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Features May 2004: Volume 1, Number 2
   

Piano Playing Provost
by Raymond Hardie

 
     

Cecil Lytle is the youngest of 11 children. His father was the janitor of two apartment buildings in Harlem, New York, and the church organist at Ebenezer Baptist Church. Lytle was a music professor at Grinell College in Iowa before joining UCSD’s music department in 1974. He has also been a visiting professor and artist-in-residence at the Darmstadt Music Festival and the Beijing Conservatory of Music. He has played in venues ranging from Jazz Clubs to the Boston Pops and has recorded 19 albums and CDs. He became provost of Third College in 1988.

@UCSD Magazine: When did the name change from Third College to Thurgood Marshall?

Provost Lytle: In 1993. It was an issue that was never properly settled. Third College opened in 1970. It was essentially founded by students and progressive faculty. Herbert Marcuse was one of them. Angela Davis was a Ph.D. Student at the time.
When I became provost I felt that having a college with a number represented a degree of unfinished business, and it was difficult as I approached funding agencies. They would ask, ‘What is the name of it?’ And I’d say, ‘Well, it’s the Third one.’ They’d say, ‘And what’s its name?’ ‘That’s its name, Third College.’ And it gets associated with third-rate, third world and gets all confused. So it was one of the first things I wanted to have the faculty and students address. And it was difficult, because by that point there were 16 years of alumni out there and they were quite faithful and loyal.
 

M: Was it originally going to be named after Martin Luther King?

L: We were talking with Coretta King but at the last minute she changed her mind. She was in negotiations with Morehouse colleges in Atlanta, to rename them in honor of King, an alumnus of Morehouse. To be quite honest I think Thurgood Marshall is actually a more appropriate name for this college. The retirement of Justice Marshall was a great opportunity to address all of the ideals that had been birthed and nurtured at Third College—concerns for social justice and academic excellence. I’m absolutely of the belief that education should be a transformative act, and Justice Marshall believed that, too.
 

M: How is Marshall different from the other colleges?

L: This College has always had a forward lean about it. It’s a mantle that Marcuse and the students including Angela Davis took on 40 years ago. And I think my two predecessors Joe Watson and Faustina Solis felt that part of our mission was sort of expeditionary, that students should not graduate from this college without having been touched and having touched the community in effective ways.
 

M: How is a word like “expeditionary” translated into coursework?

L: The Marshall curriculum gives the students an option of substituting one of their upper division breadth courses for a public service requirement. If you go into the community and tutor, say at an elementary school, we will take one of the course requirements out of the upper division electives. Our model here at Marshall College is that the student is a scholar and a citizen. These two are meshed together.
 

M: What is Dimensions of Culture?

L: I credit Professor Michael Schudson (department of communication) for being the godfather of DOC. In the middle ’80s to early ’90s there was a ragbag of interesting individual courses and Michael Schudson, Michael Monteon from the history department, and Amy Bridges from political science asked if that was an intellectual experience that made sense. I asked them to think how we could make or frame a grander stand-alone course for 4,000 students. They came up with Diversity-Justice-Imagination, the Dimensions of Culture, DOC. It was something that was coherent and spoke to these issues, but spoke to them in a deeply intellectual way.
 

M: Do you foresee any changes in the curriculum?

L: We are considering mandating a public service internship for Thurgood Marshall students. Right now we have 300-400 students taking the public service internships, supervised by faculty. If we make it a requirement for all 4,000 students, then imagine the tsunami, the unleashing of thousands of altruistic, energetic and bright young people into this community to tutor, teach, work with Head Start programs.
 

M: Why do we need a college system in the University?

L: We ask the most fragile here, our very bright freshmen, to encounter this place. And what we give them is a very friendly, intimate small-college introduction to a powerful institution, so that a student can feel comfortable, cared for. Someone on my staff knows every student in this college. So if you want to get lost, you really have to work at it. And some do.

I also still believe that real education happens in the dorm room, when you have four or five kids taking the same class in the same lecture, reading the same materials, and then they sit up to 2 a.m. arguing about it.

