UCLA's Chancellor-designate Gene Block is interview by Zong Xing
Recently, Xing Zong, a fourth-year graduate student at Duke University, interviewed Gene Block, who will be the ninth chancellor of UCLA. (The interview appeared in the online English edition of People's Daily, and appears here with permission.)
Z: Dr. Block, first I would like to congratulate you on being selected to be the ninth UCLA chancellor. A UCLA news release said that the candidate pool consisted of more than 100 people and the competition was very tough. In your opinion, what helped you excel finally?
B: Thanks. It is difficult for me to say what made the difference for the committee. From my perspective, I think what the committee was impressed with was: first, by my current home, the University of Virginia, a great public university. Second, I was the Vice President for Research, which gave me some understanding of research issues. Research is an important issue for UCLA, which is a significant research power, especially in biomedical research. Third, I have the experience of being a provost. The provost position gives you a wide range of experience in the different aspects of leading a university.
I also have some experience with diversity issues. We have been successful at increasing the number of minority faculty at UVA. This is an important issue at most universities and certainly at UCLA. So I think those are some of the reasons why I was chosen.
Z: A new broom sweeps clean. What's on your immediate to-do list?
B: Although a new broom can sweep clean, I don't always think this is the best way to use a new broom! UCLA has an acting chancellor who started a number of important initiatives which I hope to continue. Let me identify three important issues that I will want to address. One is to attempt to increase the diversity of the faculty and students, so it would be more representative of the California community. For example, African American students are not well represented at UCLA. So we need to see what we can do to help high schools in California, especially the poor high schools, in better preparing students. Also we want to make UCLA more attractive, so when an African American student is accepted by UCLA, he or she will enroll at UCLA and not choose another UC campus. Same thing is true for faculty. We want to increase the diversity of the faculty.
My second goal is to build a stronger relationship with the city of Los Angeles. The city and the university have to be partners. The city is a great advantage to the university, but the university also has responsibilities to the city.
The third issue is for the academics. UCLA is a very strong university starting with strong sciences, but with many other strong programs as well including professional education. But all schools can be better. One thing we'd like to do is to identify programs that are well placed to move into the top ranks. I would like to focus especially on interdisciplinary areas. UCLA is a great campus, the weather is very good, the campus is relatively small; it's easy to collaborate. The medical school folks can walk to the law school, the law school faculty can walk to the college; it is very easy to get around.
I should say that it is important to be humble about improving UCLA. I recognize that UCLA is a great institution, therefore improvements are challenging. So those are the three goals I have set for myself.
Z: In my understanding, both the University of Virginia and UCLA are among the best American public universities. But they actually represent two different public university systems. Do you agree?
B: Very different. Both are top schools in educating undergraduates. UVA is a medium sized university; it has approximately 20,000 students. UCLA has 38,000, almost twice the size.
UCLA is a research power in the biomedical sciences. UVA is good, but not in the same category. UVA is a much smaller research enterprise. But UVA has other strengths. It has strong professional schools, for example the law school and business school.
The campuses also look very different. If you were to fly over the UCLA campus you would see a huge medical complex. At UVA you would focus on the old Jeffersonian lawn.
A notable strength of UVA is in the humanities, such as English literature, history, and languages. I am still new to UCLA, so I have to be careful about concluding what is strong or weak in terms of programs. UCLA also has many strong programs that are not sciences. Thus, UVA and UCLA do share some common traits.
Z: I notice another difference: UVA is independent, but UCLA belongs to University of California system.
B: That's right. UVA has its own governing board. The president reports to the governing board, and the governing board is appointed by the governor. In California, there is a University of California system. The chancellor of UCLA reports to the president of the UC system. UC Riverside, Irvine, San Diego, and the others are all campuses of the system. Having said that, each UC campus has substantial independence in many areas. For example, they have their own fund-raising efforts.
Z: You are a proponent of the university's shared governance model, recognizing that too often there is a great cultural divide between faculty and administration. Why do you say that?
B: Yes, the different cultures are fascinating. Although one must be careful not to over generalize, many faculties tend to be suspicious of authority, administration, and management. Most faculties do not wish to become part of the administrative structure. What they enjoy is the fun of discovery, intellectual debate. Many university administrators, especially those not directly involved in the academic programs, come from different backgrounds; they are used to more of a corporate top-down management style. There is a formula here for conflict; faculty who can be suspicious of administrators and administrators are frustrated that faculties don't act as observant as they would like.
When you try to manage a university, you get frustrated by the cultural divide. The two cultures must come together to successfully run the university. This requires some understanding on the part of top administrators and faculty leaders and mutual respect. It is possible to manage under these circumstances, but not with military type authority but rather leading by consensus.
Z: Your answer reminded me of an interesting scenario. Eisenhower, the former U.S. president, was also the president of Columbia University. Once in a seminar he introduced a Nobel Prize winner as a university employee; the laureate immediately replied, I am a professor of this university and you are an employee.
