UCSD’s chancellor works to improve campus environment

With the announcement about the Jacobs Medical Center on the UCSD Medical Center campus, Chancellor Marye Anne Fox can mark another notch on her list of greatest achievements during her six-year tenure.

In an interview a couple of weeks ago, she talked about the growth of the campus during her tenure, adding later that her greatest achievement has been “providing facilities that are commensurate with the needs of our extraordinary students, faculty and staff.”

Now, she can tout a $664 million hospital for women and infants, cancer care and advanced surgery and a $75 million gift from Irwin and Joan Jacobs.

Since her arrival in 2004, the campus has gained 2.2 million square feet of space with $1.6 billion in projects initiated. They have helped overcome, at least partially, two problems Fox found when she arrived on campus:

  • a lack of research space that forced people to work in circumstances that didn’t encourage “intellectual stimulation from working together” and
  • that “the students weren’t happy.”
And, she added, the students “were not very subtle” about the situation — a problem that resurfaced recently with the disturbances and a growing frustration over a lack of racial diversity on campus.

Resolving frustration

That lack of diversity is frustrating, Fox said. Acknowledging the campus has been unable “to attract enough African Americans, Native Americans or Latinos,” she said she is hopeful the conversations over the past couple of months are leading to changes.

“Our hands are tied by Prop. 209 (which eliminated affirmative action in admissions) ... as a result students feel isolated and sometimes marginalized,” she said. “That’s not the environment students should have in their college years.”

Making it clear that racism would not be tolerated, she stepped into the fray immediately when the protests began and met with students, who at one point occupied her office for most of a day.

While she misses the regular interaction she had with students as a professor, Fox said she makes an effort to talk to them — as well as faculty and staff — as much as she can. And being the mother of five boys aged 29 to 37 in a blended family (her husband James K. Whitesell is a UCSD chemistry professor) that also includes 10 grandchildren, she has a lot of experience with young people that she says comes in handy.

‘Being rational

With students who are challenging her about an issue or upset about something, she said she has confidence in “being rational.”

Many times, she said, students want to make a statement but don’t have all the facts. She cited a group that came in and sat on the floor in her office wanting to “argue about the sweatshops that were used to make athletic clothes.”

She said she greeted them with “Have I met you?” and suggested that they might be better off if they came in with information about which companies were exploiting workers so they could see if any of the clothes worn by UCSD athletes were involved.

When she kicks into crisis management mode as she has during the racial uproar or when there was the possibility that the 2007 wildfires might reach the campus, she said, she just remembers that she’s “not alone. I have a whole team that can develop different approaches” depending on the challenge.

Pushing forward

While proud of her accomplishments, Fox isn’t resting on her laurels. Officials are pursuing talks about joining with California Western School of Law, although she said she’s not sure it will come to anything.

“We’ve given it six months,” she noted.

She’s also looking for ways around the challenges of the state budget which are forcing up fees for students — who face estimated fees for 2010-11 of $11,339 and a total tab of about $28,000 per year and ever-increasing competition for more limited seats. This year UCSD received 57,000 applications and will be able to admit only 4,000 freshmen and another 1,000 or so transfer students, Fox said.

Those accepted this year got a special phone call, with 40 getting personal calls from the chancellor the week acceptance letters went out. Other campus administrators, faculty, staff and members of the Board of Overseers joined her in breaking the good news to 2,800 from underrepresented groups.

Challenging days

While making those calls was one of the lighter parts of her job, dealing with cuts in faculty, furloughs that are cutting into faculty and staff wages, and programs that she says have inspired universities in Texas and Oklahoma to specifically target UC professors, make Fox’s days more complicated.

She was also criticized for being on too many corporate and nonprofit boards and for getting paid more than her predecessor, among other things like how she will handle the decaying University House.

Fox is a woman who takes her job seriously and keeps on pushing for what she believes will benefit students, faculty and staff. If she could change one thing in her years at UCSD, she said, she “would have accelerated the changes so that the benefits ... would have accrued faster.”

Even so, she also thinks it’s important that parents of incoming students know that college students should do more than study. Having fun, she said, is important, too.

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