Patron of protocol
For more than a decade, Gail Stern of IAS has greased the wheels for international visitors to campus

By Cathy Cockrell, Public Affairs



Gail Stern, director of international protocol, keeps an ample stash ofCal mementos to send home with foreign visitors to campus.
Peg Skorpinski photo

30 October 2002 | Ask staffer Gail Stern about her title, “director of international protocol,” and she’s quick to set you straight: She’s welcomed high-flyers from Earth’s far corners — from captains of industry to queens — but an expert on when to wear white gloves, she’s not.

“I watched too many ’50s movies,” she says. “I still have an image of a ‘protocol officer’ as someone in charge of picking the right color flowers and napkins.”

From her control center in International and Area Studies, which she joined at its founding in 1990, Stern serves as liaison to foreign guests — thousands, by now, landing on campus singly or in delegations of 45.

She reads the international section of the newspaper with interest, and often will see a name there that rings a bell. “I keep thinking one of the candidates in the last German election must have visited here in the past,” she says. “After awhile, you begin to imagine everyone in the world has been through.”

Stern’s work typically begins with the arrival of a message from a government ministry or educational institution overseas. In formal, politely worded English, the writer expresses interest, say, in “ways to interact with Berkeley and enhance our relationship.”

“That’s a very vague reference,” Stern observes. “I try to find out graciously what they’re interested in. I keep asking questions, asking questions, to find out who they should meet on campus.”

International visitors’ interests run the gamut from technology licensing to facilities management, and include everything in between. Japan, for example, is revamping its higher-education system, and many there are eager to learn how American universities handle such matters as budgeting, planning, and faculty recruitment and rewards. This year alone, Stern has greased the wheels for six such delegations, “casting my net around campus” to match Japanese university administrators with individuals able and willing to help explain the Berkeley way.

Maintaining good relations with her campus contacts is a must, she says. Too many visitors asking the same administrators the same questions can be burdensome. “I try to vary who I ask. I don’t tap the same person all the time.”

‘A frightening job’
Face-to-face exchanges are only one thing to finesse; parking arrangements, bathroom breaks (scheduled as “personal time”), and campus transportation are details that Stern must equally attend to, or fail to at her peril.

“It’s a very frightening job, to be honest,” she confesses. “No matter how many maps you give them, visitors can be late. And on the other side are our overburdened Berkeley faculty and staff, who can appear a week early, or at the wrong faculty club. You’ve got two sides you can’t control.”

War stories abound. When the guests arrive 90 minutes early and have only two minutes of ceremonial comments to make, Stern needs to have an 88-minute filler waiting in the wings.
“I tell my younger colleagues, ‘Don’t wear your Oshkosh shorts today, just in case you have to lead a tour of campus,’” says Stern.

Predictably, language and culture are a minefield of potential disasters. In China, Stern has learned, those in academe are accustomed to red-carpet treatment. “We are a state-funded institution,” she says, “and we can’t pay for a limo to pick them up at the airport, or to wine and dine them at Chez Panisse.”

It’s her job to delicately communicate what she calls “a little of the Berkeley reality,” and to offer “any frills we can afford: an almost-60-year-old woman in a black suit, leading them around campus. I smile sweetly, and don’t use any slang.” And Cal gifts, of course, to take back home — from bear pins to desk clocks, the latter suitable for high-level visitors.

“That’s a nice gift,” Stern proclaims. “Substantial, useful, dignified, not so big it’s going to dislocate your shoulder carrying it back, like a full-scale model of the Campanile.” After September 11, the letter opener with the university seal on the handle was discontinued. “It’s not a good gift to give someone who’s going to board an airplane,” she notes.

Perks and peaks
Disasters, near-disasters, and sleepless nights notwithstanding, Stern’s tenure as patron of protocol has had its perks, and a few of her memories will last a lifetime. One was meeting U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan — whom she calls “the most impressive person I ever met.” Recalling the moment backstage at Zellerbach when Annan made a special point to greet support staff, she toys with the word “spiritual” to describe his presence, then settles on “man of peace.” Says Stern: “He was there for something greater than self.”

Another, if less lofty, peak experience came in the form of an exquisite chocolate topped by a tiny, chartreuse-colored squiggle — a gift from a French visitor. Ever since, says Stern, “I’m always excited when a chocolate-producing country comes.”

And then there’s been the quiet thrill of brushing shoulders with “the guys who wear sunglasses.” Security agents come a dime a dozen in the movies. But to observe one up close, arms crossed, in a doorway, when he starts talking to his sleeve?

“I’ve lived an ordinary life,” says Stern. “I didn’t expect to be rubbing shoulders with the Secret Service.”


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