Thursday, June 2, 2005
It’s the day before CSU Monterey Bay’s ninth graduation, and Peter Smith comes quickly out of his smallish office, on his way to view graduating students’ senior projects, known as Capstones. Tomorrow, Saturday, will be the last commencement Smith presides over before leaving for his new position with the United Nations in Paris.
In June, Smith will resign as the founding president of CSUMB in order to become Assistant Director-General for Education at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). After a brief discussion of how to accommodate a reporter and a photographer on different schedules (“We’ll take three cars—how American of us,” Smith says), he grabs two cell phones—one from CSUMB and one from UNESCO. He leads the way to the University Center in his green Toyota Prius.
While walking from the parking lot to the Capstone festival, Smith touts the students’ achievements.
“It’s a logical consequence that comes from designating the university as having outcomes-based curriculum,” he says. “It’s a hands-on way of engaging the students. They have to get an advisor, have to present it, have to pass. Some do movies, some do papers, some do multimedia, some people still do a poster board. At the presentation today, you’ll see the best of them.”
Across Sixth Avenue, a group of would-be students is standing with a tour leader. It’s a rare, windless, sunny, almost hot day, and Smith notes the likelihood of the visitors getting a false impression of the local climate. He gives a wave, then continues talking on his way into the University Center, not noticing that the tour leader has announced his identity to the students, who are now clapping for him.
“They’re applauding you,” I say, and he whirls around, faces the students, and does a fancy little bow with a flourish of his hand.
“How you doing today?!” he shouts, cupping his hands to his mouth. He starts clapping back at the students. “Remember, this place is for you!”
“Yay, Peter Smith!” they shout back.
Inside the lobby of the University Center, Smith works the room like the experienced politician that he is: he’s a former state senator, lieutenant governor and US Congressman from Vermont. He’s also an experienced educator: before arriving at CSUMB in 1994, he was founder and president of the Community College of Vermont. He also was vice president of advancement at Norwich University and dean of the Graduate School of Education and Human Development at George Washington University.
He thumps the welcome desk in the University Center lobby, smiling, shakes hands and waves at passersby.
“To be here 10 years later,” he says, reminiscing. “Today I had sort of an image and a flashback. It’s like I’m attending my Capstone today.”
He pauses outside the door of the Earth Systems Science and Policy presentation. “We’ll sneak in and listen,” he says.
Standing at the back of the room, Smith grabs several pieces of cheese and a cracker and stuffs them in his mouth while whispering greetings to faculty and to his wife, Sally Smith, who is there to watch the students’ presentations.
The students’ presentations are impressive, especially considering that these are undergrads. Smith says the level of research is akin to graduate level studies at many other universities.
“We have juniors who are doing master’s level work,” he brags.
A detailed PowerPoint presentation serves as the backdrop as Jami Davis discusses her project: “The Effects of Fire on Fort Ord Oak Woodland Plant Species Diversity and Ecosystem Structure.” It’s a mouthful, but Davis is articulate. As she discusses the types of woodland burns that might benefit the growth of poison oak, Smith calls out, “Boo!”
Davis concludes by explaining that she is planning on sharing her data with the Bureau of Land Management.
The next set of speakers, Kathleen McNulty and Brad Travers, explain their study: “Habitat Assessment for the California Tiger Salamander on Fort Ord.” Travers’ presentation is fine, and McNulty is extremely polished as she wields her laser pointer. Still, Smith is getting hung up on the students’ reference to “Fort Ord.”
“One thing that fascinates me,” he whispers, “is that everyone refers to Fort Ord as if it’s still here and we’re on it. They are on our campus!”
When the presentation is over, Smith asks a question about tiger salamanders, then makes his point to the room.
“Ord doesn’t exist,” he says. The students laugh.
After watching one more presentation, Smith pops into the room next door to check out the Division of Humanities and Communication department’s Capstone festival. The festival’s theme: “Understanding Inspires Revolution: Interdisciplinary Strengths Generate Social Action,” doesn’t seem like an obvious choice for a humanites and communication department.
Smith acknowledges that CSUMB’s majors, with their tongue-twisting titles, have been famously confusing. How, for example, do creative writing, social action, Chicana/o and Latina/o studies and pre-law all fit into one major? Why can’t a student just be an English major?
