Professor John Oakley
Senate Source Interview
What is your reaction to being named a recipient of the 2012 Oliver Johnson Award for Distinguished Service in the Academic Senate?
I was, in the most literal sense, surprised and delighted. I had no inkling that I had been nominated until after the Council had made its decision. The challenges facing the Senate and UC in general are perennially complex and fast-moving; keeping an eye on what needs to be done today and tomorrow and in the next year and decade is like looking into a kaleidoscope. I appreciate very much that current Senate leaders somehow found time to reflect on the challenges faced by their predecessors and to appreciate the efforts made to resolve them.
What first motivated you to get involved in the divisional Senate?
I played intercollegiate and club rugby at a national level for 31 years. I wasn’t very good, but I could be relied upon to show up when the field needed to be lined. So it just seemed natural to me to get involved in some of the administrative work needed to field an academic team. I was interested in moral and political philosophy as well as in law and legal philosophy, so I was active in the Philosophy Department even as a junior faculty member, and taught an undergraduate philosophy course. Also, I had been one of the earliest Education Abroad Program students when I was an undergraduate at UC Berkeley in the Sixties. I was very grateful for this experience, and I volunteered early on to interview Davis students who were seeking to follow in my footsteps. These experiences led me to begin my divisional Senate service as a member of the Committee on Educational Policy and the Committee on the Education Abroad Program.
Why did you want to serve as systemwide Senate chair?
I ramped up my Senate activity in the Nineties, when severe reductions in defense spending associated with the end of the Cold War caused a deep recession in the California economy that triggered several years of compound, double-digit cuts in the UC budget. I had the fundamental insight that in troubled times, it is better to be a subject than an object. It was clear that painful decisions were going to be made, like it or not, and I wanted to have a voice in those decisions. Shared governance gave me that opportunity within the local arena of UC Davis. I had an excellent role model in Dan Simmons, my colleague on the Davis law faculty whom I had known since we clerked together at the California Supreme Court in the early Seventies. Dan was in a much higher orbit, serving as Divisional Chair at Davis in 1991-1993, and then systemwide Chair in 1993-1995, while I was merely ratcheting up my work on divisional committees at Davis. I didn’t set out specifically to follow in Dan’s footsteps, and as with most holders of the office my selection as systemwide Chair was the result of a congeries of circumstances over which I had only partial control. But I certainly had the power to say “No,” and Dan’s success twelve years earlier led me to give just the opposite answer when the opportunity presented itself. I had become a systemwide leader in the field of faculty welfare, and I felt that I could make a positive contribution at a time when faculty welfare was under serious attack.
What do you view as the most significant highlights of your divisional and systemwide Senate and University service? What accomplishments or issues do you feel most proud to have been a part of during your tenure?
I’ve encountered a number of significant events and issues during my Senate service, and I won’t hazard a rank ordering of them. Even a short list would doubtless vary somewhat with the day of construction, but here is today’s:
In 1997, the divisional faculty welfare committee at Davis was moribund. Frank Samaniego was appointed Chair by the divisional COC and asked to revive the committee. I was placed on the committee as one of his henchman. We succeeded in reviving the committee, which I went on to chair for several years as Frank’s successor. I think this contributed substantially to the attractiveness of UCD as a campus within the UC system, to systemwide equity in intercampus salaries and benefits, and to UCD’s prominent voice in systemwide shared governance.
After serving as chair of the University Committee on Faculty Welfare in 2004-05, I became vice chair of the systemwide Senate as of September 1, 2005. Shortly thereafter, the San Francisco Chronicle began publishing a string of stories critical of how UC President Robert C. Dynes and his close associates were running the University. By November of 2005, the Provost of UC had resigned, beginning a 21-month crisis about senior leadership and executive compensation at UC that culminated in August 2007 with the resignation of President Dynes, just days before the end of my tenure as systemwide Senate chair. The initial months of this crisis at UCOP coincided with an unfortunate loss of confidence by the Council and Assembly of the Academic Senate in the leadership of the systemwide chair, and my early promotion from vice chair to chair. Adding to the challenge of these circumstances were the selection of a new Provost, formal searches for new Chancellors at UCLA and Merced, the sudden need for an interim Chancellor at Santa Cruz in the tragic aftermath of Chancellor Denton’s June 2006 suicide, and the comprehensive reorganization of the relationship between UC and the federal Department of Energy with respect to the management of the National Laboratories at Berkeley, Livermore, and Los Alamos. Throughout this tumultuous period, both the Board of Regents and the Office of the President relied heavily on the stability, experience, and common sense of the Senate through the institutions of shared governance. In my view, the Academic Senate shielded the University from lasting harm, and enabled it to emerge from the crisis with its essential institutions and academic autonomy not only intact, but thriving.