B: That's very interesting and very revealing. If you ask faculty who their boss is, many faculty will have difficulty in answering the question. They might say they are employed by the university, but it is difficult to say who their boss is. This is very different than in the corporate world.
Z: Another interesting phenomenon I have observed, after serving as the president of a university, a professor can still return to his teaching or research position to pursue his passion.
B: This is a remarkable aspect of higher education in the U.S. You actually can move up the administrative ladder but not give up your ability to return to "civilian life" and teach and do research. This has to do with the fact that most high level administrators also have appointments as university faculty. The faculty appointment, once tenured, is for life and consequently you can return to that appointment after you administrative work is completed.
Z: I guess that reflects something deep in the university culture here in U.S., respect for knowledge more than authority or administration.
B: I would agree. It is perhaps an overstatement but often when faculty hear that another faculty member is moving into administration they wonder if they are doing this because they are having problems with their research program. Again, most faculty love the lives that they live and the freedom they have to explore problems of their own choosing. Naturally they become suspicious when someone leaves the pure academic life.
Z: In college, alumni are always a huge resource. They donate money to their alma mater, help new students to find jobs. In your opinion, what is the smart way for a university to keep in touch with the alumni and what a university can do to best take advantage of this resource?
B: The U.S. system is somewhat unusual in the role played by alumni, especially in their financial support of their universities. I suspect in China, as in most countries, there are very few university where alumni play an important role in philanthropy.
The alumni tradition in United States started with private institutions. For private institutions, the only way they could survive was for their alumni to be generous donors. So Harvard, Yale, Stanford and other elite private institutions developed fund-raising organizations that bound the alumni close to their university. Alumni graduate but stay part of a large family. Consequently, after alumni became successful, they remain close to the school and feel responsible financially to help their former school. In the past, in many public universities, when alumni graduated, they said good bye and thank you. That's changing. Many public universities now focus on keeping their alumni close to school, but are still not as successful with philanthropy as are private schools. Private schools have a much higher annual percentage of giving among their alumni.
Keep in mind, if you develop similar alumni programs in China, the situation might be different. In the U.S., the tax laws favor philanthropy. I should mention that not only are alumni very generous to their alma mater, many parents of students are very generous, even though, they themselves may not be alumni. It will be interesting to see whether philanthropy becomes an important source of support of Chinese universities.
Z: You probably heard about Michigan voters rejecting affirmative action and UMich President Coleman made a strong statement afterwards: "Diversity matters at Michigan, today more than any day in our history." As the chancellor-designate of UCLA, do you face pressure in this regard?
B: Yes, certainly we are mindful of what is happening in the nation with regard to affirmative action and diversity. We remain committed to improving diversity at the University of Virginia and we do this in compliance with state and federal laws. California is more difficult situation as there is a law, Proposition 209, that places additional limits on taking race into account in admissions.
I recognize that improving diversity at UCLA will be a challenge, especially while remaining in compliance with Proposition 209. As mentioned, if one can increase the yield of accepted students, that is the percentage of accepted students who actually enroll, this will help improve the situation. Another strategy will be to work with high schools to better prepare students to be competitive for admission to the University. Alumni can help the situation by working with the financially poorer schools in their region, perhaps contributing funds to college preparatory courses or courses that help improve test performance. I believe that progress can be made in making the university experience a reality for all citizens. It will certainly take time but it is achievable.
Z: As a university chancellor, how do you keep balance between the independence of a university and a good relationship with the government?
B: The relationship with the state government is through the system and thus much of this relationship is handled by the President's Office in Oakland California. The relationship with the federal government involves most often, research relationships. Here independence can be an issue, for example, whether the school is willing to take on classified research or research that restricts access or publication. This is a decision that must be made by the university community and sometimes the university and the government may not be in agreement. It is clear, however, that the government respects the authority of the university to determine the nature of research performed on campus.
Z: Harvard once rejected the possibility of awarding former President Ronald Reagan an honorary doctoral degree. This is unimaginable anywhere else in the world.
B: Universities can be very independent. They decide whether a person has the right credentials for a regular degree or an honorary degree. However, it is quite unusual for a school to reject offering an honorary degree to a sitting president. I suspect most institutions in the country would not have had a problem offering President Reagan an honorary degree.
Z: The cost of higher education in China is rising rapidly. Somebody aregued that higher education is a limited and rare resource so it is natural that not everybody can afford to it . . . . Someone else disagrees: universities should be more accessible to students with poor family backgrounds. What is your personal opinion? Also, why are private universities in America so concerned with the access issue?
B: This is a big issue everywhere. I think one thing many people are struggling with is whether everyone needs to have a college degree. Certainly it is not required for great artists, athletes or technical fields such as automotive mechanics. In the U.S. we don't have many well developed technical training programs that might provide an alternative to the traditional college education. However, many people now believe that the four year college degree is really required by everyone just as high school was required thirty years ago.
