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An Interview With Bob Laird

Posted November 10, 1999

Bob Laird, director of Undergraduate Admission and Relations with Schools, is retiring from Berkeley Nov. 15, after more than two decades in outreach and admissions for the campus. Berkeleyan Associate Editor Cathy Cockrell conducted the following interview in October.

Q: Professionals in your field -- admissions officers, people working in outreach, college counselors throughout California -- all speak of your commitment to underrepresented students. Where did that sensitivity come from? Does it have roots in your childhood or your life?

A: I'm not sure where that came from, except from having in my early twenties taken a really careful look at American society and California society and seeing how unequal they are.

And watching over the years how those inequalities have not only been perpetuated, but magnified.... Increasingly we look like a traditional South American oligarchy, with a very affluent upper class and a large and growing underclass. Only here, the underclass is very well armed.

Q: You've been described as a person who wants to be a part of the bureaucracy, but has a streak about him that is anti-bureaucratic. Does that ring true?

A: ...One of the things I've learned is that the terms "bureaucrat" and "bureaucracy" have either pejorative or positive connotations. And it's important to distinguish between a bureaucrat who's a really lousy manager, who simply does things the same old way and occupies a desk... and someone who really manages well under difficult circumstances and complex environments.

The difficulty of balancing your own individuality and your own integrity against the hierarchy of an organization is always fraught with tension. And most of us struggle with that tension in lots of different ways almost every day.


Q: As director of undergraduate admission, one of your innovations was to make outreach positions into career positions. What was your thinking behind this change?

A: There's a tradition within admissions offices all across the country, that for outreach and recruitment work, you hire people straight out of college and work them really hard for two or three years until they're so tired that they have to go somewhere else. That seems to me like a short-term strategy that doesn't build much knowledge over time about students and communities and organizations.... That's particularly important in California, where individual schools are being transformed demographically over just a very few years. It's easy not to know a lot about California schools. And that's a huge danger in admissions and outreach.


Q: The loss of affirmative action as a tool has put a strong spotlight on K-12, the inequalities there, and how it is or isn't making students eligible for admission to Berkeley.

A: Many political careers are being formed on running against K-12 education, and denouncing the failures of K-12. A lot of the school reform stuff that's going on, including coming from Governor Davis, is "accountability." And underneath -- there's something not very nice underneath a lot of the school reform stuff. It sounds like people getting ready to be really unpleasant to the schools that are in the most difficult circumstances to begin with: "We're going to prove that they're not doing well, and then ... by Jove, we will punish. We'll restructure them. We'll reconstitute them. We'll take out their staff, and put in new staff."


Q: Given your perspective on these issues, what has it been like for you to help implement Proposition 209 through the admissions process?

A: The passage and then the implementation of 209 were really painful to me. I still think that 209 was a terrible mistake for the state of California. Implementing it is both complicated and difficult. But my view has been that 209 has been part of a 350-year history and struggle for social equality and racial integration. And it's not the last mark in that struggle.


Q: Or backlash against it.

A: Part of it is to keep raising the questions: What does it mean for the state of California if the freshman class at Berkeley is 14 percent underrepresented students -- or 11 percent a year ago -- while K-12 in California is 51 percent?

We're headed toward a kind of separate society that's going to be very hard to, first of all, justify, and second of all, sustain social order. There's a sort of naïve notion that with lots of police and National Guard we can enforce any social order we choose. But look at the riots in Los Angeles, where huge parts of the city are outside civil control for a good period of time. It's a pretty fragile veneer. So to do things that perpetuate the inequities in the society, and then to do things that ensure that those inequities will follow very closely along racial and ethnic lines, seems to be a really foolish public policy.


Q: Did you experience personal anguish, then, in enforcing 209?

A: Yes, I certainly spent some time thinking "do I want to do this?" And the answer is really complicated, and it has to do with my own selfish personal circumstances -- my family, what my work life would be like over the next 10 years.

But I also thought that it was really important to stay right at the center of the storm, and to raise the hard questions that might not get raised as much. And to continue to make the case, both internally and publicly, for the value of racial and ethnic diversity, and the importance of that at a place like Berkeley. And to work ultimately toward overturning 209 -- though I'm really disappointed at how little effort there is to do that. I thought there was going to be an opportunity in March 2000, to qualify an initiative for the ballot -- Ron Takaki's or some other.

I've talked to a lot of people trying to see if anything is happening and how I could get involved. There's nothing there. The governor has said "Let's move on." For whatever reason, that seems to be happening.


Q: Perhaps after retiring, as an elder spokesman....

A: I will have a more independent voice. That's a possibility that really appeals to me.... I want to do a good bit of writing. That's going to be kind of fun.

Q: Both fiction and about these kinds of issues?

A: Yeah, I have these three unpublished novels to resurrect. I want to see if I can't get at least one of them published before I topple over into the grave. I also want to write a non-fiction book about the last six years. What I'm hoping to do is offer a package deal: if you want the book on affirmative action politics, you've gotta take one of my novels!


Q: What about the lawsuit being brought against Berkeley by civil rights organizations, charging that its admission process is discriminatory?

A: The Rios lawsuit is hard. It's personally hard because I have almost exactly the same values as the civil rights groups who are suing us. And that's true for most of the people who work in this office. It's also a huge work load increase: the documents and preparation for the trial, which is now scheduled for Nov. 2000 -- in the 9th District Federal Court in San Francisco -- are really big workload increases in an office that is already way overworked. And then the stakes are very high.


Q: Will anti-affirmative action forces get to look at those documents?

A: It's possible that other organizations or individuals can petition the court to be given intervenor status. Which would give them access to all the depositions, databases, all the witnesses. In effect you can be sued by both sides at the same time.


Q: Is it possible you'll have to testify in the Rios case?

A: It's certain.


Q: What are the reasons you've decided to retire?

A: I was 60 last month. And my wife and I have two kids who are 10 and 14. I feel how wearing this job has been, and I really began to think about the stakes.... I came back to work in August, and the first crisis hit, and I could feel the stress, and look at this year ahead, thinking "this is the way that bad things can happen, Bob. You ought to really pay attention...."

I never thought I would have a job like this, and it has been an honor, and I've loved it. But it goes through people pretty fast. And I'd like to walk out and not be carried out.


RELATED STORY: Laird Receives Berkeley Citation



November 10 - 16, 1999 (Volume 28, Number 14)
Copyright 1999, The Regents of the University of California.
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