I will admit to feeling particularly proud about the personal role I played during this welter of events in the appointment of former systemwide Senate chair (and 2010 Oliver Johnson honoree) George Blumenthal to be the interim Chancellor at Santa Cruz, an appointment that has since ripened into his highly successful tenure there as the formal Chancellor.
I’m also proud that, even after the high tide of my Senate service ended in 2007, I’ve continued to pull an oar. I represented the Senate on the University of California Retirement System Advisory Board from 2007 to 2011, chairing it in 2010-11. And as an emeritus professor I served as vice chair of the Davis divisional Senate from 2009 to 2011, allowing me to share in the introduction of Chancellor Katehi to our campus. I have great respect for the Chancellor, so in this case virtue was its own reward.
How can UC help reinvigorate public investment in higher education?
There is an answer to this question, but it is not a simple one — indeed, it is paradoxical. The University has to develop and deploy a successful “semi-privatized” funding model that maintains its traditional standards of excellence through a much larger stream of tuition payments. This is paradoxical because we know that in the short term the University’s ability to generate offsetting tuition income will induce the Governor and the Legislature to cut UC’s share of the state general-fund budget. But if UC can maintain its excellence by moving toward a self-supporting operating budget, while retaining capital ownership of its invaluable real estate, I think this will eventually lead to public reinvestment in maintaining the UC brand. It will depend on a cyclical uptick in the California economy, but when that happens (I don’t think this is an “if”), I’m hopeful that future Californians will understand that increased state support will “buy” increased access for middle-class students to UC and the UC brand, and that this is a good bargain. This will depend in part on California’s completing a necessary but painful shift from a tax structure that is far too dependent on high-income taxpayers (in which middle-class taxpayers have come to expect an unsustainable free ride) to one in which the burdens of paying for the benefits of California citizenship are distributed still progressively, but overall more evenly along the bell curve of income distribution.
Besides the budget, what in your eyes are the biggest challenges facing the University now and into the future?
That seems like the Mrs. Lincoln joke: apart from the shooting, how was the show? No light can escape from the black hole of the budget to illuminate other challenges that may confront the University now and into the future. A prime example of one perennial issue where present perceptions are now manifestly being distorted by the presence of that black hole is systemwide cohesion. Fiscal starvation promotes an attitude of every campus for itself. Berkeley’s Chancellor Birgeneau has even called for devolution of much of the Regents’ authority to local campus governing boards. In my opinion, adoption of such a proposal, or substantial disaggregation of UC’s governance and policy-making by other means, would substantially compromise the hope I expressed previously for a restoration of public investment in UC. Without retention of UC as a system capable of meeting the needs of all or most of the Californians identified as UC-eligible undergraduates under the Master Plan of 1960, I can’t imagine a restoration of traditional levels of state support for the University of California.
What philosophy has guided your career and shaped your service? How does Senate service complement your professional career?
As a philosopher, I’m tempted to opine longwindedly in response to such questions. But instead I’ll quote my favorite bumper-sticker: “The world is run by the people who show up.” I’ve tried to show up for important occasions, and when making decisions, to show due regard for the welfare of all.
How would you describe the state and condition of shared governance at the university?
I think it remains strong, but is threatened by the temptation to cut corners in response to the budget crisis.
What would you say to new or existing faculty who are considering becoming involved in Senate service?
I would urge them to remember the insight I had during the post-Cold War recession in California (discussed above). In a dynamic situation, it is better to be a subject than an object. Whether or not you participate in shared governance at this critical juncture in UC’s history, decisions will be made that fundamentally affect your career in the UC system. We may sink, or we may ride out the storm. There may be any number of intermediate outcomes. In the midst of this storm, do you really want to be painting your cabin, or sleeping in your bunk, when you could be on the bridge?