More than 280 faculty, students, alumni denounce layoffs at UCSC’s agroecology center

Plant Knowledge Event put on by the Asian-American Pacific Islander Resource Center and the Community Herb Garden.
AA/PI Plant Knowledge event put on by the Asian American Pacific Islander Resource Center and the Community Herb Garden in 2022 at the UCSC Center for Agroecology.
(Via Nick Gonzales / UC Santa Cruz)

Seeing five staffers, including two who spearheaded diversity and equity work, laid off as part of a broader reorganization “raised so many alarm bells for people,” one UC Santa Cruz provost said. “It’s been stressful, like I’ve been spirit-murdered,” said one student who described two of the laid-off staff members as mentors.

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Students, faculty and local agriculture educators are rallying around several staff members whose jobs were eliminated recently at UC Santa Cruz’s agroecology center. It’s a move many say was partly motivated by financial pressures, but one supporters say will damage the center’s hard-won efforts to build bridges with communities of color.

More than 280 people have signed a petition calling for UCSC’s Center for Agroecology to rehire two of the staff members who spearheaded diversity and equity work. The petition comes after five staffers were laid off as part of a broader reorganization.

The laid-off workers are: Farm Garden Assistant Manager Kellee Matsushita-Tseng, Community and Residential Life Coordinator Alex Roth-Dunn, Apprenticeship and Short Course Coordinator Pam McLeod, Ag Technician Dave Stimpson and Chadwick Garden Assistant Manager Ned Conwell.

The petition calls for Matsushita-Tseng and Roth-Dunn to be reinstated. A sixth position, for an assistant field manager who had recently resigned, was also dissolved, according to Matsushita-Tseng.

The Center for Agroecology was founded more than 50 years ago and is located north of the Cowell Ranch Historic Hay Barn and east of the UCSC Arboretum.

The center includes a 3-acre organic garden, known as the Alan Chadwick Garden, and a 30-acre organic farm known as the UCSC Farm. Housed in the Social Sciences division, the center’s faculty teach agroecology courses. Staff host apprenticeship programs, as well as collaborate with researchers to study farming and food systems in addition to managing the land. Agroecology is the academic study of all parts of the food system, including ecological, economic and social dimensions, according to the center.

Aerial photo of the Center for Agroecology in 2022.
Aerial photo of the Center for Agroecology in 2022.
(Via Nick Gonzales / UC Santa Cruz)

Even as the university’s demographics have been shifting over the past 10 years — more than 60% of students identify as minorities — the center has struggled to be a space that welcomes students of color and queer students, according to half a dozen staff members and UCSC faculty and students who talked to Lookout for this story.

Several UCSC students and faculty, as well as petition-signers, say that changed with the hiring of Matsushita-Tseng in 2016 and Roth-Dunn in March 2022.

Matsushita-Tseng, a queer Japanese-Chinese American from Los Angeles who uses she/they pronouns, spearheaded significant changes, such as bringing the Black Lives Matter Garden from a secluded alley onto the UCSC Farm in 2016 to increase access. Matsushita-Tseng also started the Food Justice and Equity Scholarship to bring more apprentices of color to the center’s apprenticeship program and built relationships with students and faculty in the Critical Race and Ethnic Studies department, among other groups.

Roth-Dunn is a Black trans man who grew up in Louisville, Kentucky. In addition to his role as the apprenticeship community coordinator, he was the center’s Social Justice Action Committee chair. As chair, he was building relationships with the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band — whose chairman, Val Lopez, is among those who signed the petition to retain Matsushita-Tseng and Roth-Dunn.

“The work that’s being done is about healing, trying to be more anti-colonial, in terms of the relationships with land, by centering BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) cultures and relationships to place and foodways,” said Flora Lu, UCSC’s John R. Lewis College provost and professor of environmental studies. “This is incredibly, hugely important work as a campus that is trying to now bridge its long-standing commitments of social justice and environmental sustainability.”

That’s why, Lu said, these layoffs came as a shock and this group launched the petition.

Social Sciences dean Katharyne Mitchell said in a statement to Lookout last week that the layoffs were part of a necessary restructuring to improve programming. Staff said the plan was implemented by both Mitchell and the center’s new executive director, Darryl Wong.

Kellee Matsushita-Tseng prepares plants in the greenhouse at the UCSC Center for Agroecology in 2021.
Kellee Matsushita-Tseng prepares plants in the greenhouse at the UCSC Center for Agroecology in 2021.
(Via Nick Gonzales / UC Santa Cruz)

“Following extensive stakeholder input and an outside review, the Center for Agroecology has developed an intentional, strategic focus to increase its programming centered on food equity and security and serve diverse and underserved populations in agriculture,” Mitchell wrote. “I believe Darryl has a clear vision for how to increase collaboration across campus and to strengthen the center’s leadership in food equity.”

In a public letter about the plan, Mitchell also said a $2.5 million donation spread out over five years would be ending. Former chancellor George R. Blumenthal set up the donation, which included $100,000 from him and $400,000 from other donors annually for each of the five years.

The university didn’t respond to questions about what the administration did to prepare for the loss of the donation.

In fiscal year 2021-22, the center operated on a $2,867,718 budget, 78% of which went toward salary and benefits. The agroecology center has its own budget, with the campus providing less than 20% of its funding and the Social Sciences division providing funds for 3.45 staff positions. Income, grants and donations make up the rest of the funding.