“These acronyms are changing,” he says. “We’ve got a Business Administration major and we’re developing a Biology major now. There’s been a lot of laughing about it, but the truth is that it’s really confused students to the point that people actually left the university.”
After strolling through rows of poster-board presentations, Smith joins in the applause the students are offering their professors.
Sally Smith meets her husband for a walk over to the first Mathematics and Statistics Festival. Both Smiths refer to the early days on campus, when squatters with guard dogs were living in abandoned military buildings, people were running illegal “operations” out of other structures, and bullets and worse were scattered around.
But Peter Smith is intent to focus on the $20 million of infrastructure funding that he just secured, the baseball and softball fields and tennis courts that are going in, the power lines that will be buried and the new road surfaces coming.
“Remember, most students affected by a ghost-military-base mentality are gone,” he says. “In another 10 years, Fort Ord will be part of a myth. But we’ve embraced the history and culture of this place, not rejected it. It’s swords to plowshares.”
Inside the “Huge Lab” in Building 53—so nicknamed for its large size—silver flat screen computers sit on nicely spaced workstations. At the front of the room, varsity soccer player Jonathon Reedy is presenting “Exploration of Curves and Surfaces Using Differential Geometry, and Applications.”
Smith giggles looking at the crazy-looking math equation Reedy is explaining.
“It’s pretty inspiring, actually,” he whispers, “to realize that we are graduating students who know a lot more about something I can’t even read.”
Reedy throws up an image of a shape referred to as a monkey saddle. “I’m sorry I couldn’t show you all my calculations,” he says. “But they are roughly three to five pages each.”
One of Smith’s cell phones is vibrating, and he crouches on the floor in the back of the room, cupping his hands over the mouthpiece, whispering. It’s Tim Wirth, president of the United Nations Foundation and Better World Fund, former US Congressman and US Senator from Colorado. Smith tells him he’ll have to call him back later.
Smith’s attention is back to CSUMB, bragging how the Math Huge Lab is “totally innovative” and the team, rather than the lecture-style approach, has doubled the success rate of teaching math to freshman and sophomores in 70 percent of the usual time.
“There’s been a lot of time and money and pain put into teaching kids math,” he says. “So this is a very cool model.”
After a few more presentations, the students receive certificates and then Smith works the room. Then it’s back to his office to do some more packing and pick up his robes for graduation.
~ ~ ~
It seems paradoxical that Smith, a fair-haired Republican from New England, would be the founding president of a California state college born from a wildly liberal and idealistic vision. In addition to emphasizing interdisciplinary learning, the wide adoption of technology, and collaboration with public and private institutions, the school’s vision statement calls for the inclusion of all cultures, and stresses service to low-income and traditionally undereducated populations.
The road to realizing the vision has been fraught with controversy. While it’s true that many of these goals have been reached—the student body is now more than 30 percent Latino, students have a “service learning” requirement to graduate, and a huge percent of graduating students are the first in their family to attend college—there’s also been relentless controversy over how decisions should be made and where money should be spent. And Peter Smith has borne the brunt of much of the controversy.
Smith has been both widely praised and widely criticized in his 11 years at CSUMB, and often in one breath.
Marsha Moroh, dean of the College of Science, Media Arts and Technology, and interim provost for the coming year, is a founding faculty member. She says that in the early chaos of starting the university, Smith’s original motto of “run until you’re tackled” had a “wonderful side and a very big downside.”
“People were really empowered to move and take things on and innovate,” she says. “But as we got older, picture a football field with everyone tackling everyone and no locus of authority and everyone stepping on everyone’s toes.”
The uncertainties of the early days ranged from having no policy in place—Moroh says students were getting four different answers on every question they asked, including how to graduate—and an unclear position on who was in charge.
Moroh says frustration grew as faculty and students disagreed with Smith’s choices and asked for a governance structure that limited Smith’s power.
“One of the things we wanted was that the president can’t make decisions without consulting the faculty,” she says. “We didn’t see it as advisory. I don’t think what we wanted was even legal.”
According to Smith, his authority was never in doubt.
“I ran into faculty and students who thought that shared governance meant that we would work together until we reached consensus,” he says. “That’s not my thinking. Sometimes I simply took decisions that some people weren’t in agreement with. I did run right through some people in some cases. People [didn’t understand] that they can be consulted and I can still disagree.”
