‘Now that we know better, we do better’: Cabrillo College will no longer be named after Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo

Cabrillo College's Aptos campus.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Following a recommendation from a Cabrillo College board subcommittee last week to change the name, the board of trustees voted Monday evening to change the school’s name. The college launched a name exploration project in July 2020.

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Cabrillo College’s board of trustees voted 7-1 Monday night to change the name of the community college, citing the continuing harm the school’s eponym, European explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, has on students because of the legacy of colonialism.

“Changing the name of the school is about telling a fuller, truer history,” said trustee Donna Ziel, who added that she was quoting the words of a student. Ziel voted in favor of the name change. “Renaming it doesn’t mean we failed, it means our education is working.”

The college plans to select a new name by August 2023 and engage the community to decide what the new name will be.

“I think the only ‘no’ we’ve come up with now is not an individual’s name,” said trustee Christina Cuevas, speaking on behalf of the subcommittee that recommended a name change in a report last week. “To be something that’s more inspirational, that’s related to our values or to the land and the geography that we have — but not an individual.”

Cuevas added that the committee doesn’t have anything more specific planned about the process or timeline for finding a new name just yet.

Higher education institutions across the country, including Cabrillo, have seen a wave of requests to remove legacies of colonialism, slavery and racism from their campuses after the murder of George Floyd in May 2020.

After receiving a petition signed by more than 100 people to change the name in July 2020, the college created a subcommittee to explore what a name change would mean for the college. That included surveys asking the community what it wanted, researching the costs of the name change and diving into who Cabrillo was and what impact his legacy continues to have.

Cabrillo, who historians say was born either in Spain or Portugal, led an expedition to the California coast in 1542. His exploration and the description of the West Coast from that trip is considered the first European written record of that region and helped pave the way for the colonial conquest of California and the violent treatment and enslavement of native people.

Trustee Dan Rothwell voted in favor of renaming the college, calling it “the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make.”

“The real issue to me came down to finally moral and ethical. And I can’t get out of my mind that the fact is Cabrillo was a pretty bad dude,” he said. “We have that name attached to our institution that we revere so much.”

Trustee Steve Trujillo said the decision to drop Cabrillo from the college’s name was the correct one. “I was shocked that the college would be named for him,” Trujillo said after learning about Cabrillo’s history.

Rachael Spencer was the lone trustee to vote against the name change, saying that the school had not done enough research and community consultation before holding Monday night’s vote. She said the report the subcommittee published ahead of the vote was an “inside report” that emphasized faculty and staff’s perspectives more than the community’s.

“This is a community college, not a faculty and staff college,” she said. “I would say that before we progress to change the name, that we go into the community and explain to the community where you’re coming from.”

Concerns and responses to the cost of a name change

Cuevas spoke to CEOs of community colleges that have undergone name changes, who told her the process cost them between $400,000 and $800,000, depending on how they went about the changes.

About 20% of people who wrote emails or letters opposing the name change cited cost as the main factor. Opponents said money should go toward student services rather than a name change.

Cuevas and Cabrillo College President Matt Wetstein assured people that funding for the name change would come neither from the college’s general fund nor the Cabrillo Foundation. Rather, they said the school plans to seek out philanthropic organizations that are focused on anti-racism and equity issues.

The college plans to “really hit the pavement to try to find the funds from external sources as a way to pay for this,” said Wetstein, who supports the name change. “I think that [funding] is there. I think it’s just going to require a commitment to go out and have individual donations from donors who are willing to do this kind of work and support it.”

Wetstein said delaying the name change until August would give the school a chance to plan a fundraising campaign.

More on the Name Exploration Subcommittee process

The Name Exploration Subcommittee’s process conducted surveys between October 2021 and March 2022 to gauge the community’s interest in changing the name.

They surveyed students, employees and supporters of the Cabrillo Foundation. More than half of respondents, 52%, opposed a name change, while 34.9% were in favor. (The remainder were neutral on the question.) Just over 30% of the respondents were students and 37% of respondents were over the age of 60.

However, the surveys were limited and didn’t represent the Cabrillo community, as they included just 818 respondents and had a larger percentage of older individuals. Still, Wetstein and the subcommittee highlighted several takeaways.

For example, younger respondents were more likely to support renaming the school, along with two-thirds of Native American respondents (67%) supporting changing the name.

Along with citing the cost of renaming the school, opponents of the change said they felt that the college was trying to rewrite history.

Wetstein summarized those concerns: “You can’t change history. History is immutable, and therefore you should not change the name.”

On the other hand, people who supported the name change often made statements about social responsibility. Wetstein summarized their feedback as: “Knowing that colonization harmed Indigenous populations, why would we keep the name?”

Or, as a respondent who had been involved with Cabrillo for four decades put it, Wetstein recalled, “Now that we know better, we should do better.”

In response to the concerns about rewriting history, trustee and subcommittee member Adam Spickler said that is not the intent.

“It’s quite the opposite,” he said. “We have a responsibility to not just simply tell history in an ongoing way, but to uphold those whose values historically aligned with where we are, and not to uphold and reward those who’ve done things historically that we disagree with. It’s not to say, ‘Don’t tell the history,’ it’s to find a way to balance it.”

Public comment leans toward changing name

Public comment lasted for about an hour Monday and included about 20 students, donors to the Cabrillo Foundation, faculty and community members. A majority spoke in support of the name change. Many noted that if the college was to be founded today, it would not choose the name Cabrillo.

Opponents argued that changing the name when the surveys showed that most people wanted to keep it would jeopardize school funding. Many argued that it will only make passing bonds more difficult.

Gary Reece, who spent 25 years as a Cabrillo trustee, said the board should contract a professional polling company to conduct community surveys to ask if community members support a name change, and if they do, if they would support a bond.

“Only then could the board begin to assess the very real effect the name change would have on future bond campaigns,” he said.

One of the several students who spoke was Amber Rose-Torres. She spoke on behalf of the Indigenous Club on campus, saying club members support a name change.

She said making this change is essential for the college in order for it to uphold its values of equality and inclusiveness.

“It goes without saying that as an Indigenous woman, we’re still here. The intergenerational trauma is real,” she said. “For Indigenous people, this is a time of healing and reclamation of our humanity, and uprising for revitalization of our cultures and lifeways that will continue to sustain us for generations to come.”


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