A Conversation with Chancellor George Blumenthal
The Senate Source recently sat down with former Academic Senate Chair George Blumenthal to hear about his first year on the job as UC Santa Cruz chancellor, to see if life as a top administrator has changed his view of the Senate, and to get his impressions about the current state of shared governance, the future of UCSC, and the key challenges facing the University of California.
Chancellor Blumenthal was appointed UCSC chancellor on September 19, 2007, after serving 14 months in an acting capacity, following the death of Chancellor Denice Denton. He is the fourth former systemwide Academic Senate chair to serve as a UC chancellor. The others were Francis A. Sooy , who served as Senate chair in 1969-70 and UCSF chancellor from 1972 to 1982; Angus Taylor , who served as Senate chair in 1964-65, and UC Santa Cruz chancellor from 1976 to 1977; and Karl Pister, who was Senate chair in 1979-80 and UC Santa Cruz chancellor from 1991 to 1996.
Since Chancellor Blumenthal joined the Santa Cruz faculty in 1972 as a professor of theoretical astrophysics, he has shown a tireless dedication to the improvement of the University as an educator, faculty advocate, Senate leader, and now administrator, at both the divisional and systemwide levels. Despite his extensive systemwide service, he has remained very much a creature of UCSC, and is particularly upbeat about the future of his campus.
Becoming Chancellor and Getting Up to Speed
SS: It must have been difficult taking the chancellorship on an acting basis in June 2006 under those circumstances. Please describe the challenges you faced and how you approached them.
GB: It was a challenging experience in part because some of our faculty, students, and staff were experiencing grief and a challenge to our sense of community. I thought it was important to be broadly visible – on the campus and in the community – so that everyone knew there was someone in charge. I think I had an enormous advantage because so many people already knew me and they felt there would not be a lot of surprises. I also thought it was important to emphasize that the tragedy would not change the excellent progress UC Santa Cruz has been making over the past ten years, including through the term of Chancellor Denton. I wanted everyone to continue focusing on the overall goal of maintaining that upward trajectory, and on other key campus issues and priorities like the Long Range Development Plan (LRDP), which was then culminating, as well as budget issues, fundraising and donor outreach, and diversity. I also became immediately active on the political scene – reaching out to community leaders and donors, so as not to lose momentum there.
Describe life as chancellor so far and how your responsibilities as Academic Senate chair helped prepare you for that life.
So far, the most difficult part of being chancellor is the range of issues I have to deal with each day, and the best part is being able to make a positive difference for the campus. I was never a dean or a vice chancellor, but I think my systemwide and divisional Senate chair experience was great preparation for the job and made up for a lot of the other experiences that more traditional candidates would bring. For example, I think the biggest benefit I had coming in was the familiarity being chair gave me with the broad range issues discussed by the Senate at both the local and systemwide level. The Senate chair is involved in everything, so coming up to speed on issues was not something I had to do a lot of. As divisional Senate chair, I worked with the chancellor and EVC on a number of issues, so I had familiarity with how decisions got made on the campus, as well as with the kinds of pressures a chancellor faces. As systemwide Senate chair, I had to develop an ability to confront and address as many as ten separate and often very divergent issues in a given day, and to deal with Sacramento politicians and members of the media. The situation is even more extreme as a chancellor. In a single day I might go from a committee meeting, to a meeting with a politician, to a news conference, to having to make a decision on an important long-range issue. And there is probably no group with a more diverse set of opinions than members of the Academic Senate, so learning how to build consensus in that context helped a lot too.
What was your motivation for seeking the chancellorship on a permanent basis, and how did your Senate experience influence these motivations?
When I took the job on an acting basis I didn’t know how comfortable I would feel working in the local political arena and in fundraising, so I wanted to try out the position before deciding whether it was something I wanted permanently. But I thought there was a need for someone to do it; that it would be interesting and challenging; that it was something I would be good at; and that my leadership would be good for the campus. In the Senate, I worked closely with several chancellors and served on search committees for chancellors, so I knew a little bit about what becoming one might entail. I also had experience working with The Regents and UCOP. However, I knew it was relatively unlikely that an acting chancellor would be appointed permanently, so I was under no illusion that my appointment was obvious. But over the course of that year I gradually felt more comfortable in the job and decided it was something I could really excel at and bring some benefit to the campus by doing.
