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The search for a new UC Davis chancellor

The UC Davis Chancellor Search:

A Conversation with UC President Mark G. Yudof

Thursday, October 23, 2008

In mid-October, UC President Mark G. Yudof named a committee of university regents, faculty, staff, students, alumni and community representatives to advise him in the national search for the campus’s next chancellor.

During a day-long “Campus Day” forum on October 23, President Yudof and the advisory committee met with a variety of faculty, staff and student groups who comprise the UC Davis campus community and participated in a luncheon with alumni, donors and community leaders.

The following day, Yudof spoke with several members of the Davis-area media. Below are excerpts from that conversation:

What qualities are you and the committee looking for in a chancellor?
I’m the ex-officio convener of the advisory committee, and, they’ll have a faculty subcommittee which will screen a lot of the applicants, particularly for their academic stature. And then it goes to the whole committee, where there are all sorts of criteria that may be applied:
Would they be a good fundraiser; would they be collaborative and inclusive; would they work well with the faculty senate and with staff members; will they show a good public face in Washington and Sacramento; and all the things that you might expect them to think about. And obviously, there’s some emphasis on diversity here and trying to be inclusive in the search.
Then they’ll make a recommendation to me. Typically, that would be a list of three or four people. It could be different, but that’s more typical [of UC chancellor searches]. Then I would make some more additional calls and ponder it, and call people at Davis, and touch base with the regents on the committee and other committee members. Then, finally, I would make a recommendation to the Board of Regents for a chancellor to succeed Larry Vanderhoef.
What’s the timetable?
We have a schedule; we have set up another three meetings. I think with a lot of work, and hopefully some luck, we’d be in a position hopefully by March [2009] to make a recommendation to the Board of Regents – hoping to have someone in place some time over the summer, accommodating Chancellor Vanderhoef’s proposed transition.
My gut tells me we should not have trouble getting really qualified people. This university has zoomed up through the rankings in the last two decades, particularly under Larry’s leadership. You look at the research profile, the admissions profile. You look at the progress that’s been made on the medical school. It was a county hospital at one time, now it’s a distinguished medical center. The law school has done very well. The veterinary medicine school is legendary. I think there should be a lot of people who are interested in this job.
What would you say are the top three attributes you’re looking for in a chancellor?
Well, I don’t know if I can get it down to three. I think one filter is if you’re going to be an academic leader and the faculty is going to respect you. It is a necessary but not sufficient condition that you be a respected scholar academic. I told them I don’t really have some sort of litmus test for the field: They [prospective candidates for chancellor] could be in engineering, they could be in agriculture, they could be in the humanities. But it just doesn’t work well for a great institution like Davis if they lack that sort of academic bona fides.
But that by itself is not enough. A second thing is you need someone who knows how to run a large-scale organization. You know there are many successful people in life who don’t know how to do that. You could be a brilliant committee chair in Congress, but it doesn’t mean that you can run a university with a $2 billion budget, thousands of employees and tens of thousands of students. You have to have the capacity to keep the place running and make some difficult decisions about budgets.
And then the third point is equally important, maybe a little bit harder to tie down. Sometimes it goes under the heading of vision, of creativity – a sense of strategic direction for the campus. Some people would call it “leadership.” But all those attributes that, when you talk in your office, you’ll say that “Dean Jones” is a real leader, and “Dean Smith” is a bright enough guy, but he’s really not a leader of that college.
For all the reasons I talked about…the leadership, the vision, the strategic planning, the sense of giving the campus direction, the sense of bringing the different constituencies in and forging a consensus behind an agenda for the campus.
What were your impressions of the presentations from the various constituency groups?
I thought there was, really, across the board, an unbelievable commitment to this institution. All these student leaders, undergraduates or graduate students, the staff and so forth – they love working at this place, they believe in the place, they’re committed. Numbers of them [faculty] have turned down job offers that would offer greater compensation.
They really had two missions. One, I think, was to familiarize at least those of us who are not on the UC Davis campus, the various activities of the campus, the problems they’re facing, the things they’re most proud of, the research profile, and graduate programs that involve interdisciplinary groups.