Whether or not college is for everybody, it should be affordable to anyone who has the talent and wishes to attend. This is a challenge as the cost of education is rapidly increasing. We are finding that the states no longer feel they have the resources to offer free education to citizens. Consequently, universities have had to look at their donors to help raise funds to support tuition payments for needy students. At the University of Virginia, we have a program that covers the cost of education of students from poor families. We also have some assistance for middle-class students, whose families also struggle with tuition, although such programs are relatively rare. Making college affordable will be a continuing problem I suspect worldwide.
Z: In Chinese universities nepotism is widespread. Most faculties and administrators are graduates of the university they are working for today. This is detrimental for the continuing creativity of the school. Does UVA have any policies to avoid favoritism and encourage diversity?
B: The culture here with regard to students who want to remain in higher education is: they should find employment at another institution in order for us to bring in fresh talent and to maintain intellectual diversity. So the faculty trains graduate students and postdocs with the expectation that they should leave to find employment at other intuitions. Of course there are some exceptions, but most faculties believe strongly in not hiring back our own students.
Z: As the new chancellor, you are required to live on campus. Is it a tradition for a university president to live on campus? Does that mean more students have access to meeting the president?
B: I think the primary purpose for living on campus is that it makes you more accessible. The chancellor has a lot of activities -- groups of alumni, groups of faculty, and groups of students. I think living on campus guarantees you live close and accessible in that sense. It is not intended that students and faculty can just stop by anytime to say hello; you have to have some privacy, as the job keeps one very busy; however, it definitely makes social events easier.
Z: For the college students: Now it is a trend for students to become entrepreneurs. You have a degree from Stanford and must know that very well. Many universities have start-up challenges, or put business school students and engineering school students together. What, in your mind, can a university do to facilitate or encourage students to do that?
B: It should be the students' choice to be entrepreneur. Not everybody wants to become entrepreneurs. For students there are new educational opportunities that would allow them to become successful entrepreneurs if they so choose. For example, there are interdisciplinary programs that combine engineering and business degrees. A number of U.S. schools offer entrepreneur programs. I suspect that these programs don't teach you creativity, per se, but they probably do teach the mechanisms of entrepreneurship. Some universities, such as the University of Maryland, even have a dormitory where student entrepreneurs live together, so that they can share experiences.
Z: As the new chancellor of UCLA, how do you foresee the future collaboration between UCLA and China?
B: I am still new to UCLA, so want to be careful since I don't know the current status of relationships with schools in China. But I can tell you at UVA we are eager to build new relationships. This past year I met the provost of Peking University. I am hopeful that we can find areas where we can work together. I am certainly interested in looking at new possibilities with China, Korea, Japan. I suspect that same will be true at UCLA. . . .
Z: Last question: You are an accomplished biologist. Do you think scientific training benefits your role as an administrator?
B: I suspect that different backgrounds give you different strengths. For example, a law background is helpful to administrators, because it provides important critical analysis skills and an understanding of the legal issues that universities face. A science background is also useful because in modern research universities, a huge portion of federal funding goes to life science and medicine. I think there are many good ways to prepare to become an academic administrator. I believe that having a science background is particularly useful.
Z: That's all I am going to ask, thank you very much!
B: My pleasure.
About Gene Block
Gene D. Block is currently Provost and Professor of Biology at the University of Virginia. On December 21, 2006, Block was named the ninth chancellor of UCLA. He will take office on or before August 1, 2007, succeeding Acting Chancellor Norman Abrams.
Block, 58, is an accomplished biologist whose research involves the cellular basis of circadian rhythms. He received the A.B. from Stanford University in 1970, followed by the M.S. and Ph.D. in 1972 and 1975, respectively, from the University of Oregon; all of these degrees were in psychology. He returned to Stanford for postdoctoral work from 1975 until 1978, when he began his teaching career at the University of Virginia.
Block currently serves on numerous scientific advisory boards, and he is the 2006-2007 Chair of the Board of Directors of the National Institute of Aerospace. Within the Commonwealth of Virginia, he is on the Board of Directors of the Carilion Biomedical Institute and the UVA Patent Foundation, and he served on the Governor's Biotechnology Task Force for three years.
Prior to becoming Provost, Professor Block was Vice President for Research and Public Service. As VP for Research, he was involved in the formation of Virginia Gateway, a university/community liaison office charged with developing closer ties among the University of Virginia, regional technology businesses, and local government. In recognition of Dr. Block's public service, Viginia Governor Gilmore presented him in 1998 with the Commonwealth Outstanding Public Service Award. Block was the founding director of the National Science Foundation Science and Technology Center in Biological Timing. He is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and was a Visiting Fellow of the Japanese Society for the Promotion of Science.
Published: Wednesday, February 07, 2007
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