On April 12, Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs, Manuel Gómez, announced that he would be retiring after 15 years in that position. This is a condensed interview, the full version of which is available on the New University website.
Q: Why now?
A: The chancellor and the executive vice chancellor were actually aware of my interest in this being my last year in September. The announcement seems abrupt but it’s not. It was my plan to retire at the end of this academic year. It’s been 15 years that I’ve been vice chancellor of student affairs and that’s a good amount of time in a role and office of this importance. I think it’s a good time for someone with a fresh perspective to come.
Q: Why is it a good time for someone with fresh perspective?
A: Fifteen years is a long time and I have my ways of viewing the organization and my relationship with the student organizations. The university as a whole is going through some serious challenges, budgetary being predominant, but there are other issues. It appears that the university will be going into new directions into the future that will be very distinct from we have been in the past. Fresh perspective might be exactly what our campus needs.
Q: What are some of these new directions that you think the university might go into?
A: Well, there is no doubt that a major challenge is protecting the quality of the university while at the same time maintaining our traditional commitment to access and affordability. That’s a powerful challenge that has to be addressed in some way if UC is to retain its attachment to it traditional mission of serving the people of California completely.
Q: What were your goals when you started this job 15 years?
A; I was always committed to leadership development and making sure our campus reflected the demographic complexity of California. So that means shorthand diversity, and equality and equity. I became vice chancellor 1995. That year was a year of crisis in the university because that was the year Proposition 209 eliminated affirmative action, student, faculty and staff. I am very proud of the Center for Educational Partnerships in the post-affirmative action world. To me, that is an important legacy that will go into the futures.
Q: Do wish the law hadn’t been passed?
A: Certainly I wasn’t supportive of it. But it was, you know, the people voted for it.
Q: What do you think were the biggest challenges of your tenure?
A: Well, 1995’s affirmative action law was one. The biggest challenge remains balancing priorities and resources.
Q: For example, between what?
A: Right now, the entire set of issues related to academic freedom and freedom of speech on the campus. How do you balance the needs of students’ expressive rights and their first amendment rights with what outside organizations seem to want or think that they can request? There is never a congruence. Sometimes there is a difference between faculty needs, staff needs, students needs. This could even be about food.
Q: The Michael Oren incident seems to be a recent example of this. Could you comment on how the campus has chosen to deal with it?
A: I need to restrain myself because I am the last appeal once the deliberations are completed at the Dean of Students level. But I can say that I believe that this office and certainly the University of California, Irvine as a whole has been extraordinary for defending freedom of expression for all groups, even though different groups have different perceptions of that defense.
The growth of our campus, the maturity of our campus as a consequence reflect in my view more of a clash of ideas, more and more controversy. I think all great universities and their surrounding communities need to be aware [of] academic freedom and freedom of speech and fundamental values of a university. They define a university; you cannot have a university without them. Having said that, at the same time, you can’t have a university that allows anyone to take away one’s right to speak. The idea of a university is exchange, critique, listening; no one group can assume that they and only they have the truth and no one else does.
Q: How have you tried to balance this?
A: Well, I’ve been standing in the messy middle all these years, which is OK. This office and other offices take stones from all sides. There is a confusion, which happens often between expression, dissent, protest and conduct, behavior, actions. Because that line gets blurred quite often with protest movements, which is free speech and is protected, it crosses a line toward conduct or property destruction.
Q: Would that be the graffiti from a couple weeks back?
A: Certainly that is not free speech.
Q: What effect has the larger budget issue had on this university?
A: Well, they’ve been tremendous. It’s hard to catalogue. First and foremost, is the impact on students and their families, which have been nearly unbearable. The 32 percent increase is half; the faculty and staff furloughs have also not been helpful in retaining our talent. All of that has a toll on the quality of education, on our students and on the environment of the university. How do we keep access, quality and equity? It’s not possible in the long run to sustain these kinds of cuts.
Q: How long do you think the university can sustain the current situation?
A: I am not sure. I think that the people of California as a whole have to understand that higher education is one of the most prudent investments. It’s not simply, as some people believe, a private good. It’s fundamentally a common good. The body politic has got to understand that we need to invest in colleges, not prisons.
Q: How is that going to happen?
A: All of us have a role to play. Advocacy. We need the people to say to the legislature that we are a public university and it can no longer sustain the body blows that it has taken with the budgetary decisions that they have made.
Q: How hopeful are you that this is going to happen?
A: I am very hopeful actually. I hope that we will come out of this economic crisis a better, stronger, more equitable university. It’s not that we lack the wealth. It’s that we don’t seem to have the faith in the future and in our institutions. We need to address the big budgetary constitutional issues.
Q: What would be your nightmare scenario for the UCs?
A: I don’t know if I want to share one. [Long silence] It would descend into continuous turmoil within itself. We would be unable to understand that faculty and students struggling together. Working together is the only way to save the university.
Q: How does someone who once hung the flag of anarchy end up as an administrator?
A: Well, I was once young too and believed in the notion of no authority and the ideal utopian view that we are all equal and moral and do the right thing and do not need someone else to tell us how to be good. It’s an ideal. There’s the reality of conflict, reality of other forces that in many cases are oppressive, corrosive and destructive of the human spirit that strives to become more dignified with regard with how we conduct ourselves in our daily lives. So that’s all I’ll say at the moment.
Q: Did this background affect your tenure as vice chancellor?
A: I have tremendous respect for students and for their ideals, and for their passion. I enjoy advocating for student needs. I never once interfered in the internal operations of the student government, even though I may have been opposed personally to some of their actions, as long as they didn’t do anything violating laws or policy. My view was that they had a right to make mistakes, to grow and to advocate what they wanted to advocate.
Q: What are your plans for the future?
Q: Just rest?
A: Rest. Reflect. Maybe travel. Pester my children. They both live in Bay area. I have no plan other than to do that.
Q: Will you miss it?
A: My father, when he retired, people would ask him that and he went through a beautiful time when he retired. In Spanish we don’t say retire; we say “jubilarse,” which is related to the word jubilee. So I am anticipating. I am going to be happy, busy. I chose this moment to step down so I like to live with my choices. Once those choices are made, I tend not to regret or miss, I just keep on walking in the direction that I have chosen. I’ll see what comes next.
Q: Do you have any idea who will replace you?
A: That’s the chancellor and Provost’s decision. I don’t know.
Q: Would you like to have any say over who becomes vice chancellor?
Q: Do you have any advice for your successor?
A; Have fun.
Q: Anything else?
A: It’s been an extraordinary, remarkable journey, my work with this university. I knew and worked with the founding chancellor, Daniel Aldrich. I knew and still know the second chancellor, Jack Peltason, and I was appointed by the third chancellor, Laurel Wilkening. I worked with the fourth chancellor, Ralph Cicerone and worked five years under Michael Drake. That’s phenomenal, to have worked with the first five chancellors of a university. It’s not every university that you can say I’m older than the university that I work for, but that’s a fact.