UC Riverside Chancellor France A. Córdova's made the following remarks during a meeting of the UC women's professional and graduate student group.
March 23, 2007
Córdova: Road to chancellor often not a straight path
I would like to start with a question: How many academics with advanced degrees does it take to change a light bulb? Answer: only one, but the light bulb has got to really want to change.
Now: How many academics with advanced degrees does it take to start a medical school? Answer: unknown, but many more than one. With a small but entrepreneurial team, backed by committed health administrators such as Cathryn Nation, UC Riverside has embarked on launching the first new medical school in California, indeed the first new medical school west of the Mississippi, in 45 years.
The UC Regents have approved us to proceed along the complex path of starting a UC School of Medicine. It will be based on a different model for delivery than other UC medical schools, namely, a distributed model in which many hospitals and clinics throughout a vast and growing region of California will become partners in health-care delivery and host our student interns and residents.
As you take a look at the major players in this process - the chancellor, executive vice chancellor and provost, assistant chancellor, vice provost for academic personnel, special assistant to the chancellor for diversity and excellence, vice chancellor of academic planning and budget, special assistant to the provost for health affairs, as well as our consultant for curriculum development and our consultant for planning and developing residency programs - are all women. Yet, had you asked all of us, when we were earning our professional and graduate degrees, if we thought that one day we would be starting a new School of Medicine, I'd be surprised if any of us would have been less than, well, surprised by the question. For myself, I had my eyes on the nature of the interaction between stars, and I'm not aware that they need medical attention.
Let me step back and look at the bigger picture of higher education today. Colleges and universities have become a big business. College presidents are regarded today like CEOs in a $300 billion industry that has numerous challenges:
* Educating and training students of all ages - from the 9-year-old genius to the emerging 70-year-old scholar;
* Overseeing basic research laboratories charged with developing innovations to transform health, defense and the economy;
* Managing a research enterprise that brings in tens if not hundreds of millions in grants from private and public sources;
* Developing partnerships with federal agencies, state legislators, city councils, county supervisors, community boards, including boards of education, boards of trustees and regents;
* Partnering on the campus with the academic senate, staff (and sometimes faculty and graduate student) unions, and the student leadership;
* Producing the scholarship and discoveries that will win Pulitzer and Nobel prizes;
* Providing parking for all and championship athletic teams; and
* Achieving a genial reputation as a party school for students while narrowly avoiding a citation on the Princeton Review's Top 20 list of party schools.
Nurturing a medical school carries some very specific demands of its own, including:
* Securing the state legislature's funding for core faculty;
* Attracting significant private investment for needed endowments and facilities;
* Cultivating partnerships with hospitals and clinics to provide rotation options for third- and fourth-year students and residencies for graduates;
* Attracting and retaining highly trained clinical faculty and prominent researchers in health science.
So let's add managing, enabling and funding a large, complex and skilled faculty to that list of challenges for the college CEO, along with the mantle of chief fund-raiser and head cheerleader.
As I understand it, my charge this evening is to tell you about my own career path, and how that prepared me for my current position as chancellor of one of the 10 campuses of the largest and most highly-ranked research university system in the nation, a (roughly) $20 billion enterprise. I was asked to share my view of the influences that defined my path.
Let me begin with a list of the things I wanted to be when I was 13: a monk, a nuclear physicist, an existentialist, a detective. Later I found out that these are all nearly the same thing. I had a need to know beyond the surface of things, a desire to tie my imagination to something beyond what was common or obvious, a drive to find a connection with the mysterious, and with a seemingly infinite, indifferent and wondrous universe that was more hidden than revealed. My guides were the philosophy of Thomas Merton, the writings of Albert Camus, the discoveries of Albert Einstein, the music of John Coltrane, the poetry of T.S. Eliot, the detective work of Nancy Drew and the heroic exploits of 14th-century scholar and church activist Catherine of Siena.
So, with this group of coaches, who were better suited to prepare one to work in a cloister, how did I become a university chancellor?
I ascribe my career trajectory to Newton's laws.
Newton's first law, called the Law of Inertia, states: Every object in a state of uniform motion tends to remain in that state of motion unless an external force is applied to it. Inertia sounds pretty good to me. I've always been happy doing what I was doing. If external force in the shape of Sister Mary Perpetua, O.S.B. (Order of Saint Benedict), hadn't told me in the sixth grade that "Surely our Blessed Mother expects great things of you," I would not have examined every thing that thereafter happened to me, wondering if this was the great thing that would consume my energy and commitment and make the Blessed Mother proud.
Were it not for the nun's earnest remark, and Newton's second law, I might have spent much of my youth in an inertial state, lying under the large Sycamore tree in our front yard, listening to the droning of planes flying overhead. The second law says, in short, "stuff happens, and then you accelerate in direct proportion to the amount and direction of the stuff happening to YOU."