And, then second, if they were in our shoes and looking for an outstanding leader, do they have any particular criteria that they would employ in searching the country and the world for the best possible person.
So these various groups addressed both of those issues and, at least for me, being four months on the job, it was extremely informative, and I think it was for the non-UC Davis members, the regents and others on the committee.
What did you learn from the students and their comments?
The students wanted to make sure that they had a new chancellor with whom they had good access to discuss their issues and their concerns. They seemed to uniformly feel they were getting a first-class undergraduate education, and they wanted to make sure that the new chancellor is committed to that and committed to diversity.
There was some discussion of sustainability, which apparently is a strong current in the student body. They want to make sure that the new chancellor is committed to a sustainability program and to reducing the carbon footprint.
A lot of it dealt with the diversity issue and enhancing efforts to further diversify the campus.
Retention of faculty – they don’t want to lose their best professors. They understand it’s a competitive world out there for the best professors.
Graduate students were basically in sync with the undergraduates. They have other issues like the stipends for graduate students, which are not where we’d like them to be. Some of these people have families and it’s a real financial stress for them to get their Ph.Ds.
The students at all levels were very much into community service and they want that to continue.
And then I was intrigued by this: Davis has been very aggressive about involving undergraduates in research opportunities. To a person, the undergraduates who spoke felt that was a very good program and something they got a lot out of.
This was both a description of the way they see the world. They’re concerned about fees, as we all are. But, also, I think what they were saying was, we’d like a new chancellor who understands these issues, and is sympathetic, and has an open door, and will discuss them with him or her.
What did you hear from other constituencies?
There were really, across the board, a couple of things stood out with me. I really felt good about the people on that campus. We had some leaders of staff organizations I thought were absolutely brilliant. In fact, I told them to leave their names, I want to hire them and bring them to Oakland. I don’t think that went over very well with the UC Davis people.
But they understand our business systems. There was some criticism, frankly, that the business systems aren’t where they should be. There were efficiencies which we could achieve if we could agree and focus on them, and they wanted someone who would be open to moving in that direction.
There was a sense that every time we have budget cuts, we typically cut back in the staff, and that we were overloading some of the present staff in terms of their job responsibilities. That was a major concern of the group.
You want a leader who doesn’t view all the things that staff do on campus as sort of invisible, like it’s just magic that the heat goes on and the lights work. Or that there’s someone to serve lunch, or there’s an electrician or a plumber to take care of a problem, or that person who really keeps the chemistry department humming from an administrative standpoint. They don’t want to be taken for granted and they want someone who has that.
And then one person said something I thought was profoundly true. People can promise a lot in these interview processes. But one staff member said you need to look at the records and see if they have walked the walk. If they’re pro-diversity, what did they do to advance diversity in their present job? If they’re in favor of better business systems, what did they do? If they think faculty recruitment is critical, how successful were they?
So it’s not just a question of values, although that’s important. It’s a question of are there real concrete things in their present careers that demonstrate they have the capacity to implement the things that they’re talking about.
As Chancellor Vanderhoef said, we have really smart people at Davis – they can think of a wonderful vision for the place. What’s in short supply at most universities is the implementers – actually getting it done in a reasonable period of time at a cost you can afford.
I think the deans and the vice chancellors were more concerned with explaining to the committee the unbelievable scope of the activities of the University of California at Davis, and making sure that we were aware of the great medical center and its operations, and all that occurs in the agricultural and extension side, and the facilities issues. There was less “you need a certain profile of a person” than to understand the scope of this job and the need to select someone who’s up to it.
We also met with community leaders at lunch, and I would say that they agreed with most of what the other constituent groups thought. They felt it was real important to have regional engagement – the type of thing that we always think about, the wine industry and other things taking place in that area of the state, but also regional engagement generally with business, nonprofits and governmental agencies.