Congressman Sam Farr, who was instrumental in getting federal funds—$50 million—and approval to create a university out of the Fort Ord base closure, says that Smith’s style of doing things was appropriate and necessary.
“I think he was the right man for the right job,” Farr says. “He came with particularly unique credentials. To get Peter was key, because he had been a member of Congress and had credibility in Washington. He was a professional educator and administrator and had that perspective greater than local. You always need fresh vision when creating something new.”
David Anderson, dean of the college of undergraduate programs, who came on board last summer, says that Smith’s reputation was key in getting him to CSUMB.
“One of the things that attracted me was the vision and leadership of Peter Smith,” Anderson says. “He inspired the distinctiveness of CSUMB and is very committed to keeping it on a special mission. It’s not easy when you’re a pioneer and bringing a new approach to higher education. There are a lot of different ideas and almost everything you do is not only controversial but unprecedented.”
Moroh says that Smith’s vision, sometimes unchecked by constraints of time and money, cost the university dearly in unfulfilled promises—like partnerships with the community that never got completed—and unclear priorities.
“People say about Peter that he never met an idea he didn’t like,” Moroh says. “On the one hand, it’s a great quality for a president. We don’t want some troglodyte sitting there who isn’t open to new ideas. But when there are 200 of those ideas and 10 people trying to do them all, and limited funds, it’s not possible. It’s both a wonderful trait of Peter’s and a fatal flaw of Peter’s.”
Dr. Diane Cordero de Noriega served as provost and vice president for academic affairs since 1999. She was named as interim president several weeks ago. Cordero de Noriega says that Smith’s style—including “a fairly volatile personality”—has always complemented her own.
“We found a balance,” she says. “I learned to work with his strengths and weaknesses. Peter’s a visionary. He’s got big ideas and very little patience with the process. He admits that’s not his strength.”
~ ~ ~
Cordero de Noriega came on board when frustration with Smith’s style had reached a head. After a slew of faculty and staff demotions, firings and reassignments, the university was a festering stew of fear and anger. Among other things, Smith was called a racist.
“I came in the fall of 1999, literally in the aftermath of the turmoil,” Cordero de Noriega says. “On my first day on campus, the faculty was taking a vote of no confidence in Peter Smith. The obvious question was, ‘What have I done?’”
Despite the turmoil, Cordero de Noriega says that she “never personally experienced any behavior that was discriminatory.”
“I’ve never witnessed any personal attacks,” she says. “If he’s angry, he shows it—people say, ‘How can you work with him?’ He’s got a temper, he’s very passionate, but it’s not personal. It’s about a situation he’s angry with—what’s lacking.”
Still, she admits the messiness and accusations is continuing to impact the campus, if only mildly.
“There is still underlying tension, but the campus has matured a lot over the years,” she says.
Dr. Ruben Mendoza, director of the Institute for Archeology at CSUMB, sees it differently. Mendoza, a founding faculty member, launched an inflammatory Web site in 2000 that’s still up, which he says provides a place for the allegations against Smith.
“I asked for all the documents people had—it was our way of putting a check on Peter,” he says.
One of Mendoza’s charges is that Smith misrepresented decisions he made as being made with faculty when they were in fact made unilaterally, such as dismantling programs of which Mendoza was a faculty member.
“In my eyes, we saw a fairly brutal process—one that wasn’t systematic or even rational in many ways,” he says.
He says he was punished for speaking out.
“I was set up in abandoned buildings, I couldn’t get cooperation from people,” he says, adding that similar punishments were taken out on his coworkers.
Mendoza says that from various lawsuits lodged against the university, there is documentation of racism, or at the very least, “simple ignorance.”
“I did send out an e-mail on behalf of colleagues who believed he was involved in ethnic cleansing,” Mendoza says. “He eliminated people of color from his cabinet.”
In May, 2002, three Latino employees—Cecilia Burciaga, Bert Rivas, and Octavio Villalpando—settled a racial discrimination suit against CSUMB. The payout of $2.5 million was one of the highest settlements in the state university system.
Jim May, a Native American and former dean of instruction at CSUMB, won a $375,000 discrimination and harassment lawsuit against the university in 2002, which may be headed back to the courts.
~ ~ ~
Yuri Beckelman, a 23-year-old Global Studies major and outgoing president of the Associated Students, says that clashes with Smith and the residue left over from 1999 have left him “disenchanted.”
