalism at Northwestern University and contributor to The Atlantic; Laurie King (Kresge ‘77, religious studies), a detective fiction author; and Reyna Grande (Kresge ‘99, literature), who won the American Book Award for her novel Across a Hundred Mountains.

A number of the college’s faculty fellows are acclaimed writers and poets. One of Kresge’s 11 residential buildings is even called the Writer’s House, whose residents maintain a house blog and partner with the Literature Department to host regular creative writing workshops.

Roots of a campus ‘village’

When it was founded in 1971, the college was not intended to be a radical educational experiment, but it quickly become one anyway.

After a $650,000 donation from the Kresge Foundation—from the family who put the K in Kmart (the company was founded by S. S. Kresge)—UC Santa Cruz’s founding Chancellor Dean McHenry recruited Robert Edgar, an internationally known geneticist from Caltech, to be Kresge’s first provost.

Edgar, who had a strong interest in experimental undergraduate education and humanistic psychology, brought in the psychologist Michael Kahn to help run the college. With Edgar and Kahn in charge, the college became a center for radical education and democratic participation.

The first class ever offered at Kresge, Building Kresge College, was the precursor to Kresge’s current core course. It provided an interdisciplinary approach to the social sciences and was a venue for students who wanted to play an active role in how the college should function. Kresge’s leaders really meant it when they said that Kresge’s students should take part in college planning; in fact, during the early years, Kresge students helped control the $100,000 budget for college programming.

Students also wielded their influence by forming kin groups that met outside class to discuss academic and personal aspects of college life. This was a prime example of the early ethos of the college’s living/learning experiment. The social and emotional aspects of college life were meant to influence the cognitive aspects, and vice versa; classroom learning, and the day-to-day lives of students, were intertwined.


Even the structures in Kresge, including the famous steps, reflect the college’s independent nature. Designed by Charles Moore and William Turnbull, Kresge’s playful, bright colors and geometric shapes are a fresh response to the stripped-down modern style that was popular in the middle of the 20th century.

Kresge’s landmarks, including Kresge Town Hall, Upper Street, Lower Street, and the piazzetta—an Italian-style town square—all sound like things you’d find in a small town rather than a corner of a college campus. If UC Santa Cruz is a “city on a hill,” then Kresge is a village within those city walls.

Each design element reflects the social and academic values of the designers. The wide, meandering Lower Street, connecting the administrative and residential buildings, gives students plenty of room to wander. Students study at the tables scattered around Lower Street and in the piazzetta. As the path narrows along Upper Street toward Town Hall and the Owl’s Nest, Kresge’s restaurant, larger residential buildings cluster close together and create a more dynamic and social atmosphere, encouraging students to mingle.

A sense of autonomy

Kresge students have a long history of independent thinking. In fact, in 1990, they pushed this concept to its extreme by seceding from the rest of the university.

The catalyst was an ongoing debate, among campus administrators and faculty members, about the future of the campus’s iconic narrative evaluation system, which used written commentary on student learning and performance instead of traditional A through F grading. Kresge students wanted to keep narrative evaluations, arguing that they discouraged classroom competition and fostered a better sense of learning. Critics argued that they harmed the campus’s reputation, and that increasing class sizes made it much more difficult for professors to write meaningful assessments.

At the time, students were given the option of receiving a grade along with the evaluation or a “Pass/No Pass” designation. During the “secession” all non-Kresge students had to show their campus ID card when arriving in the college.

In 2001, UC Santa Cruz moved away from the narrative evaluation system when a majority of faculty voted for letter grades.

While the Kresgians abandoned their secession effort, they have never lost their autonomous personality, creativity, and vision.

Kresge has changed over the years but still retains its distinct atmosphere, including its strong emphasis on student autonomy, especially when it comes to buying and preparing food.

To this day, Kresge is the only college at UC Santa Cruz where first-year students live in apartments, complete with a kitchen.

The college also has its own grocery co-op and garden co-op. By producing and preparing their own food, Kresgians, as they call themselves, don’t need to rely on the dining hall or campus cafes for nourishment.

“We spend a lot of time talking about food because it’s a way that people can meet and connect with each other,” said  Max Jimenez (Kresge ‘19, community studies and politics). “That’s what makes Kresge special.”