Few individuals associated with UC have had your diversity of experiences – faculty member, department chair, systemwide committee chair, Senate chair, and now campus chancellor. What perspectives from your years as a faculty member and on the Senate do you think are uniquely valuable and beneficial to the position?
Having a basic understanding of shared governance, how it should work, and how to work with faculty are all crucial to being a successful chancellor or vice chancellor in the UC system. In the capacity of division chair, Senate chair, and faculty representative to The Regents, Senate leadership requires you to consult broadly and listen to a diversity of views, while understanding that a decision has to be made. It is important that faculty feel heard and understood even if you ultimately decide to give greater weight to a different argument. As Senate chair, I had to make my case in Academic Council and with The Regents in a logical, defensible, and hopefully persuasive way, a skill that comes in handy at Council of Chancellors meetings, for example.
Being a longtime UCSC faculty member also means that I share many of my colleagues’ values. I think there is a great advantage in having that experience and familiarity – not just for me, but also in order for others on campus to know who I am – so it’s not as if I dropped in from outer space. Having a basic understanding of the key issues facing the campus and UC is also important.
Do you think faculty have different expectations of your chancellorship given your Senate experience?
I think they expect me to share their values, to respect shared governance, and to consult enthusiastically with the Senate. I do enjoy interacting with the Senate and I take it very seriously. In fact, that interaction is one of the things I enjoy most about being chancellor. The faculty also expect that I will lead the campus in a direction that is consistent with their overall views and goals. I should mention that in a slight twist of irony, in May 2006, before I was appointed acting chancellor, I was one of the leading proponents of a Senate resolution calling on the administration to follow a specific shared governance framework for decision making with regard to the LRDP. Less than two months later, I found myself in a position of having to abide by these rules myself! (I was able to consult successfully with the Senate and get its approval.)
How would you describe a successful UC chancellor? How will you know if your own tenure as chancellor has been successful?
A successful chancellor improves the overall status of the campus by helping it accelerate its upward trajectory and achieve a higher level of quality. In particular, at UCSC, my goal is to continue to attract the very best faculty working in a wide range of disciplines, while on the student side, I intend that we become the campus of choice for more and more students, attracted by our academic rigor, vigor, and commitment to diversity.
There are many ways you can measure the success of a campus in meeting its goals and the needs of the state. We are entering a new era of accountability. I don’t believe UC was unaccountable in the past, but if we can be more systematic and transparent in our accountability, then UC is doing a better job in meeting our public mission, which can be one metric of success.
The Academic Senate and Shared Governance
Why did you want to serve as systemwide Senate chair?
I felt called to the challenge of contributing in a new way. I had been on Academic Council for two years, and I felt I had the right skill set and that the job would be a challenge for me intellectually and personally. The year I ran for Council chair, Larry Pitts was vice chair. I had enormous respect for him and knew that the experience working with Larry would be a good one. Having the opportunity to work with former Senate Executive Director María Bertero-Barceló was also an important part of that decision.
What do you view as the highlights of your divisional and systemwide Senate service? What accomplishments or issues do you feel most proud to have been a part of during your tenure? And what do you see as your most lasting Senate legacy?
Before I was division chair, I served as chair of the University Committee on Privilege and Tenure (UCPT) for two years. We revised the Faculty Code of Conduct and completely rewrote the Senate bylaws dealing with discipline, grievances, and early termination, making these documents much clearer and easier to use. As Senate chair at Santa Cruz, I was most proud of increasing the professionalism, efficiency, and effectiveness of the division. The Senate here is taken very seriously now. On Academic Council during those years, I chaired the Senate Bylaw revision committee and was also active in the revision of APM 010 and the policy on faculty-student relations.