Mitchell wrote in the letter that the center launched a yearlong “period of internal reflection and discussion” about its future in 2019 after it changed executive directors. It later underwent an external review conducted by three outside experts before embarking on a restructuring plan.

The restructuring plan included “reworking staff positions that were strictly focused on crop production,” Mitchell wrote. It also creates three new positions: an agroecology program specialist, a field production and education manager and a facilities specialist.

The center’s website lists a staff of 20 currently, and the university says that with the three new positions it will employ 16 staff members.

Mitchell wrote that the center’s existing staff were encouraged to apply for the new positions, which would “have more competitive salaries” than the jobs that are being eliminated. Two of the newly created positions require experience understanding the needs of diverse and underserved populations in agriculture, she wrote.

“The center remains committed to building and strengthening relationships across campus and in the community, especially with people from historically marginalized communities,” UCSC spokesperson Scott Hernandez-Jason said in an emailed statement Friday.

Matsushita-Tseng and Roth-Dunn’s last day on the job is set for March 3. Matsushita-Tseng has accepted a position elsewhere and Roth-Dunn was offered a job and is moving to Berkeley. Shortly after receiving the news of the layoffs, Roth-Dunn’s rental in Soquel was flooded in the New Year’s Eve storm. He was living there with his partner and has been in temporary housing since.

Alex Roth-Dunn talks about the UCSC Center for Agroecology.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz )

“We’re trying to just do the best that we can with what we have and keep the happy — maintain the positive,” said Roth-Dunn. “Despite it all, we just try to laugh it off.”

When he found out about the layoffs, Roth-Dunn said he was told that his role was paid for through the donation set up by former chancellor Blumenthal.

“They knew that this money was ending this year, that my salary was covered under it — and they didn’t tell me that. They weren’t explicit with me in that in my interview and throughout any of my application process,” he said. “They didn’t tell me my position was dependent on this funding, and that there is a possibility that [they] may not have it come next year.”

He said the layoffs have caused incredible stress and anxiety.

Like Roth-Dunn, Matsushita-Tseng was also in the midst of having to find new housing. She said her apartment complex was sold to a new owner, and amid the transfer of ownership, Matsushita-Tseng was told she had to move out.

“There’s just the kind of extreme stress of being in a housing crisis and needing to look for a new place while having this unknown employment situation,” she said.

She is also concerned about what will happen to all the programming and relationships she built.

“It really depends on whether there’s anybody in the space that has the interest and ability to build and develop spaces that are really guided by the students as well as connecting to the greater community,” Matsushita-Tseng said.

She said she was told the layoffs were due to financial losses, the need to eliminate union positions and a goal to improve programming for students of color.

A community gathering and ceremony honoring ancestors in the Black Lives Garden on the UCSC campus in 2017.
A community gathering and ceremony honoring ancestors in the Black Lives Garden on the UCSC campus in 2017.
(Via Kellee Matsushita-Tseng)

Matsushita-Tseng said this was “ironic” considering that staff members “students have been complaining about for being unable to deliver meaningful content for decades have been retained.”

Lu said the restructuring plan is “beyond disruptive” for the social justice programming and initiatives the laid-off staffers started.

Matsushita-Tseng “is somebody who builds bridges, who does the work, who pitches in, who understands these issues, and is so deeply committed to our students, and food justice work,” said Lu. “When we heard that Kellee was going to be laid off, as well as Alex, it just raised so many alarm bells for people.”

Lu said she understands the financial reasons for the restructuring but that the way it was carried out was brusque and lacked transparency. She added that the layoffs were at odds with the center’s goals of reinventing itself as a space that both embraces agroecology innovation and the diversity, equity and inclusion needs of students.

“There have been students who are working so hard, who are advocating so intentionally and intensively for critical spaces on campus to confront what has been called the unrelenting anti-Blackness here at UC,” said Lu. “This just seems so at odds with what we are saying that we’re doing.”

Lu worked alongside Christine Hong, chair of the Critical Race and Ethnic Studies department, in an attempt to help the center come up with a better restructuring plan and avoid laying off Matsushita-Tseng and Roth-Dunn. Hong said Matsushita-Tseng was “the anchor of all the community-grounded, land-based education” at the center.

Other people who have signed the petition include former Watsonville City Councilmember Francisco “Paco” Estrada, UCSC assistant professor of biomolecular engineering Karen Miga, staff, faculty, students and former apprentices from the center’s apprenticeship program.

Two of the students who have recently been working with Matsushita-Tseng and Roth-Dunn told Lookout they’re heartbroken over their layoffs.

Esmeralda Gonzalez, 21, has been working directly with Matsushita-Tseng since she became a garden assistant in July. A fourth-year student, she’s studying agroecology and environmental studies. She said working with Matsushita-Tseng was inspiring and her way of teaching was uplifting.

“When you present an idea, Kellee doesn’t just say, ‘no.’ They try to communicate with you about what you’re thinking,” she said. “Kellee is an uplifting person.”

Airielle Silva, 19, who was hired as the BLM Garden steward through the Chancellor’s Undergraduate Internship Program, said Matsushita-Tseng and Roth-Dunn were their mentors. Silva uses she/they pronouns. They said while other people have stepped in to offer guidance in their absence, Silva isn’t sure what mentoring will look like next year. Despite the challenges, Silva is determined to continue their projects.

“It’s been stressful, like I’ve been spirit-murdered,” they said. “It’s absolutely exhausting, and a lot of tears have been shed.”

FOR THE RECORD: This story has been updated to reflect that Francisco “Paco” Estrada is a former city councilmember.

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