as an engineer has enabled UCLA chancellor Albert Carnesale to meet
an amazing array of career challenges, including quelling a near
riot after California changed its affirmative action policies.
Photography by Flynn Larsen
Albert Carnesale arrived in Los Angeles three years ago to take
the helm of UCLA, he had a hard time figuring out which way was
upliterally. Having spent his entire life on the East Coast,
the new chancellor found life on the West Coast disorienting.
took me a few months to get used to the fact that the ocean was
on the wrong side," Carnesale explains with a wry smile. "You'd
be amazed at the extent to which your sense of direction is framed
by where the ocean is. The idea that if you were driving south and
wanted to head west, then you would head toward the ocean went against
every fiber of my being.
quickly adjusted to his new environment is a testament to a lifelong
knack for adapting to changing landscapes and constant challengesbeginning
with his childhood spent in a tenement in the Bronx. The son of
a taxi driver, Carnesale was the first in his family to attend college.
"If you wanted to be chancellor of UCLA," he told a student
reporter recently, "first of all, you wouldn't have grown up
in the Bronx."
stature today is certainly far removed from his humble beginnings.
To begin with, he's well over six feet tall, with a barrel chest
and a shock of white hair that betrays his youthful 64-year old
bearing. He stood out markedly on a recent sunny day on UCLA's laid-back
Southern California campus, where the unofficial dress code is shorts
and sandals. Carnesale is dressed to the nines in an impeccably
tailored navy blue pinstripe suit, starched white shirt, Gucci tie,
and gold cufflinks. Even so, his self-confident stride clearly shows,
he has taken well to his new surroundings.
Given his impressive
credentials, it's an assurance that's not surprising. A career that
began in mechanical engineering and progressed to leading one of
the nation's top public universities has been rounded out with plenty
of twists and turns and peppered with Cold War politics and impressive
Harvard appointments. In the process, Carnesale has earned respect
from his colleagues as both an administrator and an engineer. Ray
Bowen, president of Texas A&M University in College Station,
says that Carnesale "is top notch as an administrator and also
has a great reputation on nuclear policy."
So how, exactly,
did this chameleon arrive where he is today? Like much in his life,
Carnesale's career didn't take a linear path.
at my academic career and it might appear that the latter part of
it was unrelated to the first part," Carnesale explains. "But
that's really not true. If you pull the string looking backwards,
there was a pattern and an evolution. But it is also true that it
was very much an unplanned career. And looking forward, you never
would have taken each of those steps to get to the next one,"
he says, laughing at the prospect as though it were absurd.
begins with his early decision to pursue a career that would lift
him from the Bronx and land him comfortably in the middle class.
In the 1950s, with its rapid technological advances, the booming
engineering field was a logical choice. After receiving a bachelor's
degree in mechanical engineering from Cooper Union in 1957, Carnesale
attained his goal of joining the middle class by taking a job that
paid $100 a week. And at that point he harbored no ambitions for
an academic career.
I got out, I thought I was through with school foreverand
I had grades consistent with that notion," he deadpans. "It
was only after working for a while that for the first time in my
life I got interested in learning more for the sake of learning
for the Martin Marietta Corporation, Carnesale became fascinated
with exciting new technologies, including some of the first computers
that were used in developing auxiliary power systems for space flight.
That led him to take night courses through Drexel University and
to a master's degree, also in mechanical engineering, which he earned
while working full time.
Rather than sating his intellectual curiosity, graduate work only
whetted his appetite, so Carnesale decided to pursue a Ph.D. in
nuclear engineering, which he received from North Carolina State
University at Raleigh in 1966. He settled there for a while, serving
on the faculty, until he was called to Washington in 1969 to work
on safeguards for a non-proliferation treaty at the U.S. Arms Control
and Disarmament Agency.
off this abrupt change in direction as though it were merely a fluke.
But that fluke would eventually take him into the realm of international
public policy, to an endowed chair in Harvard's Kennedy School of
Government, then to dean of the school, and ultimately to an appointment
as provost of the university.
in Washington in 1969 with the intention of taking a one-year sabbatical,
but, as he explains it, "Timing being everything, I remember
I wrote one memorandum that my boss's boss liked a great deal and
who came out and said These talks are going to start next
month with the Soviet Union on strategic arms control. How would
you like to work on that?'" Even after Carnesale admitted that
he was no expert in nuclear weapons and knew nothing about foreign
policy, the boss said "I read your memo. You'll learn."
And Carnesale's response? "Okay, that sounds like fun."
simple pleasurehaving funhas been a driving force throughout
Carnesale's life. And he ardently believes that success follows
from having fun. Or as he puts it: "Do what makes you tingle.