As Senate vice chair, I was also the first chair of the Academic Council Special Committee on the National Labs (ACSCONL) which had been formed at a time when UC was discussing whether or not to compete to continue managing the laboratories. ACSCONL wrote eleven white papers relating to various aspects of UC’s relationship with the labs and conducted a systemwide survey about faculty attitudes toward the labs. I thought it was important to involve the faculty in an important decision affecting the University and for the faculty advice on lab issues to be significant, strong, and informed, and I think we did that.
I am also proud that during my tenure the Senate completed two transfer initiatives (“streamlining” and SCIGETC); persuaded the chancellors, at the initiation of the Board of Admissions and Relations with Schools, to drop the National Merit Scholarship Program on the grounds that it does not measure excellence in a way that meets UC standards; insisted that there be adequate support for the new division at UC Merced so that shared governance could take root there, and approved Guidelines for the Senate’s role in developing future UC campuses; and passed an important resolution on research funding sources and revisions to APMs 210, 240 and 245 to recognize the importance of diversity. We also instituted a new effort to ensure political input from the systemwide Senate on state and federal legislative matters. Now the Senate follows and consistently provides input into legislation. Finally, I’m very proud of the role I played in helping to put together a compromise proposal to add a staff advisor to The Regents.
Your August 2005 report on shared governance was upbeat about the state of shared governance at UC. You also made some recommendations for improving the way the Senate and administration work together systemwide and locally. How do you view the current condition of shared governance, and how can all UC constituencies - faculty, administration, staff, students, and others work together most effectively to build a better University?
I remain a true believer in shared governance, and I feel good about its current state. What is impressive to me is that despite some hard times and challenges, shared governance is more robust than ever. The faculty committees conduct excellent analyses, and the Senate generally has had strong leadership and has been good about working with the administration at all levels. When I was Senate chair, I strived for an open atmosphere with the administration that included “no surprises,” which I still think is critical to successful shared governance. I also think it is important that shared governance involves various constituencies – not only the faculty and senior administration, but also the students, staff and other groups – so that if nothing else we can, over time, develop a shared vision and sense of purpose for the University. There are certain values I think are really important for us to share – namely, maintaining and increasing academic excellence, diversity, and access and affordability. Those are the kinds of issues that require us to be in conversation broadly so that we can all be on the same page about how to move UC forward to achieve those goals.
How important is Senate service for faculty members? What advice would you give to young faculty interested in University service?
Faculty are judged on the basis of research, teaching, and service, although the expected level of service varies with the seniority of the faculty member. Senate service is a wonderful chance for faculty, including faculty who are relatively young or new to UC, to interact with colleagues from other disciplines whom one might not otherwise meet, and to talk about broad university policy issues that are interesting, but not necessarily confined to a narrow field. It also gives one an opportunity to become intimately familiar with key issues and a chance to actually affect the direction of the University. I think that’s really exciting.
UC Santa Cruz
Does Santa Cruz still offer a unique education and environment?
Our college system offers students a different experience from other campuses – the opportunity to live and learn in a small community within a much larger research university. We have an outstanding record in the number of students who participate in research work with faculty members – even as undergraduates, which is reflected in the fact that UCSC is first among UC campuses in the rate of our social sciences and humanities undergraduates who move on to get doctorates, and is second only to UC Berkeley in science and engineering graduates who do so. Those are some of the academic qualities of Santa Cruz that really provide uniqueness. The campus also has unique values. As perhaps the most beautiful campus in the United States, maintaining the quality of the environment is an important value here. I also think there are aspects of social justice that are highly valued on campus, which represents a commitment to society shared by our students and faculty that I am very proud of.
On the morning of Saturday, August 2, the homes of two UC Santa Cruz researchers were firebombed by animal research activists. Luckily, no one was injured, but the attacks come on the heels of an attempted home invasion in February. What is your reaction to this most recent incident and what can be done to prevent similar incidents?
These attacks are a form of domestic terrorism and are a fundamental assault on academic freedom. UC Santa Cruz faculty are conducting amazing research that could benefit society and help cure human diseases like breast cancer and spinal cord injury. It is insidious to think that these terrorists would subject not only the individual researchers, but also their families, to such attacks in an attempt to prevent them from carrying out their research.
