Dear Casey Wasserman: Ask Gene Block to Get Out of UCLA

Did this guy ever did a face to face with Alford and ask him about his history in Iowa? - By JMR_Photography, on Flickr

-Bumped. BN Eds.

Dear Mr. Wasserman,

I enjoyed reading the New York Times story about you, particularly because you have a significant voice among UCLA's donor community and you built on your grandfather's legacy rather than simply benefiting from it.

So I'm writing to you in the hope that you will use your influence to encourage others to think about replacing Gene Block as UCLA's chancellor. I know that only the Board of Regents can fire a chancellor, but I have no doubt that your actions receive more attention than most people's. And I understand that if you choose to use your influence, it's likely to be in a subtle way and not immediately recognized.

In any event, it will not be easy to replace Mr. Block. In my reading of the man, the chancellor is someone who enjoys being in a position of power. There's nothing inherently wrong with that, of course - otherwise, the ambition to be president would be harshly criticized - but for power to be justified, it has to be used for the betterment of the community.

That's why I believe Chancellor Block must go. In my judgment, UCLA loses ground every day he remains in office. I'll skip over what infuriates most followers of Bruins Nation - his apparent indifference to the conduct of the athletic department. (And by "conduct," I mean its inability to learn from experience and anticipate problems, as well as its lack of concern for students, whom it is supposed to serve.) I will also avoid the tinders that set off my own, very personal, fury: his refusal (at least in my eyes) to acknowledge that UCLA's reputation rests on both academic and athletic excellence. My focus, for now, is on Gene Block's priorities when considered as part of UCLA's academic and social environment (although I want to add a few words about the Athletic Department).

It's my conviction that, for the most part, universities do not stay in the same place for too many years; either they gain in prestige and move forward or they fall behind schools that were once not considered their equals. So, at this point, I want to raise a series of questions and try to put them in a meaningful context. They are not the only questions that can be raised about Gene Block's leadership - they may not even be the most important - but they are relevant in judging the effect of his time at UCLA.

First, let me raise an issue that relates to the social setting, not because it's more important than the academic side - it isn't - but because one particular decision seems to illustrate how UCLA's priorities have been misplaced, while it also serves as a segue to other considerations.

I'm referring to the decision to build the Conference and Guest Center on campus. The chancellor has been quoted as saying, "UCLA needs a project like this to enhance our global image as a destination for sharing the research that distinguishes our faculty and students."

And yet all accounts of Westwood Village that I have read indicate it is anything but a thriving community. Temporarily putting aside the question of whether this is a wise decision for UCLA to make (as I understand it, the Luskins' gift covers only part of the cost), will the center add or detract from whatever vitality remains in the village?

Now, I understand the chancellor doesn't have the responsibility, or means, to make the cash registers ring in Westwood, but making the village an attractive place for students is not unimportant. (And, yes, I know there is nothing the chancellor can do about incidents like the fatal gang shooting in 1988.)

I attended UCLA in the 1960s, and younger readers of this site may not realize what a vibrant community Westwood once was. It was never Berkeley, with all its ferment, of course, but it was an interesting place. There was once a drugstore on Westwood Boulevard that was built on the model of a drugstore in France (quite different from what exists in this country). And I was rendered speechless at an Orange Julius when Elgin Baylor and Jerry West stopped for a drink. My point is that Westwood Village was once a place that drew visitors with the time and means to make other choices.

That brings me back to the Conference and Guest Center, as well as my original question: Will it add or detract from what remains of Westwood's vitality? My guess is that it will make things more difficult for nearby hotels and, at least indirectly, further dim Westwood's prospects. A group called Save Westwood Village filed suit over plans for the center. To be fair, Steve Olsen, a vice chancellor and UCLA's chief financial officer, disputed the contentions of Save Westwood Village in a January column in the Daily Bruin.

I don't want to spend more time on how the center may affect Westwood Village because the decision to build it is important for another reason: It can be compared with other decisions UCLA has made in which a shortage of resources existed.

Let me say at the outset that it's possible some recent developments have outrun my knowledge, and if that's so, I apologize. I can't apologize for the argumentative tone, however. I want Gene Block gone as soon as possible because I am convinced he has been a disaster for UCLA.

A good place to start may be the Graduate Writing Center, which interests me as a writer and editor. A story in the Daily Bruin on May 9 said a referendum was reopened after graduate students initially voted against a slight increase in quarterly fees to cover a $30,000 deficit. (The referendum was reopened because MyUCLA's server failed at certain points during election week, and the additional fees were then approved.)

It's not worth considering the election further, but I think two questions should be asked of Chancellor Block: (1) Was it not possible to find $30,000, even in difficult times, so the center didn't have to depend on a referendum? (2) If UCLA was not allowed to legally fund the center, shouldn't it have been a priority of the chancellor to change, or get around, existing law?

I mention the writing center because I think helping students to communicate clearly is now more of a priority than ever as our world becomes increasingly complex. (UCLA also has an undergraduate writing center, but I don't believe its funding was in danger; other than that, I don't know much about it.)

There is a related issue as well. I'm referring to the L.A. Times Festival of Books, which was moved to the campus of Southern Cal two years ago. In a Times story, Nancy Sullivan of the Times' communications department was quoted as saying: "The usable amount of space that the UCLA campus offered us is less than what we will be able to utilize at USC. As for the panel and lecture rooms, we will also have increased opportunity on USC's University Park campus."