Beckelman is among a group of students irked over the impending construction of presidential offices at the top of a new $60 million library center.
The students have shown their displeasure through a referendum against the project. The students’ protest is among many in the campus’ short history. In 1999, students petitioned for Smith’s resignation. And last year, Beckelman and other students protested increased student housing fees with a silent walkout during Smith’s annual State of the University address.
“There’s a feeling of fear from speaking out,” Beckelman says.
Last year, the students snubbed Smith and for the first time didn’t ask him to speak at the inauguration of the student senate. To rub salt in the wound, they invited former provost Steve Arvizu. Arvisu helped create the school’s vision statement, and after being reassigned, left in 1997. In a 1999 Weekly article, Arvizu said that Smith had embarked on a pattern of “replacing a very talented and diverse administrative team and faculty with people who do not have the same degree of diversity.”
Still, Beckelman says that Smith’s skills as a politician have been helpful in raising money for the campus. He says that outwardly, Smith seems engaging and respectful.
“He’s personable, he remembers names, those things mean a lot,” Beckelman says. “I’ve heard him say some very progressive things about social justice, and I think he’s genuine.
“There’s no need for any more bad blood. People are hung up on the past, and I’m one of them. We need to look to the future. The school really is revolutionary. We’ve got many unique ideas—we’re not another CSU or UC.”
~ ~ ~
On the Wednesday after graduation, Peter Smith has just finished attending and speaking at a conference in New Mexico for the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities. He’s proud of the fact that CSUMB—with more than 25 percent Hispanic enrollment—now qualifies to join the organization, known as HACU.
Smith says that joining HACU is just one example of the successes of the past decade at CSUMB. He believes that some other successes—like putting money into building theater and arts buildings early on against other’s objections—were obtained by holding fast to his vision and moving forward.
“Part of what I understand my job is to be is a shock absorber,” he says. “In a car, you can’t drive over rough territory if every time it gets rough you stop. My philosophy in founding the university is you have to keep moving. Someone said my philosophy is ‘attack, attack, attack, and when you get tired, attack again.’
“I plead guilty to that, in the sense that if you wait all the time for consensus when you are founding something, you get less done. I was willing to take the criticism from some people. I know from some people’s perspective I did go too hard, too fast, too constantly, and at the same time I think there was a benefit to that.
“I don’t think we would have completed a quarter of a billion dollars worth of construction and gotten so many things done if we hadn’t pushed hard.”
Smith says that faculty and staff firings and reassignments happened for valid reasons: people had outlived their usefulness to CSUMB.
“It’s no comment on anybody,” he says. “The skills that you need in the first year are not the same as the fifth and certainly not the 15th. The literature supports that.”
The interpretation that the firings were racially motivated, Smith says, is simply false.
“What I think was going on in 1999 was a political thing,” he says. “A university is an incredibly powerful social institution, and it makes all kind of sense to me that people would contest what it should be like.
“My orientation was a more classic orientation with new innovative pedagogies welcoming to a broad spectrum of students. Some people felt very strongly that the university should be defined in different ways.
“Steve Arvisu and I long ago made our peace with each other, and I hope that one aspect of my departure is that it will allow Dr. Mendoza to move on.
“If my leaving takes some of that out the door for some of these people—if this departure helps them a little to come to terms with it—so be it. Obviously that’s not why I’m leaving.”
Farr later seems to mirror Smith’s interpretation of the events.
“There are always readjustments and realignments, and anytime something happened it was controversial,” Farr recalls. “Anyone who had that job was doomed to controversy. In politics you’ve got to make decisions and you have to get things done. My old slogan is, ‘leadership is about getting results.’ I think the results—where the university is now—and the diversity—is a tribute to his leadership.”
But Peter Smith seems unconscious of the paradox he often presents. He says that free speech and the exchange of ideas on campus must be preserved at all costs, even though he is well aware of the “irony that it can come back to bite you.”
“My job is not to have the university be a reflection of any one person or group’s view of the world,” he says. “Universities are places where opposing views are discussed.”
Maybe there isn’t a paradox at all. In Peter Smith’s mind, his decisions are the ones that best reflect everyone’s needs. Even when, at times, it seems like everyone disagrees with him.
“I’m sorry for the anger and discomfort and disagreement, but I never took a decision that wasn’t in the best interests of the university,” he says. “I think the university we have today is proof of that pudding.”