Both the campus and community have been very supportive. Two days after the event, a large crowd of supporters, including the mayor, several city council members, and numerous UCSC faculty, staff and students, rallied in support of the researchers. In addition, the campus, city, FBI, and National Humane Society have joined together to offer a reward for information leading to the capture of the perpetrators. I don’t necessarily think that Santa Cruz is a hotbed, as similar events have taken place at UCLA and Berkeley over the past couple of years, but I think there is a disturbing pattern. So I absolutely believe there is a need for state legislation, and I strongly support Assembly Bill 2296. The bill is important not only because it will provide a basis for future legislation, but also because it is important to researchers around the state to know that there is both strong community support and strong political support for their work. At Santa Cruz, we have literally hundreds of faculty, graduate students, post-docs, and undergraduates doing research in laboratories that involve animals, and I think it’s really important that they know that their efforts have the support of the California legislature and the governor.
What is your plan to mend the “town/gown” divide over such issues as growth at UCSC?
The relationship between the campus and the community of Santa Cruz has been strained for many years over concerns related to the environmental effects of the University’s Long Range Development Plan – in particular, the impact of UCSC’s planned expansion on area housing, water, and traffic. When I became acting chancellor, one of my first priorities was to improve community relations. I thought it was important to listen and be responsive to community concerns and minimize any negative effects the university may have on the local community. I have been reaching out to many constituencies in town and devoting a lot of time and attention to finding a cooperative resolution with Santa Cruz citizens and local governments.
As a result, we have taken a number of positive steps. Last year, I signed a Climate Action Compact with the mayor and county supervisors, in which all sides pledged to work cooperatively to reduce greenhouse emissions and build green businesses, and earlier this month, the city and university finally reached an historic agreement that will bring an end to all litigation surrounding the LRDP and our efforts to build a new biomedical sciences building. For its part, the campus community will be establishing goals and making fair share contributions over the next 12 to 13 years to mitigate the effects of university growth, and as a result, we gain the right to grow. I am very pleased about the collaborative nature of the agreement. All parties participated actively and came to a better understanding of the others’ points of view.
In 2006, Santa Cruz students voted to pay higher fees to purchase green energy to run the campus. The EPA’s Green Power Partnership now ranks UCSC sixth among its university partners in green power purchases. Please describe UCSC’s efforts to become a greener campus. How close is UCSC to becoming “carbon neutral?”
That student initiative has actually made the campus carbon neutral in terms of buying offset power. In other words, UCSC buys enough green power to offset the power we actually use. I realize that is not truly “green,” because we are still creating carbon, and what we should really strive for is a situation in which we produce little or no greenhouse gas. I’ve set up a Chancellor’s Committee on Climate Change to make recommendations to me about how we can reduce the campus’ real carbon footprint. We are also conducting a major sustainability assessment, which has helped to pinpoint some of the things we have been doing well – for example, the use of cars on campus has now dropped to 1998 levels, and we are using 40% less water on a per capita basis than we did 15 years ago – as well as to identify some things we can do better and where additional investment can have the greatest impact.
Six UC campuses are currently members of the Association of American Universities (AAU). How are you working to facilitate UCSC’s membership?
It is a major goal of mine to attain membership in the AAU for UCSC. Quite simply, the way for the campus to meet the membership criteria is to continue its upward trajectory by developing a national reputation as being among the best in the country in more disciplines, and by making strategic investments in programs that can rise in national rankings and esteem. I am focusing on fundraising as a major part of this strategy to ensure that the campus has the resources to continue on this trajectory.
What are the greatest challenges facing UC? How should the University address them? How does UCSC fit into these challenges?
The greatest challenge right now is the persistent and systemic budget problem facing the state and the University. Having an adequate budget helps us achieve the things we want to achieve - maintaining and enhancing UC’s status as the most outstanding public research university in the world; maintaining and enhancing accessibility and affordability; and broadening diversity to reflect the demographics of the state. Of these, I believe maintaining excellence is the most key shared value; if we ever back off from excellence, it is going to be really hard to regain. My overarching goal for UCSC is to maintain its upward trajectory by building more high quality programs. I think we can contribute to the excellence of the system by improving our own programs, but a lot of this is going to depend on increasing fundraising.
