- Earning My Degree: Memoirs of an American University President
Some years ago, I attended a University of California (UC) dinner at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. David Pierpont Gardner, then chairman of the board of trustees of the museum, was one of the speakers. Being relatively new at UC, I had never heard him speak before and did not know what to expect. As he proceeded to discuss the topic at hand (graduate education), I found myself very interested in what he had to say. By the end of his speech, I was fascinated by both the content and the style of his presentation, which was impressively analytical and attractively modest. "David Gardner must have been a good president," I told one of my dinner companions afterward. "Oh, yes. He was a very effective administrator, very successful with the budget, but he had a lot of problems at the end and left under a cloud," my friend said, mentioning controversies concerning Gardner's retirement benefits and his wife's life insurance policy. I later heard that, coming in the middle of an acute economic crisis, the news about his executive retirement package and the insurance policy he bought on his wife's life shortly before she was diagnosed with an unexpected terminal illness caused suspicion and resentment and made people forget the good things that he had done for the UC system.
Gardner's recently published memoirs will make people reevaluate his presidency, one of the most consequential in the history of the University of California. The book is organized chronologically, beginning with Gardner's upbringing in California and Utah and ending with his current family situation, again divided between these two states. Gardner pays a great deal of attention to his Mormon faith, which has been a constant source of unwelcome reactions (either too negative or too positive, but never neutral), the hallmark of discrimination that minorities of all kinds know so well. Gardner seems to believe that his being perceived as greedy is due to his being a Mormon. I strongly suspect that he is right in part, but there is much more to the story than that, in my opinion. As with so many other leaders, Gardner's strength, his ability to raise funds, eventually became a vulnerability. He was highly regarded for obtaining generous budgets for the university. But he got into trouble when he negotiated favorable conditions for himself, especially since that coincided with the end of good times for everyone else.
Although the book follows Gardner's career from beginning to end, some issues are organized in thematic groups, which makes it difficult to reconstruct the sequence of events during the last 2 years of his UC presidency. When [End Page 365] piecing together a chronology from bits of information located in various parts of his memoirs, one realizes that the fury about his retirement benefits and his wife's life insurance policy took place when he was in the process of changing the method of collecting student fees for the liberal organization CALPIRG (California Public Interest Research Group) from a passive check-off (to be paid unless otherwise indicated) to an active check-off (to be paid only if indicated), which significantly reduced its revenues. This initiative was interpreted as a partisan move on Gardner's part, since he was a registered Republican who had opposed divestment in South Africa, a position that had significantly eroded his popularity. Gardner, however, doesn't associate the excessive zeal with which he believes some people examined his retirement package and the insurance policy on his wife's life with the pettiness many people thought he showed by pursuing a change that would considerably weaken CALPIRG's financial situation. When, distraught by the death of his wife, he announced his decision to resign his post and then negotiated benefits, as he was entitled to do, people might have thought that he was jumping ship and applying his legendary fund-raising abilities to his own affairs...