Department History

The UCSB Department of Geography, 1963 through 2000: A Short Historical Summary

As of 2000, University of California Santa Barbara’s Department of Geography had 23 faculty, 23 staff, nearly 200 undergraduates and 100 graduate students. At the last ranking (in 1995), the National Research Council rated the department Number 4 in the nation. Between 1990 and 2000, Geography had received more extra mural research funds than any other department on campus and more faculty awards than any other Geography department nationwide. How did it become so large and so well respected internationally?

In the 1960s, Geography at UCSB had neither Department status nor autonomy. It was staffed by young men just starting their careers and visiting lecturers from other nations. Students were attracted to the program because they were passionate about environmental issues and because Geography faculty and staff were so welcoming and friendly. Despite a bloom in numbers and offerings, the program nearly completely collapsed. UCSB administrators had to decide whether Geography would have a presence at UCSB or not and, if so, what that would look like. The Dean of the College of Letters and Science, who was a Chemistry professor and officially the Geography Chair, decided that geographic studies based on science and technology, in line with the aerial photography and remote sensing that Jack Estes was teaching, would be desirable. In 1974, the Dean hired David Simonett, from Australia, as the first Chair of the newly formed Department.

Simonett’s strategy was to hire senior professors, who were connected by the common use of measurement and analysis, in the fields of vegetation, marine, and water resources, and in human behavioral and urban economic studies, then to in-fill each field with junior people. A wiry, intensely energetic man, Simonett had the vision, firepower, and pro-active supportiveness to get top talent and to nurture the fledgling community into an exciting department.

Subsequent Chairs carried through Simonett’s original vision and fleshed out the team of faculty. By 1978, the Department offered a Master’s program; by 1980, a Doctorate. Various struggles had to be surmounted through the years: for example, obtaining adequate and fair funding from the Administration; increasing building space and staff; weathering the impact of retirement, illness, and death; surviving state-wide budget cuts (faculty and staff took mandatory pay cuts in 93-94); and, when seeking new talent, getting past the thorn of ultra-high housing costs.

Today, the Department has challenges arising from its very success. The Geography community has become so diverse and complex that no one person can play the role Simonett did – driving, connecting, catalyzing, advocating – even if he or she wanted to. Instead, each member needs to support and encourage the others. Recognizing this, the faculty begin their 2001 Vision Statement, “We will build an extraordinary community…”

Fresh vision is essential for continued success. UCSB’s Geography Department has chosen to further its computational and modeling emphasis by focusing on cutting-edge developments in geographic information science and interdisciplinary approaches to spatial-temporal dynamics. This focus, along with commitment to community, will hopefully continue to foster a dynamic and fertile Department where people create new knowledge about planet earth and its inhabitants.

Early History to 1966

Geography courses were first offered at Santa Barbara when it became a campus of the University in 1944. Faculty members of various departments taught these courses, notably J. Fred Hallerman, professor of economics, and Robert W. Webb, professor of Geology. In 1961, Robert B. Johnson was named lecturer in geography and began to expand the curriculum. Johnson was joined by Patrick J. Tyson in 1962. Five courses were offered that year and five in 1963.

The geography program, which had been administered by the Department of Social Sciences, was included in the Department of Sociology-Anthropology in 1961, when the former department was split up. In 1963, Anthropology and sociology became separate academic departments and geography was put under the direct charge of the dean of the College of Letters and Science. In July 1963, Berl Golomb and Robert W. McColl, then Ph.D. candidates at the Los Angeles campus and the University of Washington, respectively, were named lecturers in Geography. In January, 1965, Golomb and McColl were appointed assistant professors. Ronald J. Horvath was named acting assistant professor of geography in July, 1965. He became assistant professor in July, 1966.

A minor in geography was established in 1965. In February, 1966, the A.B. program in geography was instituted. Twenty-three majors were enrolled at the end of spring semester, 1966. The program remains under the chairmanship of the dean of the College of Letters and Science, pending formal organization of the department.

–Berl Golomb, “Geography,” The Centennial Record of the University of California 1868-1968, UC Printing Dept, Berkeley, 1967, pg. 493

Rebirth of Geography in the 1970s

In 1975 a major new venture was undertaken in the wholesale reconstitution of the Geography department under Professor David Simonett, a distinguished geographer from Australia. Within five years the staff of five faculty members, all but one of them hired in 1975, had doubled to ten, extramural research funds had reached the level of $650,000 annually, and the graduate program was expanding rapidly (approval to offer the doctorate was received at the opening of 1980).

The principal impetus toward this swift development came in the vigorous activity of the Department’s Geography Remote Sensing Unit, which quickly gathered an international reputation for imaginative application of recently developed remote sensing technology, using among other sources, satellite-generated data. Aimed at earth resources management, the program developed and put to use a sophisticated data processing system. Originating in 1971, when Professor John Estes of the department gathered a research team in remote sensing, the unit was soon working with geologists, engineers, physicists, chemists, computer scientists, and environmental scientists, on remote sensing projects around the world which focused on forests, oceanography, farming, water resources, soils and similar phenomena.

–Robert Kelley (a UCSB history professor at the time), Transformations: UC Santa Barbara 1909-1979, published by the Associated Students in 1981, pg. 118