In his Prologue to the Canterbury Tales Geoffrey Chaucer distills the betrayal of trust by corrupt public servants into a memorable expression: “If gold rust, what shall iron do?” This is the metaphor that his honest parson lives by, and it reflects on the venal churchmen among the pilgrims who betray the ideals of the church and set a terrible example when they should be a guiding light. This theme—one of high expectations for integrity cruelly disappointed—is timeless: it is exemplified yet again by the sorry tale of malfeasance in the Chancellor’s office at UC Berkeley that follows. Yet Chaucer’s miscreants are not cardinals and bishops, but only a lowly monk, friar and pardoner, while Chancellor Robert Birgeneau of UC Berkeley is the leader of the flagship campus of the greatest public system of higher education in the world. And while Chaucer’s folk cloak their transgressions in the mantle of devotion, Birgeneau wraps his in the mantle of diversity.
Already in late 2007 California’s deteriorating budget led to reductions in UC’s state support, and President Robert Dynes announced that his system-wide staff would be reduced. A severance pay incentive was offered to those who retired voluntarily, but when the Regents were asked by recently appointed President Mark Yudof in November 2008 to approve severance pay of $100,202 for Linda Williams, alarm bells went off: Williams had transferred from her job as Associate President in system headquarters to the position of Associate Chancellor at nearby UC Berkeley without missing a day’s employment. She sought severance pay though she had never been severed. Astonishingly, President Yudof recommended it and the Regents approved the recommendation.
It said much about the entitlement mindset at UC that top administrators were surprised by the outcry that followed. The public easily grasped that it was offensive for Williams to ask for $100K of public money as a “severance package,” but that simple point seemed lost on UC’s leadership. President Yudof hid behind the notion that the rules for UC’s buyout program were not his responsibility, having been written before he took office. That left an obvious question unanswered: why didn’t he tell Williams that what she was asking was unseemly, and that it would be an embarrassment to the university if he sought regent approval of this payment when a deepening financial crisis was forcing an increase in student fees? The culture of administrative self-serving in the President’s office that had brought down the presidency of Bob Dynes was apparently still in place—a great disappointment for those who hoped that Yudof would be a new broom.
Evidently feeling exposed in an indefensible position, Williams released a statement saying that the Berkeley job opportunity came up after she had applied for the buyout from her UCOP job and had “therefore played no role whatsoever in my decision making.” In other words, she had not arranged a transfer from one office to another within UC, but instead resigned one job and later found another. This was not true.
Williams applied for the severance payment on January 22, 2008, a day after the Daily Californian, the campus newspaper, reported the announcement of her new job.
A request by the San Francisco Chronicle’s Jim Doyle under the Freedom of Information Act produced additional damning evidence. Already on January 18, a UC Berkeley organizational chart had shown Linda Williams as Associate Chancellor. Chancellor Birgeneau had discussed the position with Williams as early as November 7 of the previous year. The FOIA material included a January 18 memo from Williams saying “The news is all over the place… getting the announcement out will be helpful.” Doyle’s material also confirmed that the Berkeley post was filled without competition—it was indeed a transfer without an application process.
Much more serious for the campus was how the FOIA material implicated Chancellor Birgeneau in the deception. Birgeneau had backed Williams’ false account by telling the SF Chronicle in December of 2008 that Williams “applied for the severance program before the Associate Chancellor position became available and before I offered her the position.” This was not true. The material in the stories in the Daily Californian and the SF Chronicle made it clear that the Berkeley job was essentially a done deal well before Williams’ application for severance.
Worse yet, more disinformation came from Birgeneau’s spokesman Dan Mogulof. In December 2008, rejecting the suggestion that Williams’ new position had been created specially for her—one acutely embarrassing for the official version—Mogulof told Jim Doyle that she took the job of retiring chief of staff John Cummins. That also was not true. Cummins’ position as Associate Chancellor and chief of staff was assumed by someone else, and Williams’ job was created by making a new position out of some of the less central functions of Cummins’ job. That’s right: during a budget crisis Birgeneau beefed up his administration with an extra Associate Chancellor position at a $200K salary.
But the FOIA material had still another effect: it shredded President Yudof’s defense of his actions. Birgeneau and Williams were now in an acutely embarrassing position. Campus spokesman Dan Mogulof then told a story to tell which insulted the intelligence of his listeners. The impression created by Williams that she was unaware of future Berkeley employment was “unintentional,” said Mogulof. But what she had said was clear and categorical: the Berkeley position “played no role whatsoever (my italics) in my decision making” because it was not open at the time of the severance application. What could be unintentional about that? Mogulof went on to say “We had no reason to be intentionally misleading.” Another of Mogulof’s gems was this: “We sacrificed clarity and detail for the sake of brevity.” By telling that story, presumably at the behest of Birgeneau, the spokeman destroyed his own credibility.
Birgeneau’s next move was exceptionally sordid. He wrote an op-ed for the Daily Californian touting his dedication to equity and inclusion, then complained of lingering racism on campus: “Most recently, there have been scurrilous attacks with outright misrepresentation of facts by print media, bloggers and even some of our own faculty and staff against Associate Chancellor Linda Williams, the first African-American woman to serve on the Chancellor’s Cabinet in Berkeley’s 141-year history…. Many members of our African-American community are rightly outraged by the media harassment of a successful and accomplished black woman and see these actions as creating a chilling climate for all African-Americans on campus.” No details of the alleged “misrepresentations” were given and an email asking for examples was not answered.
Desperate to save himself from the consequences of his duplicity, Birgeneau was willing to whip up racial strife on campus to create a smokescreen. But throughout this story, administrative self-serving, bloat and deceit were always entwined with the issue of diversity.
In the Latin mottos of the nation’s great universities, one word appears again and again: Veritas, meaning truth. Yale’s motto is Lux et Veritas (Light and Truth), Harvard’s is Veritas. Northwestern elaborates: Quaecumque Sunt Vera (Whatever is True), as does Miami University: Magnus est Veritas (Great is the Truth). Universities put the concept of Truth up front for a reason. General Motors should be truthful about its cars, but its business is cars. Truth is our business. That’s what we academics deal in. Whether in the classroom or in research, knowledge is only knowledge if it’s based in truth. One lesson of this story is that the concern with diversity must never trump the academy’s core value, Veritas. A university that stops caring about truth will soon be of no use to anyone, minorities included. When a great university is led by someone who misleads seemingly without compunction, contrition, or consequences, it is sick at its core.
Each year, thousands of fresh-faced undergraduates come to UC to be initiated into a campus culture that is dominated by the idea of Veritas. It is painful to picture this innocent young flock being watched over by Chancellor Birgeneau. Once again, Chaucer captured the essence of the situation in another memorable line in his Prologue, one which, in the interest of delicacy, we’ll leave in Chaucer’s Middle English original:
For if a preest be foul, on whom we truste,
No wonder is a lewed man to ruste;
And shame it is, if a preest take keep,
A shiten shepherde and a clene sheep.