The college system that Roger Revelle and others came up with is an ingenious device.

 

M: How have students changed over the years?

L: I think students today are much better prepared in skills. If you ask them to do a task, write a paper, read this book, study, they know how to do it. But it seems that they’re also less curious about the world. That may be because of a phenomenon that psychologists are calling parents-as-coaches. Parents raise a child to win. It’s not about the acquisition of knowledge but about winning the event. I think that’s lamentable, but in a way we demand skills. We install SATs, we install GPAs, and we treat them like scriptures. We go strictly by the numbers.

I think it’s our task to take these skills, and recombine and reconfigure them in ways that make an intellectual. That’s what the college should do.

 

M: And how does the college system need to evolve?

L: The tricky part is maintaining the degree of intimacy. The state’s growing, and as it grows, the University grows. We’re becoming an ever more exclusive population of people, from a very particular class background. We are looking more and more like Stanford than City College of New York. So we have to find ways of bringing the rest of society along. I think part of the challenge at this point is to be a benevolent pain in the ass and to constantly remind ourselves, as well as our students and faculty, that in the pursuit of this idea of excellence, we are denying our responsibility to make sure all students can achieve it. And that was the motivating force that drove me, Bud Mehan (sociology professor and director of UCSD Create) and Julian Betts (professor of economics), to create the Preuss charter school.
 

M: Are you alluding to lack of ethnic diversity?

L: What we’re seeing is that while we may be getting some small degree of ethnic diversity at the University, it is social and cultural not class diversity. So our concern at Thurgood Marshall is not in getting a requisite number of people of this particular color or this gender, but that there are kids of all colors, poor white kids too, who can’t get into UCSD. The University and the Regents decided to raise the minimum GPA eligibility requirement, and that had repercussions in hundreds of thousands of homes.

Every time we raise the bar, there’s another 100,000 kids who can’t apply. And our dedication to our outreach programs has to be not just to the students who are here, but to the students who could have been and who want to be here, and unfortunately aren’t. Those decisions we make to raise the eligibility, seem to me to create pretty serious distancing.

 

M: Why was the establishment of Preuss so important to you?

L: First of all, the University of California shot itself in the foot with the affirmative action decision. But while I disagreed with it personally and professionally, it did some good by clearing the air. Really what the University was saying, what Ward Connelly was saying, was that the University should go out and make the difference in the academic achievement of kids who historically do not come to a university. We’ve accepted that challenge. What we had to do was to find the models that work, create them in our petrie dish and then let another state public agency have the mission of maintaining them. We had to build the perfect school on this campus to address the undereducation of our kids. The perfect school.

M: When you talk of a model what do you mean?

L: We, the University, should take the same position to public education that we took to agriculture. We didn’t fix one farmer’s tomatoes; we tapped the genes, the very seed, and made a tougher skin on the tomato so it could travel internationally. We didn’t go and plough the fields, but we created the technologies, we created the models and made those fields more prosperous. So we took the position that if the University of California wants to be serious about public education, we shouldn’t be doing these piecemeal interventions on Saturday or after school or during holidays with students.
 

M: What do you think you’ve learned from Preuss?

L: Many things. One simple one is that if a kid is behind, he needs to spend more time studying. We make the classes longer; the school day goes to 4 p.m. And there’s Saturday school, plus the school year goes right through August.

We changed the time that a student is in class, and held the curriculum constant. We have the highest curriculum standards in the state of California and we demand that the students meet those standards. In order to do this, we provide 300 tutors and resources.

If youngsters are having difficulty, we give them more resources, we send a tutor home with them on the bus, we have tutors working with them on weekends, and we have Saturday school. But we will not have a dumb curriculum;
it’s a tough curriculum.

 

M: What are some of the unexpected problems you encountered when Preuss opened?