A brief history of the accelerating forces is in order here:
I was the first born in the family, and my Irish twin came shortly after me, followed by another child, then another, until - equilibrium - my parents stopped at twelve children. One consequence is that I became the Responsible Child, who learned how to manage other children, change and fold diapers, iron everyone's uniforms, scrub the kitchen floor, baby-sit. I was never off-duty. Studying was actually a great relief as this took me into other worlds - history, literature, math, and science. Vigorous application to my studies accelerated me right out of the house and into college, the first girl from my high school to be accepted to Stanford.
My university experience was nothing like the fantasy college life I had heard about and dreamed about. My experience was transformed by the Vietnam War, which raged in the late 1960s and absorbed the attention of the nation. Nowhere, except in Vietnam itself, was the battle more fiercely waged than on our college campuses. The draft, the questions about what was it we were fighting for, the demonstrations and peace marches which came onto the campus, the sit-ins in the administration building, the media, the songs of Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, the lifestyle, the bell bottoms and bandanas around the head - that experience accelerated me as fast as possible, namely, after 3.3 years, out of college and into the workplace.
I had majored in English at Stanford because the mentors in my life - parents and teachers - thought I had an aptitude for writing, and because I truly enjoyed reading literature and creative writing. From my youth I had enjoyed science and sometimes dreamed of being a physicist, but no one encouraged me in this, and there were no role models that I was exposed who were female scientists. Upon graduation from college, I did the things that English majors do - I wrote for a magazine in New York City, I did an education project centered on the East Coast involving a few universities, and then I worked for a newspaper in Los Angeles. I tried to write the Great American Novel, and failed.
My interest in physics was renewed when one night, living in Cambridge, Mass., I watched a public TV special about neutron stars. The next morning I went to MIT and asked for a job at the Center for Space Research. I got the job, working for next to nothing, but ecstatic at being close to science. I eventually ended up at Caltech, working for one of the professors whose papers I had studied at MIT. Again I worked for next to nothing, but audited classes and immersed myself in X-ray astrophysics, a new discipline that emerged from rocket science in the 1960s. The Caltech professors, pleased at my progress in the lab and my progress in the classes which I audited, saw that I was admitted to graduate school in physics. The moral of this part of my life is: work for passion, not for money.
I was one of the first students in X-ray astronomy and, with other students, launched rockets, but also launched a new approach to observational science called multi-wavelength astrophysics, which used telescope facilities on the ground and in space to approach the understanding of cosmic sources of radiation from a more comprehensive perspective than before. This approach made use of the fact that the government was opening the usage of facilities to all applicants with good proposals. I launched the first conference in this discipline, edited the first book and eventually, was among those who built the assemblage of experiments for the world's first multi-wavelength astronomy space mission. (Interestingly, in view of the laws dominating my career path, the mission is called XMM-Newton. It is still flying in space and to this day sends to Earth remarkable data about the high-energy cosmos.) What did I learn that I have taken with me from this early time in my life as a scientist? Follow your instincts; go on the road less traveled. There's more room on that road and there you can lead.
When did I uncover that new element that some refer to as "administratium"? I was minding my own business in my first "real" job, that is, one that I was adequately paid for, at Los Alamos National Laboratory, where I had been for almost a decade, doing basic research in astronomy after I graduated with my Ph.D. from Caltech. I was blissful in an inertial state, with no perturbing forces. I had met the man who would become my husband, while rock climbing on the cliffs above the Rio Grande. We had two children - both of whom are now in college. We were happy - doing science, climbing, skiing and parenting. And then I received a phone call from my Ph.D. thesis adviser, who had moved on from Caltech to Penn State University. Was I tired of "having fun"? he asked. Of course not, I replied. He asked me to interview for the headship of the Department of Astronomy at Penn State. That was in February. By August, we were settled in Penn State, with two small children and two big jobs. I was not only the head of the department; I was the only woman in the department. But I had a great dean, who granted me everything I asked for as a department head.
The lesson here: change isn't bad, it's just different. Another lesson: if you have a choice, work for a good person, one with good values and who cares that you succeed.
The leadership of Penn State was exceptional, from the president and provost to the dean and fellow department heads and chairs. We enjoyed that time and still cultivate many friends we made there. But then I got another phone call - this time from the head of NASA asking me to interview for the position of chief scientist for the agency. I interviewed, and was offered the job, as a three-year leave from my university. I was the first woman to hold this job, and, in my early forties, the youngest.
The moral here is: be careful answering the phone (your staff may advise you to never answer the phone). Seriously, this was a tough decision. So many people advised me against this, because they saw it, and rightly so, as a departure from my science and as a job with political land mines. But a friend who was chair of Women's Studies at Penn State said, "You can't be giving speeches about how women can effect social change, and then not accept this opportunity to make change."
The NASA job was pivotal for me. It accelerated my knowledge about Washington politics, about the agendas of other agencies, about what could and couldn't be done in the nation's capitol. It would take another hour to share this with you in any detail. My family truly enjoyed living in the DC area because you felt you were close to the central workings of the country, where the gears were turning fastest. I believed I did a lot of good for NASA, and in my role on the NSTC's (National Science and Technology Council) Fundamental Science Committee, where we took on an agenda for some changes for science policy that affected all agencies responsible for science funding. With so many women in leading positions in the government, we formed a "Women in Science in the Agencies" group, which was very helpful in making progress within our agencies, and helped us form bonds of friendship that we still cultivate.
When my three years at NASA were up, I received offers to interview for various senior positions at universities around the country. Ultimately, I chose UC Santa Barbara, for the quality of its physics department and the opportunity to be near my family's home in southern California, as well as the opportunity to be Vice Chancellor for Research. There I learned about the UC system, with its ten research campuses. Again, I fell into a wonderful inertial state, enabling and participating in innovative multidisciplinary research at UCSB, where I could have happily remained until my emeritus days.
But six years after we moved to Santa Barbara, I found myself being interviewed by the UC President and Board of Regents for the Chancellorship of the Riverside campus, the fastest growing and most diverse of the UC campuses. My family and I made a surreptitious visit to the campus before the interview and saw how stunningly beautiful it was. The student body represented the face of changing California. Here, I felt, I could make a difference. I was offered the job by then President Richard Atkinson the evening of my interview, and I had a one word response, "yes."
That was almost five years ago. Today I find myself challenged as never before. I've assembled a great, truly great team to help me lead. We have much to do to enable our campus to reach the next level in rankings and accomplishment. We have seven goals, including bolstering the reputational ranking of our campus, investing in selected areas to build true distinction in key areas, building new professional schools (not only our medical school, which inland California desperately needs, but we also have an application for a School of Public Policy in process as well), diversifying our faculty to reflect the diversity in our undergraduate students, revamping the curriculum to reflect our diversity and our aspirations, enhancing the student experience, including augmenting the graduate school, and working with the entire "Inland Empire" (the nation's fastest growing economy) to develop a knowledge-driven economy. These are the challenges. The reward is making a little progress every day on each of these goals. There are other rewards too, such as the smiles of the students when I greet them on campus. Their happiness, their harmony and personal growth is deeply satisfying to me.
That's a tour of the forces that jolted me out of my inertial states and pushed me into my current position. As you can see, it's not a conventional path, but then no path to a university presidency is. You are looking to define your own path. I hope that my story suggests that there are many paths toward becoming a leader in higher education, and you have nothing to be concerned about if your own trajectory is also unusual.
I mentioned that at UCR many of those involved in developing UC's new medical school are women. Let me give you a flavor for their unusual pathways. Here's the roster:
* A former dean of a school of communications, her research focuses on the influence of television violence and commercials on children;
* A former faculty member in biomedicine, she left the university to start up a biotech company, and then sold it profitably;
* A former P.E. teacher, she eventually became the dean of education at the UCLA School of Medicine;
* A city girl who fell in love with rural health, she has a Ph.D. in organizational theory;
* A UCR grad student in anthropology, later a university president in New York City, she shapes national diversity initiatives;
* A former chair of a bioscience department with nearly 50 percent women faculty, she seized the opportunity to diversify the faculty of the entire university, including its professional schools;
* A journalism major from the Watergate era, she began her career writing for a magazine, and then penned initiatives for agriculture;
* A musician and quilt-maker who became a strategic planner and CFO.
As you can see, there are unusual paths to leadership in academic health care; we need this diversity of experience to reach our ambitious goals of creating a new paradigm for medicine. The health profession is interdisciplinary to its very core and so it must draw from a wide array of talent.
AAMC statistics reveal that the pipeline for women in academic medicine is constricted. While 50 percent of medical students in 2005-06 are women, only 16 percent of full professors, 10 percent of department chairs and 11 percent of medical school deans are women. Apparently, many women leave academic medicine for clinical practice because of lifestyle, child-rearing and the hierarchical nature of academic medicine. To make it in academic medicine, a woman dean of a medical school recently told me, you have to have persistence because there are many obstacles along the way.
Speaking of obstacles, let me conclude by invoking Newton's Third Law: For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. I know this to be true from my days as a rocket scientist. There is little point in taking on a university presidency, or a leadership position in academic health care, unless you can effect institutional change for the better. The things that need to be changed are numerous (I once heard a chancellor remark in a pique of anxiety, "Is there anything here that ISN'T broken?!"). As a leader, you become an agent of change. There will always be a reaction to our actions. There will be push back, sometimes from surprising places. That's when you pull out the reinforcements: friends, books, prayer - your own internal compass.
Every time I hear the expression, "Well, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to do this!" I think: this job of being chancellor is harder than rocket science! As an astrophysicist (who teaches a course on the search for extraterrestrial life), I look up at the stars and repeat, "I am not alone." And neither are you.
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