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Thursday, July 21, 2005 | Twice in a row now it has worked. If a Chancellor performs with distinction at the University of California, San Diego, he moves on to Oakland to live in Blake House and run the whole thing, the world’s largest university spread up and down the nation’s most populous state, the University of California, a behemoth of 200,000 students, 130,000 employees and a $19 billion budget.

“Blake House isn’t a place where Frances and I would really want to live,” says Robert Dynes, who became the university’s 18th president in 2003. “You open closets and go down into the basement, and there’s stuff that maybe every president and his wife bought on their travels and thought would be nice around Blake House.”

So Dynes, a distinguished physicist who came to UCSD in 1991 after a 22-year career with AT&T Bell Laboratories, is escaping his offices when he can to do what he has always done to get at the facts: basic research with people. On Friday he stunned colleagues by arriving at University House in jeans, preparing to roam headquarters offices and campuses and learn. Canadian-born and populist, he has set precedents of informality in dealing with regents often described as the “knights of California.”

The 11 campuses that he oversees can awe any visitor with the majestic scope of California. From the campuses, he often stalks into fields and forests to see and hear how the University of California is driving the future of the state.

“Here I am standing in the woods with Red Emerson beside his red pickup at Sierra Pacific,” he says, “in corporate forests that stretch across nearly 2 percent of California, when up walks this young woman in her 30s, who got her bachelors in math at UCSD and her masters in forestry from Berkeley.”

“This UCSD grad is turning around the future of this company and changing the science of forestry,” Emerson tells Dynes.

Dynes explains later: “Her argument, which I was willing to believe after watching her virtual presentation of the evolution of a forest over a century, is that if they follow her plan to cut and grow, both the critters and the forests will be healthier.”

On another day, at a cattle ranch in the Great Central Valley, he is listening to a woman who stands waist-deep in the water of a creek that rushes down in torrents from the Sierra Nevada.

“She is literally counting fish!” Dynes recalls, his eyes still wide with wonder. “I am in the middle of another University of California research project. She needs to know how many fish are swimming upstream and how many are swimming downstream, and sure enough she gets her counts.

“Another day in the San Joaquin Valley, I watch them measure the amount of shade from trees. They measure this carefully to seek the optimum shade. Shade, I learn, controls the moisture on the farmland, which controls water flow to reservoirs and cities.

“Why am I sitting in my office in Oakland,” Dynes cries out, “when all these people that we educate are out there doing all these interesting things? I just learned that what they call natural nutrients is the stuff that comes out of cattle. You can’t believe how important knowing this is to the agriculture of America’s major food basket! With the help of the university, these ranchers develop processes to reduce the amount of natural nutrients that run into fresh water streams that eventually flow into urban reservoirs.”

In sum, Dynes says one evening over dinner with friends, “In all my career in the sciences, I’ve never seen such efficient technology as that in California agricultural programs. Every time I can get away from my office, I learn things about California that, anywhere else, would seem impossible to believe! The decisions that university scientists are making in agriculture alone are vital to sustaining the American future.”

His seemingly boundless enthusiasm stalls.

“But the more I travel around California,” he says, “the more I realize too few people are thinking about this future.”

So Dynes is shaping a university research and planning group to estimate what the nation will need from California in agriculture, health care and education.

He goes to his Regents and academic senates to say:

“These demographics are easy to predict. But what will the finest university in the world look like when those hundreds of thousands more people arrive?” A research panel on these issues is to be co-chaired by Marcie Greenwood, his provost, and Bruce Darling, senior vice president of university affairs.

“The scary thing,” he adds, “is that 2025 is really not very far away. Every decision we make today will affect 2025. Cities like San Diego would not be in the fix they are in if they had had proper planning. We have to predict as capably as our academicians know how, and then to plan.”

Toward that end, the University of California, through its extension programs, is involved in education in every county up and down the long state. In producing more than half of the nation’s produce, California remains competitive, Dynes says, “because we keep designing new food products that come out of the University of California.”

The agricultural base of the university was formed in its founding in 1868 as a land grant university based at Berkeley – with “the Davis farm” quickly developing to meet agricultural research needs, including viticulture. The Davis farm remains at the core of the University of California, Davis campus.

As president, Dynes draws on his own roots as a youth growing up in Canada. He has vivid memories of his work in a dairy and ice cream factory, “where I learned as a kid to listen very carefully, to listen in on the old pros from the labor union. When they’d go on vacation, I’d fill in for them from job to job and learn not to screw up because if you did those guys would eat your lunch.

“I learned more about human interaction from those guys, coming in at 4:30 every morning and learning the plumbing, realizing that if I hooked in a wrong connection, the whole dairy would empty out on the floor.

“Things we learn young really affect our lives, our sense of values. Two of us – one I later went all through college with – spent a summer on a highway crew laying sod beside a highway across southern Ontario. A dollar an hour. We’d dig sod up, roll it up and carry it out and lay it. At 30 pounds a roll, the first one was easy. By the time you got to 150 rolls they were getting heavy, and it was only 8:30 in the morning.”

In the headlong growth of the University of California, Dynes does not discount the lure of California’s seacoast, its beauty and climate.

From the start of his chancellor days at UCSD, he says, he has exploited that: “I ask academicians: Would you rather live in Boston or in La Jolla? And well on beyond that, I can testify, I can work in California better than anywhere else in the world because there are more people striving to make a difference. And in the end, what else is there in life?”

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