L: One of the things you have to do is deal with parents and parent complaints, and there will be complaints. We had them at Preuss for the first two or three years. Everyone wants their kid to be a doctor but they have no idea what that youngster must do if she is going to succeed—from turning off the TV, to the kind of food the youngster eats. And there’s going to be a degree of disengagement from the family and the community. We had a psychologist meet the parents. If you’re aspiring for your kid to go to college and she’s coming from very meager circumstances, you are essentially creating your enemy: the bill collector, the lawyer who is trying to sue your husband, the policeman, the judge, the doctor. You’re creating your enemy. So we are asking these families to pay attention to their burden of aspirations. We want the youngster to be aware of that when they are at school and at the university they will finally attend.
 

M: And how do you feel about the first graduating class?

L: We knew the school was going to be successful because failure was not an option, as the saying goes. But we thought it would be 2008 before we saw that success. That’s why I’m floored at the success of this class. We were over the moon.
 

M: Is there a strong connection between Marshall and Preuss?

L: Absolutely. I was just there this morning, and we have about 300 tutors at Preuss, mostly from Marshall. There are some from Muir and elsewhere, but it’s mostly Marshall.
 

M: Wasn’t the Preuss school first rejected by the faculty, and then later passed by them?

L: It was a little more complicated than that. The faculty’s representative assembly passed it, said yes, we should have a prep school. Someone who was not at the meeting exercised a provision of our bylaws that says, ‘If 25 faculty disagree with that decision, you can call for a campus-wide mail ballot that polls all 1200.’ When that mail ballot came back, it was no, a narrow no.

 

M: Because?

L: There were two or three reasons. There was a group that thought it was none of our business, that we don’t educate schoolkids, we educate college students. And others felt that it was going to be a total disaster. And other people thought it was going to be a kind of sinkhole and just drain the campus. Someone said we’d have to close the Biology Department to support it.

Then the California press went after us, went after Bob Dynes viciously. There were some really nasty caricatures of the campus in the national press, but mostly California press. I resigned as provost because I was fed up. Then there was a committee that met all that summer to ostensibly turn it around. It went back to the faculty a fourth time for a vote in November 1997. It passed overwhelmingly and I came back as Provost.

 

M: How do you juggle being a professional musician, a provost, a teacher and your involvement in K-12 education?

L: I honestly don’t sleep much, not since my wife passed. I think these are my passions, my obsessions. I do it to get something done before I die. I ask myself: “What is the unique contribution that you can make?” That is a very Thurgood Marshall idea. And I don’t ask that in an egotistical way, but because you should go beyond yourself. I’ve always had this sense of service. Someone said, “service is the rent we pay for living.”

Maybe it’s a class thing, because when you grow up poor, you always feel that you don’t really belong somehow, that you only get to come this way once, and you’ve got to make sure you do something for your brother. It’s a dilemma for a lot of people who grew up in humble circumstances and who achieve. You have this sense that you should clear a path for someone else coming up behind you.

 

M: Who are your mentors at UCSD?

L: Bill McGill clearly was a mentor of mine. He was chancellor here from 1968 to 1970 when the Lumumba Zapata demands came up. He left to become president of Columbia University.
Another was Pat Ledden, the recently deceased provost of Muir College, a math professor who taught James Joyce. He was a gentleman and a gentle man but he was a tiger, too. An original mind.

And also Doris Howell, she was on faculty here, and is now retired. She was the founder of San Diego Hospice at the beginning of the hospice movement 20 years ago. I have known Doris for 30 years, but she came into my life in a big way when my wife, Rebecca, was ill with ovarian cancer in 1995. Doris never raises her voice but she is a fierce, fierce fighter. I have to learn how to do that. I get in people’s faces.

 

M: Do you stay in contact with alumni?

L: Interestingly, one of the times I got the most alumni mail was when we opened the Preuss school. All of it was congratulatory, some of it saying that that was what they had in mind when they pushed to create Lumumba Zapata, Third College. That is satisfying because it shows that their college experience has remained a living, growing, transforming experience in their lives.

The interview was conducted with editor Raymond Hardie.

RELATED LINKS

San Diego Hospice
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James Joyce: The Brazen Head
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Selected Music Samples
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Thurgood Marshall College Home Page
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"...real education happens in the dorm room, when you have four or five kids taking the same class...and they sit up to 2 a.m. arguing about it."