Ron Coley: Flying Ahead of the Plane

by Cathy Cockrell, Public Affairs

In a former life as a Marine Corps officer, Ron Coley taught his aviation students to "fly ahead of the plane."

"You're gonna crash," he'd say, "if your vision reaches no further than where your body is."

For the new executive director of Business and Administrative Services, the metaphor also describes how he has foreseen, seized, made and sometimes strategically passed by opportunities to chart his course through life.

Coley (pronounced KOE-lee) assumed his new responsibilities Jan. 20 and in the weeks since has toured Mail Services, UC Printing, Materiel Management and Physical Plant-Campus Services - the four critical campus operations he will oversee. He is also meeting with all vice chancellors and deans in order to get a clear appreciation for campus culture and how to best support the university's mission of teaching, research and public service.

"I'm thoroughly impressed with the quality of people - the general professionalism, commitment and loyalty to the university," he says.

Coley reports to Horace Mitchell, vice chancellor for business and administrative services, who calls him "a very valuable addition to the BAS senior management team as we continue to enhance the effectiveness of our services to the campus community.

"I am impressed by his qualities of personal and managerial leadership and his success in forging collaborations among stakeholders on many complex issues," says Mitchell. "I would describe his 20-year military career as being in the 'General Colin Powell tradition' as opposed to the 'Rambo tradition.' He is thoughtful and analytical, builds consensus, is mission-oriented with a commitment to quality service, performance measurement and continuous improvement."

The journey that brought Coley to his new campus post began in Goldsboro, N.C., where he was born, and Philadelphia, Pa., where he lived in alternate years for much of his childhood. He met his wife of 19 years, Soraya Coley, in Goldsboro during high school. (She is currently dean of the School of Human Development and Community Services at California State University, Fullerton.)

His passion for basketball won him a scholarship to Drexel Institute of Technology (now Drexel University), and a stint with a summer Marine Corps program allowed him to complete his college degree. When he graduated from Drexel in 1972, Coley joined the Marines and was sent to Florida for flight training.

As a black aviator, "I was pretty rare," Coley recalls, "and feeling a lot of social pressures that came with that." Only a handful of blacks were assigned to the Navy and Marines Corps aviation programs during that time, he says. For most of his 20-year Marine Corps career he was the only black officer in his unit.

In the early '80s, Coley learned of a Marine Corps program offering advanced degrees to select officers. He enrolled at Wharton School of Business and earned an MBA.

A job as chief financial officer of a Southern California air station was the first of several Marine Corps posts where he applied his financial skills. Coming in the wake of a major military budget build-up by the Reagan administration, it also offered a unique dilemma.

"There was so much money, I found myself turning money back," Coley recalls. Some criticized, saying they would be given a smaller budget next year, since each year's budget was determined by the previous year's spending. "I'll get you anything you need," he answered, "but I'm not going to waste this money."

Coley later worked at the Pentagon on strategic plans for a major military downsizing, and negotiated the Marine Corps position with top brass from the other services.

"I saw the game at the highest levels," he recalls.

In 1989, Lt. Col. Coley was chosen for Top Level School, a select program that typically leads to promotion to the highest ranks.

Coley searched his soul to imagine the scenario out ahead of the plane: After Top Level School, he'd become a colonel and then, quite likely, general.

"I'm seduced by it, but my heart is not in it. I'm tired of the Marine Corps." He believes that by the time you get to be a general, "you really need to have a passion for it. At any moment, a phone could ring and you could be half way around the world in an hour. You may have 100,000 people under your command, most likely in a life-and-death situation, depending on you to have a passion."

Coley speculates that had he not developed so many "scars" or "consumed so many psychological energies" earlier in his career, he might have accepted the opportunity. Instead, he left the Marines to pursue his growing interest in civilian fiscal management. When he told the generals, "they were blown away," he recalls.

In his first civilian job, as administrative manager in the executive office of Orange County, he spearheaded a reorganization of the public defenders office that resulted in a $7 million annual savings for the county, and a change in the funding structure for the county court system that led to a $20 million annual savings.

He was concerned about the county's organizational structure, however.

"In the military there is never a question about who's accountable," Coley recalls. Orange County, he felt, was just the opposite. "Nobody's in charge," he remembers thinking. "Nobody's accountable."

These instincts were confirmed when a series of bad investment decisions by county officials landed the county in bankruptcy court and Coley was assigned to the "clean-up crew."

Based on his early impressions of Berkeley, Coley speculates that "in terms of getting things done, some things may not need to be as difficult as they are. I'm hoping to see if I can make recommendations to Horace Mitchell to help improve operations.

"If I am able to help improve services and the way we do business, if I'm able to be as successful as in the Defense Department and Orange County," he says, "I can achieve my primary objective of making a significant contribution to Berkeley."



Copyright 1998, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
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