Cabrillo College as seen from above.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Higher Ed

Want to weigh in about a Cabrillo College name change? Final community session set for Thursday

Cabrillo College officials have held a series of forums regarding a potential name change. Proponents say the college’s namesake enslaved Indigenous people and should no longer be honored. Opponents worry about the impact on their degrees and the cost — which could run up to $400,000. A final forum is scheduled for Thursday.

The 2020 killing of George Floyd and the protests that ensued sparked conversations nationwide about what — and who — should be memorialized with names of buildings and institutions. At Cabrillo College, the conversation continues, but not for much longer.

On Thursday at 6 p.m., a subcommittee dedicated to the issue will host its final community session prior to giving its findings to the larger board of trustees. The board itself is scheduled to decide whether or not to change the name next spring.

Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo explored the California coast in 1542 and created the oldest European-based record of the region. But, in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests, the larger college community has expressed problems with his darker past of enslaving and killing Indigenous people, saying his name should no longer be honored.

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Matthew Wetstein, the president and superintendent of the college, sits on the subcommittee, along with board of trustees members Christina Cuevas and Adam Spickler and student trustee Amidia Frederick. He said the group has prioritized gaining a larger understanding of the issue.

“It’s not going to be a fast decision,” Wetstein said. “It’s going to take time — and people are willing to participate through it.”

So far this month, the college has held four forums for students, staff, faculty and other community members. About 250 people have attended the virtual sessions in total.

Wetstein said he’s been pleased by the nuance he’s seen so far. Students, faculty and staff alike have expressed concern about Cabrillo’s impact on Indigenous groups and for social justice issues at large. Wetstein cited one student who described the potential name change as not changing history, but “getting history right.”

Members of the school’s Chicano/Latino Affairs Council have long advocated for a name change and plan to send a letter to the subcommittee reiterating their stance, according to Adela Najarro, an English professor.

“The name is a symbol of colonization, and so that’s what we have to eradicate,” said Najarro, who helps run the council. “We can’t celebrate that history.”

The opposing arguments to the name change typically fall into a few categories. Some graduates worry that a name change could devalue their degrees. Others argue the Cabrillo name is more firmly established with the college, not the person — who never actually set foot on the land where the college is now.

Some also worry that changing the name will cost too much, taking money from needed programs. The committee estimates that the costs, such as changing campus or road signs, could run as high as $400,000.

Wetstein said he has tried to emphasize that many of the hard material costs people bring up — such as getting new athletic uniforms or stationery — would not be affected by the change. Still, school officials have not specifically stated what would be impacted — if anything — by name-change costs.

Those against the change argue that the costs of rebranding the school outweigh the benefits — and they even argue that keeping the college’s name offers a chance for learning.

According to one student who submitted an essay in one of Najarro’s English classes: “By keeping the name of Cabrillo College, we force our staff and students to come to terms with this dark portion of our history, as teachers feel obligated to explore that part of the school’s legacy.”

Wetstein said arguments typically fall along demographic lines: the younger, more diverse crowd typically advocates for change, while the older, whiter groups often advocate for keeping the name the same.

According to Cuevas, the discussions have not been antagonistic and have offered a great forum for learning.

“Frankly, we were concerned about it generating a lot of divisiveness,” she said. “That’s not what we’re seeing in the meetings at all.”

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In addition to the forums, the committee plans to solicit community feedback by sending a survey to students, staff, faculty and anybody else who has participated throughout the process. The survey will ask whether or not they want to change the school’s name, and it will ask for suggestions of what it should be changed to.

If the elected board members vote to change the name, the college will embark on another period of community input on next steps. Some have suggested Indigenous names or geographic ones, such as “Aptos College.”

Wetstein noted that the Cabrillo name was chosen in the first place because it’s not geographic: “By not having a geographic name associated with a particular town, it actually helped unify support for the college. And so the irony today is that a unifying name at the founding of the college is now seen as a sort of divisive name.”

The Thursday forum will be held via Zoom from 6 to 7:30 p.m.