Atkinson naming scandal exposes flaws in the system

Normally, another toothless resolution from the A.S. Council would be cause for laughter and derision, but hopefully in this case the council will be taken seriously and some action will be taken as a result. A resolution passed unanimously during the council’s April 20 meeting calls for university officials to halt the naming of Sixth College “Atkinson College,” after former UC President and UCSD Chancellor Richard Atkinson, due to the complete and abject failure on the part of university officials to solicit student input with regards to the name.

Eugene Wu

But it gets better. The university makes plenty of nasty decisions without consulting students, such as the decision to remove student parking from all on-campus lots. But in the case of naming Sixth College, the university tried to sugarcoat its decision by enlisting a single student representative to the Sixth College Executive Committee in charge of the naming decision, and then misinformed that single student about the voting time so that the student could not be a part of the decision. The university effectively forced through a hasty and politicized decision.

One could easily look at these charges and see them as simple coincidence, laziness or a bureaucratic hiccup, but the truth is much more sinister. When considered with the Sixth College Executive Committee’s decision not to solicit student input despite strong and constant protests, this failure to ensure student representation was an effort to den all opposition and push the decision through — not just a simple misunderstanding. Ask any student representative from Sixth College, and you’ll hear more of the same: that the university was “trying to keep the protests quiet,” and that “students weren’t even supposed to find out about this until the summer break.” Which makes it all the more admirable that our outgoing A.S. Council has done exactly the opposite and thrown the debate wide open, catching administrators with their collective pants down.

Scandals over the naming of UCSD’s colleges are nothing new: During the naming of what is now Thurgood Marshall College, students and administrators were in constant spats over whether or not the college should be named in honor of Patrice Lumumba and Emiliano Zapata, in keeping with the college’s theme of promoting awareness and diversity. Finally, all parties managed to agree on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as a namesake for the college, but the King estate absolutely would not allow use of the name due to the UCSD administration’s long and varied history of squashing student protests. So another, less interesting minority figure was chosen, and Marshall College was named.

But what makes the present case more interesting is the fact that Sixth College’s name is being pushed through so fast; if it really does become “Atkinson College” in the fall, it will be only second to Revelle College as the fastest-named school at UCSD.

The despicable process of naming aside, are the student protests over the name of Sixth College valid? After all, Atkinson was a key figure in the University of California until a few years back, and his membership in various national science committees shows he at least knows a bit about the “technology” term in Sixth College’s stated theme of “Culture, Art and Technology.”

But ask any Sixth College student and you’ll hear a different story, for by and large they are studying Culture, Art, and Technology for quite a different reason than Atkinson and have much loftier goals than to be bureaucrats running a college. Like John Muir College students who can look up to the rugged individualism of the man who saved Yosemite, or Eleanor Roosevelt College students who can look up to the woman who revolutionized politics and compassion, Sixth College students deserve an artist and an innovator worthy of them. Somebody like George Lucas, or Leonardo Da Vinci, or any of the thousands of artists throughout history who have pushed the limit of technology through their artistic attempts. Hell, even “Carrot Top College” is a more appropriate fit than “Richard Atkinson College,” for at least Carrot Top invented a thing or two before his inevitable decline into loneliness and AT&T commercials.

So, if Atkinson is such a poor fit as a namesake for Sixth College, why was he chosen? The official press release from Sixth College gives plenty of excuses, but the real reason Atkinson was chosen is that, in his day, he contributed to UCSD while serving as UCSD chancellor and UC president. But this is a reason to name a building after him, not a college. UCSD’s first chancellors — Herbert F. York, John S. Galbraith and William J. McGill — all have buildings bearing their names, not colleges named after them. A more recent example is Irwin Jacobs, president of San Diego technology leader Qualcomm, who has his name on several buildings and facilities due to his unyielding support of UCSD’s growth. To be fair, Mr. Jacobs also has a “college” named after him, Jacobs School of Engineering, but as an engineer and leader in mobile technology, at least he is better to look up to than a school administrator. Also, he paid for the school.

It is because of these grave student doubts over the validity of an “Atkinson College” that school officials forced the decision through in their own sneaky way. Students have valid concerns as a result, and it is extremely admirable that our student representatives on the A.S. Council took the initiative to step in to try to halt this railroading of UCSD’s “future heritage.” It remains to be seen whose efforts will be successful, for school administrators have a lot of UCSD’s past heritage on their side. The takeover of RIMAC (a student-initiated and student-paid endeavor with no student representation), the takeover of the student co-op businesses, the naming of Thurgood Marshall College, the loss of student parking — all are past examples of student representation being manipulated or stamped out for political reasons.

Maybe this time will be different, or maybe not. But at least the die has been cast, and the battle over the future of Sixth College has begun.