Do what excites you. That's what you do well at and other things
will evolve from that."
So what does
Carnesale do for fun in his spare time? Most notably, he listens
to opera, which he learned to love while on extended stays in Vienna
during SALT I negotiations. And his favorite composer? Austria's
native son, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
hard to beat Mozart, and it's hard to beat The Marriage of
Figaro,'" Carnesale says, pointing out that he is also fond
of Italian opera. "I'm not a great Wagnerian fan," he
adds. "Someone once said that Wagner's music is better than
there are times when being chancellor of a major university is worse
than it sounds. Carnesale learned that within his first year of
his tenure at UCLA. When he was appointed chancellor in 1997 Carnesale
followed in the large footsteps of the avuncular Charles Young,
a much revered leader who headed the university for 29 years. Carnesale
also stepped into a political maelstrom that would rock the campus.
In 1996, California
voters approved an amendment to the state Constitution banning many
affirmative-action policies at state schools. The effects of that
controversial measure didn't surface until two years later. When
the university announced in 1998 that the number of black, Hispanic,
and American Indian freshmen that were admitted fell by 36 percent
from the previous year, many students were outraged and organized
a sit-in of the campus's famed Royce Hall. The fact that Carnesale
had recently come from an Ivy League university led some to accuse
him of trying to turn UCLA into the "Harvard of the West"
by making it elitist. That view was brought home even stronger when,
with police helicopters hovering overhead, Carnesale sent in uniformed
officers, some wielding batons and tear gas, to put an end to the
sit-in. Eighty-eight student protesters were arrested in the fracas.
For a man who
was the first in his family to go to college, it was a bitter irony
that he now served as the scapegoat for the students' frustration.
Even so, he did agree to meet with the students to hear their grievances.
Today, he acknowledges that "We still rely on young people
at the universities and beyond to keep poking society and prodding
society and reminding us that not all is well and that change is
still required. Whether you agree with the specific issue or not,
that's essential for our society."
In many respects, Carnesale's leadership skills derive from an inherently
pragmatic approach to problem solving. And it's not surprising to
learn that this pragmatic approach stems from his training as an
In his view, what distinguishes engineers from other scientists
is that they are constantly challenged to work within the real world
and not just in theory. "An important part of engineering is
keeping the overall problem in mind, the overall solution in mind,
and understanding that it is very unlikely that the solution will
be perfect." On the contrary, he says, the solution "will
be what's the best that you can do with the limited resources available."
That mind-set is key in keeping a multi-billion-dollar university
running at full capacity and in fine form. But he also points out
that "you also want to make sure that you don't simply accept
constraints." And true to his word, Carnesale continues to
push the envelopemost notably in fund-raising.
One of the
biggest challenges facing public universities today is funding.
Carnesale stepped in at the beginning of an unprecedented drive
to raise $1.2 billion in private contributions for the school's
endowmentthe largest fund-raising campaign ever attempted
by a public university. But with the aid of Carnesale's acute fund-raising
skills that he honed at Harvard, the school quickly exceeded its
original goal two years ahead of schedule. Rather than accepting
that amount, Carnesale raised the bar higher, now seeking $1.6 billion
in contributions by June 2002. While the entire university has profited
as a result, the engineering school has been especially fortunate.
1999, Henry Samueli, a former UCLA professor and co-founder of the
wildly successful Broadcom Corp., gave $30 million to establish
the Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science. Says
engineering school dean Frank Wazzan, "It's wonderful to have
a chancellor who is not only a top-notch administrator, but also
someone who understands the role of engineering. While our mutual
interest in engineering garners no special treatment, it certainly
helps keep the engineering school properly positioned in the campus
though, Carnesale believes the primary role of the university is
to prepare students for the future. In his inaugural address as
chancellor of UCLA he said "the most important thing to learn
at the university is how to learn." When asked about the best
way to teach that skill, he points to two aspects: fostering the
desire to learn and teaching people how to learn in depth.
have to make sure that people are introduced to the excitement of
learning, because that's a big part of what makes you want to learn."
Of course, that's a personal thing that everyone comes to at their
own speed and time, as Carnesale did when he pursued graduate work.
But by creating a vibrant university and giving students access
to bright minds and top resources, administrators can go a long
way in creating an atmosphere that encourages "the joy of learning
about new areas."
Then it's important
for students to learn how to learn one thing in depth, which Carnesale
likens to peeling an onion, layer by layer. "You learn how
to do that because you may want to do that in many other areas after
you graduate: to learn new things in depth."
an exemplary student in both regards, as he has proven throughout
his distinguished and varied career as academician and administrator.
is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles.