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January 31, 2005

Chemers listened to concerns of all while focusing on the university’s mission

By Jennifer McNulty

An expert on leadership, Acting Chancellor Martin M. Chemers says he was guided by his “commitment to the greater good” during his tenure as chief executive on campus.

See photos of the reception for Acting Chancellor Chemers.

Acting Chancellor Martin M. Chemers points out a detail in his official portrait, unveiled at a University Center reception in his honor.
Photo: Louise Donahue

Despite more than eight years as dean of the Division of Social Sciences, Chemers said he’d never felt so keenly the pull of UCSC’s numerous constituencies until he held the top job.

“There are so many people who feel they should have influence over the campus--undergraduates and graduate students, faculty, staff, the unions, politicians, the alumni, parents, the Office of the President, donors, and friends,” said Chemers.

“Some of them understand the mission of the university very well and are committed to it, others are less knowledgeable, and some have no interest in the mission at all. And they’re all pushing on the chancellor.”

Chemers took time to meet with constituents and hear their concerns, but his decisions always adhered to the university’s mission of teaching, research, and public service.

From campus neighbors concerned about traffic to undergraduates who oppose UCSC’s plans in Silicon Valley, Chemers made inroads with agitated constituencies by listening. He dismissed talk of his legacy but did say he’d be pleased if his work “seeking the common good” was viewed as a model for the campus.

“Trust is the bedrock of leadership, and trust is built on honesty,” said Chemers, who was appointed campus provost/executive vice chancellor after John Simpson departed and became acting chancellor in April after M.R.C. Greenwood was named provost of the University of California. “People will accept that you don’t agree with them or aren’t going to do what they want if you’ve told them the truth.”

Leaders need to be able to articulate a vision and explain it in a way that everyone can relate to. “People want to be heard, and they want the respect that is revealed when you take the time to listen to them,” said Chemers. “I told the students that Silicon Valley represents the greatest concentration of wealth and intellect in the history of the world, and we’d be crazy not to be a part of that. They understood that.”

Working many 70-hour weeks, Chemers shared his passion and commitment to higher education, and he inspired others to join the effort. The hours were demanding, but the hardest part was being criticized for things he hadn’t done.

“You get almost all bad news up here, and you have to know how to control your emotions,” said Chemers, speaking from the Chancellor’s Office in McHenry Library. Chemers drew upon a tenet of the Iroquois Confederacy when times got tough. “The Iroquois Confederacy had a representative form of government before we did, and one of the things they require of Confederate Lords is skin that is seven spans thick to be proof against anger and recrimination.”

Chemers also spoke of Martin Luther King Jr. and his ability to inspire individuals to overcome self-interest and work toward the greater good. “It was not in anyone’s individual best interest to march in Selma, but he had a way of tapping their collective interest,” said Chemers. “Most people who work in the university were called to a higher purpose, and sometimes we have to remind them of that. We’re all public servants.”

On a lighter note, Chemers credited his mother with instilling in him a respect for punctuality. “My mother always told me it was impolite to make people wait, and I’ve always remembered that,” said Chemers, who regularly arrives early for meetings and events.

Chemers described himself as a problem solver who likes working as part of a team. The isolation of being at the top made him particularly grateful for his advisers, among them Assistant Chancellor William Hyder and Interim Campus Provost/Executive Vice Chancellor Margaret L. Delaney. “Honesty is just as important in your inner circle, and I’ve been very fortunate,” he said.

After the arrival of Chancellor Designate Denice D. Denton on February 14, Chemers plans to take sabbatical leave and return to campus to teach in the Psychology Department in spring 2006.

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