And there is a real appreciation – and I think this is just flat-out true – that Davis really drives the regional economy. And they want a leader who will be a bridge to the business community and to other groups in making sure that Davis remains an economic engine for that part of the state.
What’s your view about picking the new chancellor from within or outside the campus?
Well, it’s a very interesting point. You can check with the faculty, but at least the presenters who I listened to, the faculty felt that it was important to have an outsider, someone not from the campus. Now, I don’t say that’s 100% of the faculty, but that’s what they said.
Then we had another group in, and there was at least one person who said this is a complicated place and we need someone who understands how we work, and he would prefer an inside person.
There are tradeoffs. If you bring someone from the outside, there are fresh eyes. They could be more objective. Maybe there’s some things you’ve been doing forever you shouldn’t be doing. On the other hand, there always is a learning curve – I’ve discovered that in my office. And there’s always a chance that you will make mistakes because you really don’t understand the culture and how the campus really works.
I don’t have a set answer to that. I think it’s part of the pluses and minuses that you add up.
Is it good to have someone who understands the campus and has been there 20 years? Of course. Is there a danger that that person will be committed to things that should be reexamined? Of course.
I’m just going to look at what I’ll describe as the whole profile of pluses and minuses. I didn’t get the feeling there’s unanimity on this issue, to be honest.
Listening to all of the campus presentations, what do you feel makes UC Davis unique?
I would say one thing that’s unique is they take the land-grant mission so seriously. They actually pride themselves on doing more applied research – and they do basic research too – they pride themselves on the impact they’ve had on agriculture and the wine industry and all the rest.
They value community engagement as much or more than any campus I’ve ever visited. So I think that’s a relatively special characteristic.
The other thing is they’re competitive and egotistical. I’m a faculty member, I’m competitive and egotistical. But it’s in a framework of a high level of collaboration and civility, which – I’ve visited many campuses across the country – unfortunately, it’s not present on all university campuses. They really have it. It is really a very decent place to go to work in the morning.
And they’re proud of the relationship with [the city of] Davis – they really are absolutely proud of it. Probably the best town-gown relationships I’ve ever seen. There’s no war going on between the town and gown. You would know better, but that’s my impression.
The depth of the commitment to the land-grant mission was not a surprise, but it really made an impression on me. And the other thing is I hadn’t realized they had this long history of multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary graduate programs before it became fashionable.
Knowing what you know now about the economic crisis and UC’s budget situation, would you have taken the job of UC president? What advice would you give to prospective chancellor candidates who might be looking at the situation at UC now?
I have a philosophy that sometimes a crisis is a terrible thing to waste.
And remember one other thing, there’s really no port in this storm. This is a nationwide phenomenon. It’s not like Wisconsin is swimming in money, or Michigan doesn’t have its automobile industry, or... And I’ve been through it before, not perhaps to this degree, but I have been through it before. Ask me that question in a year, and I may give you a different answer.
To use the market jargon, I would say the fundamentals are great at Davis. These are not great times, but this too shall pass. And you won’t be blamed for the budget cuts – they’re not your doing.
I don’t have an exact schedule, but in five years you’ll be able to move Davis up to the next level. If you’re not an optimist, you shouldn’t get into my business. That’s all I can tell you, that’s what I would tell them. I would also tell them, if you think Massachusetts or Wisconsin or Pennsylvania or Florida or Texas is in dramatically better shape, it just ain’t so.
This is your first chancellor appointment in the UC system. What do you think about that?
I sure don’t want to mess up, and that’s why we have these elaborate systems. I don’t want to sit in a room and do this by myself. I take this search committee very, very seriously.
It’s very important, given the type of system we are – which means that we do have some centralization of admissions and a general counsel’s office and other things. But the success of these campuses is largely, not wholly, but largely dependent on the quality of leadership on the campus.
From my standpoint, there’s really nothing more important that a president does than to identify that leader for each campus, and in turn, the capacity of the new chancellor to pick the right people to be the deans and the vice chancellors and the program directors.
In higher education, there’s an old saying: You need three things – you need a plan, you need leadership, and you need resources. Frankly, in California, we’re not doing too well on Category 3 these days. But we certainly need to put in place the first two points.
So I don’t think there’s anything more important that I’ll be doing in my time here at the Office of the President.