The question, of course, is whether UCLA did everything possible to keep the book fair. And by "everything possible," I mean did it move heaven and earth? I'm an old guy, low-tech and devoted to the printed word. But even allowing for the advances in the computer and technical world, books represent a river of time, carrying our deepest hopes, our greatest fears and our most insightful discoveries.

I don't know; I'm just throwing this out there, but isn't it a good idea to give UCLA students a chance to exchange ideas with authors and learn about unfamiliar books? Maybe there's a convincing reason we lost the fair to Southern Cal, but I haven't heard it from Mr. Block.

I want to look next at institutions, large and small, with prospects certain and uncertain. (I no longer have some of the URLs, but I'll try to give the dates and names of the publications in which they appeared.) And I'll start with what I call A Story in Three Parts.

Part one involves the California Social Science Experimental Laboratory, which is known by the acronym of CASSEL. The Daily Bruin carried two stories about it - on May 28 and May 29. In the earlier story, the lab was described as "one of the largest experimental economics organizations in the world."

Of equal interest, the lab, which is, or was, housed in the Public Affairs Building, was to close on June 7. But of greatest interest, at least to me, was this remark by the assistant dean of social sciences, Elizabeth Landaw, who was quoted as saying, "In this current economic and spatial state, there simply isn't enough room."

Let me think for a minute; I wonder where else Chancellor Block could find room for CASSEL. Drum roll ... could it go - wait for it - in the space designated for the Conference and Guest Center? And a postscript: A columnist writing in the May 29 edition of the Daily Bruin quite properly said this: "The decision to close the lab, as opposed to compromising with researchers to simply reduce its size, reflects poorly on the UCLA administration's commitment to remain on the frontiers of research in the social sciences." (I haven't been able to determine the lab's current status.)

I'm indebted to Nestor for making me aware of part two of this story, which concerns UCLA's Laboratory of Neuro Imaging. Nestor linked to an L.A. Times story, which said in part: "In a major case of academic poaching ... USC has lured away two prominent neuroscientists from UCLA ... Arthur Toga and Paul Thompson will move to the USC Keck School of Medicine campus next fall, along with scores of graduate students, postdoctoral fellows and staffers who now work at UCLA's Laboratory of Neuro Imaging, known as LONI ... Toga and Thompson estimated that about 85 of their 105 affiliated staff will follow them to USC."

If you're curious about whether the chancellor commented on this loss, the answer is he did. Mr. Block said in part:"... I was disappointed to learn that the lab plans to end its affiliation with the campus ... (but) UCLA is among the world's great research enterprises ... and the departure of one lab will not diminish our impact."

That sounds reasonable except for this question: What specific priorities did Mr. Block rank ahead of keeping the lab at UCLA? Now, I want to be clear about this. The Times story said Toga and Thompson did not seek a counteroffer from UCLA, so I don't know whether Chancellor Block had an opportunity to convince them to stay. But I also know the Times indirectly quoted the director of an imaging center in Boston as saying Southern Cal has gained "perhaps the world's premier lab when it comes to finding insights about the brain in massive amounts of data from scans and genetic tests." And to the best of my knowledge, Mr. Block has not explained the criteria he uses in deciding which institutions get funds and how much they get.

Part three, as I promised, involves a few words about Dan Guerrero and the Athletic Department. By now, of course, we're more than disgusted with the story of how the Athletic Department originally designed a plan to keep students from the best seats in the renovated Pauley Pavilion.

But I want to ask and answer a question, Mr. Wasserman, and I hope you will excuse me if this is too obvious to include. The question is when will the Athletic Department put students first and act in a professional and competent manner? And the answer is when the chancellor demands that it does.

Unfortunately, this post is now so long I'll have to skip other subjects I wanted to cover - the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, the NanoSystems Institute, teacher-training programs, and, of course, the Japanese Garden and Med Center. But there will be other opportunities, and many readers on Bruins Nation also keep a vigilant eye on these subjects.

For now, Mr. Wasserman, I want to say that the appointment of Janet Napolitano as the new president of the UC system may be a distinct advantage in trying to remove Gene Block as chancellor. There are strengths and weaknesses in Ms. Napolitano's background - as there are for all of us - but she strikes me as a pragmatist who wants to see perceptions tested in the real world.

Specifically, that means she may not assume that just because someone has a Ph.D. and has done significant research, he or she comes to the job of chancellor with the vision that is required. Because one of the hard truths we should keep in mind is that vision (which includes listening to dissenting voices) is not necessarily a corollary of expertise in research. Said directly, it amounts to this: There will be no excuse for the regents if they repeat the mistake they made in hiring Gene Block.

As a last thought, let me note that beginning in 1960 and continuing through today, UCLA has had two great chancellors, Franklin Murphy and Charles Young. Those who succeeded them have been little more than placeholders, in my opinion. If you agree with my view of the current impasse, Mr. Wasserman, you may agree with my conclusion as well: UCLA can seek excellence in the academic and athletic world OR it can keep Gene Block in his current position. But it cannot do both.

<em>This is a FanPost and does not necessarily reflect the views of BruinsNation's (BN) editors. It does reflect the views of this particular fan though, which is as important as the views of BN's editors.</em>

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