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John Cummins puts controversy behind him
As chief of staff to four chancellors, he’s handled protests, hostage crises, bomb threats, evacuations, town-gown disputes, and whatever else came his way

| 30 April 2008

On prominent display in John Cummins’ California Hall office is a poster of Paul McCartney, a memento of a performance by the former Beatle and Wings frontman at Memorial Stadium on April 1, 1990. The night was blanketed with fog, Cummins recalls, causing the amplified sound to echo for miles and generating a small tsunami of angry complaints from as far away as Oakland’s Montclair district.


John Cummins (Peg Skorpinski photo)
 

For Cummins — the campus’s longtime go-to on controversies large and small, and a man accustomed to coping with unhappy neighbors, parents, students, staff, faculty, officeholders, activists, and most everyone else with a grievance against the university — it was just another day at the office.

That particular April Fool’s Day marks the midpoint of a singular, 36-year career at Berkeley that began quietly enough in 1972 and comes to a close this week with his retirement as associate chancellor and chief of staff. It’s a career dotted with red-letter dates in campus history, many of them richly chronicled in newspapers and on TV — even if Cummins himself is typically not in the picture. A self-described “utility infielder” for four chancellors since 1984, he’s worked largely in what he calls “the interstices of the organization” to grapple with crises and conflicts under what have often been pressure-cooker conditions.

“I think the time has gone by so quickly because of the intensity,” he reflects, looking back on a job whose specific duties have changed with each new chancellor — he has, at different times, been charged with responsibility for athletics, public affairs, government relations, internal-audit investigations, and the whistleblower program — but whose consistent thread for two decades has been crisis management.

Asked to describe the essence of his role, Cummins invokes a trope from popular culture: “Let Mikey do it,” he says, a riff on the old Life cereal commercial in which a pair of boys, unwilling to try the stuff themselves, enlist a younger one as a human guinea pig.

A native of Pittsburgh, Cummins’ speech still carries a hint of the Allegheny Plateau; his manner is steady, assured, and conciliatory. He briefly attended seminary before getting his bachelor’s degree at Marquette University, followed by a doctorate in education at the University of Wisconsin. He moved to Berkeley — “Coming here from the Midwest was like Nirvana,” he remembers — to take a job at the precursor to the Center for Studies in Higher Education.

A year later he moved to the Institute of Governmental Studies, eventually founding what today is the California Policy Research Center. It was at IGS that he met Ira Michael Heyman, then a vice chancellor under Albert Bowker (1971-80). Four years after Heyman assumed the chancellorship in 1980, he made Cummins part of his brain trust as assistant chancellor, executive assistant, and public-affairs officer.

It wasn’t long before the university was targeted by animal-rights protesters, some of whom made international headlines by occupying a boom crane that was being used to erect the Northwest Animal Facility. As the chancellor’s top aide, the newly tapped insider was right in the thick of the controversy.

In Cummins’ first full year as assistant chancellor, Berkeley was also rocked by massive protests over the UC system’s investments in corporations doing business with South Africa under apartheid; a symbolic shantytown, representing the homes of blacks in South African townships, sprang up outside California Hall. At a meeting inside with the UC police chief, he remembers, “Heyman basically just turned to the chief and said, ‘I want John directly involved with everything going on with this protest.’ ”

The longstanding confrontation led to the high-profile arrests, in April 1986, of 61 protesters and the dismantling of the shantytown, as demonstrators blocked police buses, set dumpsters on fire, and tossed Molotov cocktails. “It was just a mess,” Cummins remembers. For a former civil-rights and anti-war protester who, like Heyman, sympathized with the demonstrators’ demands, it was a taxing initiation into the job he would make his own over the coming decades.

“From then on, I was typecast,” he laughs. He would go on to play a pivotal role in such crises as a fatal fraternity-house fire, an armed hostage takeover of a popular student hangout that left one dead and 33 injured, the evacuation of the campus following the Oakland hills fire, bomb threats, and clashes over campus speakers — especially over those addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And he vividly remembers the 1992 riots on Telegraph Avenue over the campus’s efforts to make changes to People’s Park, which gave rise to the early-morning break-in — while Cummins was on vacation — at the residence of Chancellor Chang-Lin Tien and his wife.

All of it, he says, comes with the territory.

“That’s the way it’s always been from Day 1,” he says, “and it’s never disappointed.”

Perspective is the key

Key to handling major disputes, Cummins explains, is a capacity for seeing the other side of the argument. Not only is that conciliatory approach a crucial part of his legacy, he believes, but its effectiveness speaks to the character of the Berkeley campus.

“What I feel most proud of is bringing people together to work on controversial issues,” he says, from the Bush administration’s invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq to town-gown tensions over student drinking and rowdy behavior, part of his ever-morphing portfolio during the past three years. “My experience across the board has been that people here are willing to pitch in and help, no matter what the issue is — and they’re so smart, and so creative, that if you take the time to listen to them and utilize them, it makes a huge difference. I really don’t think there’s any other way around it.”

As for the key to his longevity in a position so dependent upon the personality of the chancellor — a longevity that surprises Cummins himself — he chalks it up to adaptability.

“There have been times when I had a very different view of what should be done than a particular senior administrator, and sometimes you make the decision and deal with the consequences afterward,” he says, noting the many times when the urgency of the moment trumped the protocols of procedure. “But I think, on the whole, I’ve been able to maintain those relationships. If you can’t, then you can’t really do the job.”

That’s been particularly important for someone serving as the right-hand man to four different chancellors, each with his own distinctive agenda, style, and personality.

“One of the lessons I’ve learned is that you don’t change chancellors, you don’t try to change who they are,” he explains. “You adjust to their style, their way of doing things. So you have to be flexible in a position like this, and they have to be receptive — and I think every one of them has been — to insight and criticism. In other words, you have to be able to bring them the bad news — and that’s not always easy to do.”

It was especially difficult with Tien, he says, due to his deep roots in traditional Chinese culture. Just nine months after Tien became chancellor in 1990, in fact, Cummins suggested he might prefer a new chief of staff. Tien declined, urging him instead to “be more careful how you bring things to me.” After consulting with a Chinese psychologist friend, Cummins adds, “I changed my language to be much more conditional. I wouldn’t say, ‘You should do x, y, and z.’ I’d say, ‘You might think about doing x, y, and z.’ ”

Another lesson he learned from Tien, who left office in 1997, is one he plans to apply to his own looming retirement. “He told me he would not set foot in California Hall for a year, and he didn’t, and I thought that was good advice — you know, just kind of stop.”

Come August, Cummins plans to spend a year in Paris with his wife, Peggy, where he’ll consider writing a book. Mostly he plans to unwind.

“I’m looking forward to not having a schedule, to not having to come to work every day not knowing what you’re going to have to face at any particular point in time, not having to deal so much with controversy,” he says. “That part I don’t think I’m going to miss.”

Among other things, he’ll use his free time to reflect on a conversation he once had with Ron Elson, a psychiatrist affiliated with the Tang Center.

“We were talking about the pace of living, and he said, I think people allow that to occur because it’s a way for them to avoid their own mortality,” recounts Cummins. “And I thought that was a very interesting comment. You can get really wrapped up in these things. They’re very intense, they’re very challenging. But the really important part of this institution is the teaching and the research, and the faculty, of course, are critical, they’re really the key. So everything that everybody else does, including the chancellor, is to protect them so that they can do their work.

“That,” he concludes, “is what this place is all about.”