You would like to see faculty take a more active role in fundraising. How and why?
One of the messages I’m trying to promote on my campus is that fundraising should not be confined to the professionals over in the development office. Our main institutional fundraising priorities are also fundamentally faculty priorities, so the faculty should play a key role in helping the community understand more about the exciting research and teaching happening on the campuses. At UCSC, we are trying to involve the faculty in fundraising as much as possible. We even have development officers in some of our academic divisions and departments so the departments can help set the priorities and have faculty meet with foundations and potential donors. That’s ultimately where people get excited – meeting faculty and learning what they’re doing.
In an era of falling state budgets, there have been some calls for UC to adopt a hybrid funding model with multiple revenue streams. Others are concerned that this amounts to a move toward greater “privatization.” Has the era of public education passed?
In many ways, the University already has a hybrid funding system. I hope the era of public education has not passed, because I think the California economy, and the state in general, has traditionally been extremely well-served by UC’s ability to provide virtually free public higher education of the highest possible quality. But if that era is really ending, we need to prepare ourselves for a future that may be different. An example of how we might prepare ourselves is [UC Berkeley] Chancellor Birgeneau’s proposal to set up an endowment for scholarships using matching funds from the state and private donors, so that whatever happens to student fees in the future, there will be a significant fund to keep UC affordable. That is the kind of thing we need to do if, in fact, the era of virtually free public education has passed.
How can UC preserve its system of ten co-equal campuses? (The “Power of Ten” ideal)
I think it is important to maintain UC’s sense of being ten campuses within one University. There is little doubt in my mind that the way UC is set up – as a single University system rather than a system of universities – is a key reason for its status as the top public university system in the world. Our systemwide academic personnel policies, for example, have helped us achieve and maintain our high standards of excellence and preserve a systemwide perspective because the same criteria for faculty advancement exist at all campuses. We all derive strength from being a part of a system in which there is fundamental cooperation and shared values and goals for excellence. It is one of UC’s strengths that we should continue to exploit, but it does require a sensible budget strategy for all campuses to thrive, which becomes more difficult in a tight budget environment.
Many universities throughout the world are trying to compete with UC using our own multi-campus model. As we move forward, we need to think carefully about our strategy for maintaining our competitive advantage. Under the leadership of President Yudof, the entire Office of the President will be redefined in such a way as to show its value to the system. I think it’s important that we develop a sense about what the Office of the President is, what services it gives, and how it provides value to the campuses. If we are indeed a University system, there needs to be central shared functions that help make the system more effective and efficient. We may also need to rethink some of the assumptions we make as a system.
How has your training in astrophysics prepared you for your administrative duties? What philosophies have guided your career and shaped your service?
One of the advantages of thinking about the large-scale structure of the universe is that I know the importance of the “Big Picture.” Studying astrophysics has provided me with an improved ability to communicate to colleagues and the general public and work collaboratively with others. Something else I learned is that it’s possible to do research on a small issue, but you should never lose sight of the big questions you are trying to answer. But more importantly, and I think this is true of most UC faculty in all fields; anyone who has been involved in cutting edge research learns the meaning of excellence in both teaching and research, which is what UC is all about – providing an excellent environment for teaching and research. So I think much of the training comes from being a faculty member.
I’ve always believed in doing service to make a difference, not just to fill space, and that requires one to think about the big picture, too. I think that’s equally true in the administration or in Senate service. So I always advise people interested in moving into an administrative position to set aside time every day to put their feet up on their desk, stare at the ceiling, and think about the bigger issues and goals. Finally, it is important that one’s principles, values, and integrity drive decision-making.
I very much miss research and teaching, although I am working on the third edition of my book. But life is full of choices, and I am not complaining about a boring life at this moment!
- Ken Feer and Michael LaBriola