ASEE Prism Magazine

His training 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.

By David Brindley
Photography by Flynn Larsen


When 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 up—literally. Having spent his entire life on the East Coast, the new chancellor found life on the West Coast disorienting.

"It 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.”

That Carnesale quickly adjusted to his new environment is a testament to a lifelong knack for adapting to changing landscapes and constant challenges—beginning 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."

But Carnesale's 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.

"Look 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.Photography by Flynn Larsen

That string 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.

"When I got out, I thought I was through with school forever—and 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 more."

While working 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.

Fork in the Road
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.

Carnesale shrugs 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.

He arrived 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."

Photography by Flynn LarsenThat simple pleasure—having fun—has 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.

"It's 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 it sounds."

Conversely, 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."

Outside the Box
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 engineer.
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 envelope—most 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 endowment—the 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.

Photography by Flynn Larsen

In December 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 community."

Ultimately, 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.

First, "you 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."

Carnesale is an exemplary student in both regards, as he has proven throughout his distinguished and varied career as academician and administrator.

David Brindley is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles.