Carlos Cruz at a rally outside the home of UCSC Chancellor Cynthia Larive this month. (Photo: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Carlos Cruz walked a long road to become a doctoral student studying history at UC Santa Cruz.

After teenage years tied to gangs and violence, he came to the campus to pursue new dreams. He wants to become a community college professor — and help others follow in his footsteps.

He’s afraid he’s now facing a dead end.

Cruz, 29, was suspended for up to two years for his role in graduate students’ wildcat strike that began a year ago this month.

It appears to be the harshest punishment faced by anyone involved. And if his appeal is denied, he believes it will end his academic career.

Last winter, Cruz was among hundreds of teaching assistants to strike for a pay increase they said they needed to afford Santa Cruz’s high cost of living, igniting a campaign that swept across the UC system and drew national attention. He is being heldresponsible for a number of incidents, including trespassing, blocking roadways, and harassing a staff member.

The suspension of Cruz — a prominent voice in the strike — goes beyond the warning recommended by a campus conduct board, according to records reviewed by Lookout. And it has sparked an outcry from his peers, his union, his doctoral adviser, and a civil rights attorney who says he is being singled out for retaliation.

Campus spokesman Scott Hernandez-Jason said he was unable to comment on a specific disciplinary case, citing due-process rights of those involved and federal student-privacy law.

As Cruz sees it, however, the strike was led by graduate students who are predominantly white and from very different backgrounds. A student of color with visible tattoos, he wonders if standing out from the crowd then is why he finds himself singled out now.

“Maybe it’s my tattoos. Maybe it’s my look, or maybe it’s my voice,” he said. “I feel like I’m the scapegoat.”

‘That’s not who Carlos Cruz is’

Sculpture on UC Santa Cruz campus (Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The road to Cruz’s suspension began in December 2019, when he and hundreds of other teaching assistants refused to submit grades until given a monthly pay increase they insisted they needed to afford the high cost of living in Santa Cruz.

The “COLA4ALL” — cost-of-living adjustment for all — strike drew attention from national labor organizers and the support of then-Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders. The onset of the pandemic in March, which shuttered campuses and created urgent new problems for student workers and their unions, diffused the labor action.

Cruz was among more than 70 UCSC teaching assistants fired in February for continued refusal to turn in grades. They were given a path to reinstatement over the summer under a deal reached with their union, UAW 2865.

Several of those students were also involved in student-conduct cases, according to Sarah Mason, reporting secretary for the union’s Santa Cruz chapter. Mason said those other cases were resolved in that settlement.

“We assumed that Carlos’ charges, like everyone else’s charges, would have been resolved in that settlement,” Mason said. “And the university was absolutely unwilling to do that.”

Hernandez-Jason, the UCSC spokesman, was unable to comment on any related conduct cases or their outcomes.

But as Mason sees it, Cruz’s situation is “completely unique.” She said the union is now fighting his suspension through a grievance.

“We see (the suspension) absolutely as retaliation for engaging in labor action,” Mason said. “What they’re doing is they’re using the student code of conduct to discipline a worker for engaging in labor action, essentially, and this is very troublesome for us.”

Rachel Lederman, a civil-rights attorney with the National Lawyers Guild, accused UCSC of holding Cruz responsible for the wider labor dispute and resulting disruptions involving hundreds of students.

“I can’t help but think that this is racially targeted,” Lederman said, “because some of the language that was used in the allegations against Carlos is very racially stereotyped — and he’s being cast as aggressive and threatening, when that’s not who Carlos Cruz is at all.”

Hernandez-Jason said UCSC takes all concerns of discrimination seriously and offers several ways to report potential incidents of bias — including through the hate/bias response team.

In a statement, Hernandez-Jason said most student demonstrations don’t result in formal disciplinary conduct cases, explaining that process only begins based on specific complaints. “UCSC promotes a fair, impartial and robust conduct process that provides our students with opportunities to have their matters heard and request appeals to have their cases reviewed by other university administrators,” he said.

Aspiration to teach

Raised by a single, immigrant mother in the San Fernando Valley, Cruz said he is a first-generation college graduate and grad student.

He’s also a first-generation high school graduate, who arrived at UCSC as an undergraduate in 2012 after transferring from a community college — an experience he credits as transformative.

“As a teenager, I kind of fell into the world of gangs,” Cruz said. “I was in and out of juvenile hall, I was engaging in violence on the regular. It wasn’t until a community college level where I met professors who were inspiring, who pushed me.”

UCSC doctoral student Carlos Cruz has been suspended for up to two years for a range of alleged actions in grad students’ recent wildcat strike. (Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

His goal is to earn his Ph.D. and return to a community college to teach history. “I said, you know what, if I’m able to turn my life around, I’d love to be a professor — to be a community college professor and try to give back,” Cruz said. “I saw the community college as my second, and my third, chance at life.”

Cruz’s doctoral adviser, UCSC history professor Grace Peña Delgado, first met him as an undergrad. She recalled him as a keen and engaged student in her Chicano history class, and she encouraged him to pursue a Ph.D.

“Carlos has a very clear and critical view of the world,” Delgado said, adding, “We need students like Carlos at our institution, and we especially need them out as professors.”

List of allegations

A stocky figure standing at or near the front and often speaking through a megaphone, Cruz wasn’t hard to spot at the grad student demonstrations.

Cruz believes his appearance and outspoken activism made him a target for police, recalling a moment where an officer approached him at a picket during the spring and recited Cruz’s full name and date of birth in what he viewed as an intimidation tactic.

One officer reported that Cruz grabbed his baton and evaded arrest during a confrontation with students on Feb. 10. The officer’s claim wasn’t upheld in the student conduct process.

In sum, four disciplinary cases were brought against Cruz relating to demonstrations and other actions at an administrative building, dining halls, and campus entrances in February and March.

He was accused of a laundry list of student conduct violations, from participating in disruptions leading to the closure of three dining halls on March 11, to blocking roadways with groups of demonstrators, verbally harassing a staff member, unauthorized entry to an administrative building.

The campus conduct board — three appointed students and two staff members — cleared Cruz of all but one violation, according to a copy of its Nov. 5 decision: participating in an unlawful assembly on a roadway.

In many instances, the board determined that one person could not be held responsible for disruptions caused by a larger group. Ultimately, the board recommended he be let off with a warning.

Findings reversed

The conduct board’s recommendation was reviewed by an associate vice chancellor, Sue Matthews. Overriding many of the board’s findings, Matthews held Cruz responsible for a number of violations.

In her Nov. 23 decision, Matthews wrote that she disagreed with the conduct board’s rationale.

“The Student Handbook does not provide that responsibility for the allegations for which you have been charged hinge on a determination as to whether you were solely responsible for the events in which you were involved,” Matthews wrote in the decision, a copy of which was reviewed by Lookout. “Rather, they are meant to determine, according to the standard of a preponderance of evidence, whether your actions are deemed to constitute a violation of campus policies.”

Chalk messages are scrawled outside the home of UCSC Chancellor Cynthia Larive on Wednesday. (Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Where the conduct board recommended a warning, Matthews instead suspended Cruz for two years, starting in May. The second year of the suspension is probationary and would be deferred subject to certain conditions.

Lederman, the civil rights attorney, called the apparent reversal “very disturbing” and questioned whether it has a close precedent across the UC system.

Matthews did not respond to Lookout’s request for comment or to questions seeking context for how frequently she metes out more severe punishment than the conduct board recommends.

Personal protest

A crowd of dozens gathered on a crisp morning in front of a gate leading to an expansive Westside Santa Cruz home on Dec. 2.

“Drop the charges!” demonstrators chanted.

The home is the residence of UCSC Chancellor Cynthia Larive — the campus leader who has the ultimate authority to grant Cruz’s appeal, or designate someone else to the task.

Demonstrators scrawled “Hands off Carlos,” “Zoom this,” along with vulgar messages directed at the chancellor, in chalk across the sidewalk and street.

“I find it very difficult to conclude that this is anything other than deliberate, petty revenge against someone like Carlos — because he’s visible, because he’s outspoken, because he’s a first-generation student, because he’s not a white student,” said attendee Jack Davies, a history of consciousness doctoral student and himself among the teaching assistants fired during the strike.

Cruz was in attendance. So was Delgago, his doctoral adviser, who called on Larive to reverse the decision.

In an interview with Lookout after the demonstration, Larive said she has designated another administrator to decide Cruz’s appeal. She said she was unable to comment further on the case.

Asked about the protest arriving at her doorstep, and demonstrators’ claims of bias, Larive said she supports the right to free speech.

“I feel bad for my neighbors,” she said. “But those kinds of accusations can be made.”

Nick Ibarra covers higher education for Lookout Santa Cruz, in partnership with Open Campus.

Higher education reporter for Lookout Santa Cruz, in partnership with Open Campus.