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Monday, August 22, 2005 | It is fitting that a university ranked as one of the nation’s top schools for scientific study and research should have a nationally renowned chemist at its helm. Marye Anne Fox, who holds a doctorate in chemistry, served in a wide range of teaching, leadership and research positions before assuming the role as the seventh chancellor of the University of California, San Diego last August. Her accomplishments include serving as the 12th chancellor of North Carolina State University, distinguished university professor of chemistry at North Carolina State, and Waggoner Regents Chair in chemistry and vice president for research at the University of Texas in Austin. On the anniversary of her first year at UCSD, Fox spoke with the Voice of San Diego about the present and future role of the university in the lives of its students and community.
What was a pivotal triumph or setback from your own experience as a student?
I graduated on a Tuesday and got married on Saturday, which is what you do in those days. My undergraduate degree was chemistry, but the man I married was a medical student and needed to be supported so I decided I was going to get a master’s degree and be a teacher, and while doing that, I taught Monday, Wednesday and Friday at public schools. It was the year after Martin Luther King was killed, and the school that I was in had virtually no teachers because everyone was afraid to go to that school, and it impressed upon me so vividly how low expectations are self-fulfilling. These kids were smart kids, almost all African American, they were dealing with two-digit addition – 21 plus 35 equals – and did worksheets like this day after day. As you can imagine they were bored and had no commitment to school. I got them to the place where they could do income tax returns. People got money back from their jobs, and it motivated them enough to go to school. And it really taught me that high standards are really, really important, whether you’re talking about students or administrators sitting around a table. You have to have accountability, you have to have a goal in mind, and you have to make it a goal that’s accessible.
How do you stay in touch with UCSD students, and what have you learned about their specific issues and needs?
I have student walk-ins and they’re all filled all the time. It’s very interesting for me because I don’t lead the discussion, I just hear what the students have on their mind and it’s a good barometer. They are very global, much more aware of what’s happening in other parts of the world, and for example how a situation in India can affect job security here in San Diego.
University is much more competitive than it used to be and issues it faces are much more complex. Students are really, really dedicated. The ones who graduate are ready to become civic leaders.
What kind of additional support, beyond academics, does UCSD need to provide its students to help them be successful?
The top job of the university is to act as a convener. By that I mean identifying those whose talents can be used in the full commission of the university, its education, its research and its purpose to the state. It’s the responsibility of any university’s administration to put together the infrastructure to enable that – for example, sufficient housing so they can integrate into campus, sufficient recreation so they can have a healthy existence. So that’s my job – to make sure that there are no barriers to prevent any of this from happening.
The UC has been criticized as being so research-oriented that it neglects or alienates its undergraduates. Do you see this as a problem?
The University of California has a master plan which delineates eligibility with respect to achievements at the high school level so those that come to UCSD are in the top several percentage of their class. So they are known performers. They are going to be the ones that drive the next academic future. When you have the very cream of the crop in an institution, you are going to focus on creativity and research.
It’s one of my dreams that we have every undergraduate involved in a research project but we’re not there yet. But we do have substantial participation of undergraduates in what I would call research or practical applications.
What about the ratio of faculty and staff to students – have you seen the gap widen during your time here, and does that present a challenge to quality of education?
Obviously, we face a challenge because that number has gone up as state support has gone down. As early as the ’80s, 7 percent of the budget was going to state institutions – now it’s a low 3.5 (percent). We have had to make significant cuts, not superficial ones, and one of the ways that it’s been reflected is with the average number of students per faculty members.
What is the university doing to improve its diversity record?
We talk about diversity at almost every meeting that we have – how to attract more faculty from diverse backgrounds to enrich the academic experience, how to attract more students, how to have a staff that reflects the population of California. And we’re far from that. We have efforts ongoing to improve the recruiting of students from racial and ethnic minorities – to convince those who are qualified for admission and have been offered positions to actually choose to come here.
Part of the reason we are having to campaign so aggressively is to have enough money available for scholarships so that we can take the financial part of that decision making out of the equation.
What is UCSD doing specifically to reach out to the large Latino population in San Diego?
Well I went to the Chicano Federation to ask that very question. We have as well a council of advisors on campus who meet with us every quarter about Latino issues. We have seven new Latino/Latina faculty members coming this year. Again, never enough, but we are certainly paying attention. We are going to have something called a “dialogue on race” that will address specifically the challenges that minorities face on campus.
Headlines concerning UCSD almost always talk about the sciences. What is being done to further the arts and humanities?
I think the arts and humanities don’t get enough attention on any campus. But on the other hand, our theater program ranks third in the nation, we have a very strong relationship with La Jolla Playhouse and the symphony, our students have wonderful venues where they can be accepted and we have a wonderful local community supporting the arts.
One of the reasons we are splitting the position of the vice chancellor of research is … (to) help the humanities faculty and identify new opportunities that haven’t been pursued as aggressively as they should have been in the past. Also, contributions to our Capital Campaign (involving donations from alumni) to promote the arts and humanities will have an effect as well. But we have to go after those donors who are interested in the arts. Somebody who is giving back to the university because he founded a company based on electrical engineering is probably not going to give to the arts. But this is a young school. We just passed our 40th year so we don’t have this backlog, like UCLA has, of people who have made generous bequeaths to the university. Our students are all still young alumni, raising families and putting children through college.
How is UCSD planning to become more involved with the greater San Diego community?
I think we can certainly improve that significantly. That’s one of the reasons I’ve made as much effort as I have to get out to various parts of the community – the Chamber of Commerce, various schools, we’re visiting a reservation to try to recruit some Native American students to UCSD. We have a broad interaction with San Diego public schools, like Preuss and Gompers, that I want to continue.
What has changed at UCSD since you assumed leadership?
This is a transition year and the most important thing is that we have come together as a team and the team has adjusted to differences in leadership style. I tend to be a very decisive person when you put an issue on the table, after everyone has had their input on how it will affect things, I expect that the person whose advocating the action plan is going to walk out of this room excited and develop a solution throughout the campus to get something done. I think that’s a different leadership style than we’ve had in the past, which was open to suggestions but without a plan for going forward.
The thing that I’m most proud of is that you can almost see the synergy that is developing between different leaders on campus. It’s such a great place, such wonderful students and faculty – you don’t have to do too much to steer it in the right direction and then they carry the ball.
What are your top priorities for the coming year (or years)?
We are having an administrative retreat on Thursday and the topics there will be the ones that have emerged as reasonably high. One of them is internationalization. One is going to be on diversity. We’re going to be talking internationalization, about connections to the community, intellectual property, a very extensive study we’ve received on the undergraduate experience, how to improve the quality of life of undergraduates, and starting a similar project for grad students next year. We’re also going to be talking about administrative things, what to do about the fact that faculty can’t afford a house here, the appropriate use of land for the campus, whether that means more recreational facilities, on-campus housing, and how we’ll be able to do that when the state has a limit on our accounts. So that’s our agenda for next year, but it will probably take several years to play out.
– JESSICA L. HORTON, Voice Contributing Writer