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A Steady Hand

By Mary Daily

Published Jul 1, 2007 8:00 AM

After a half-century at UCLA as an esteemed professor and respected administrator, Norman Abrams took on the toughest job of his life, agreeing to be interim chancellor in Westwood. He didn't know that he would be plunged almost immediately into a yearlong series of challenges and crises. But his deft and resolute leadership brought the university through all of them.

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Last summer, Emeritus Law Professor Norman Abrams agreed to be acting chancellor of UCLA, provided that he was not expected to be just a caretaker; he wanted to "keep the campus moving forward."

Update

New fellowship honors Abrams (August 6, 2007)

Today, "caretaker" is the last word anyone would use to describe him.

"At first, I said an acting chancellor might not be able to make bold, forward progress on new initiatives," says Engineering Professor Adrienne Lavine, "but I retracted that a long time ago."

A Balanced View

From day one, Abrams faced major issues — very public ones — and met them all with quiet confidence, determined to be fair to all sides. "Norm always seeks a win-win situation," says Interim Vice Chancellor of External Affairs Rhea Turteltaub.

In just one year, Abrams had plenty of chances to practice that art. Last summer, he faced the harassment of faculty conducting research on primates, including attempted attacks on researchers' homes. An expert in anti-terrorism law, Abrams called it "domestic terrorism." He affirmed to the campus and to the public that the university encourages free speech and differing opinions, but does not tolerate violence and harassment. He lobbied for the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, to make violence and intimidation toward researchers working with animals a federal crime. The bill was passed in November.

"Norm was willing to make the decision that was best for UCLA, even when it was controversial," says Administrative Vice Chancellor Sam Morabito.

When Abrams took office in July, African-American freshman enrollment had reached its lowest level in more than 30 years — only 2 percent of students who indicated an intent to enroll in the Fall 2006 undergraduate class were black — causing consternation among existing students, faculty, administrators and alumni. The media covered the story extensively, and many in the local community were adamant that something be done.

A vocal advocate of the importance of diversity, Abrams went to work to correct any misperceptions that UCLA was not welcoming to African Americans and other underrepresented groups, and to urge a refinement to the admissions process to make it fairer to all applicants.

He worked with UCLA's Academic Senate to switch to a "holistic" approach in the way applications were reviewed — the same approach used by UC Berkeley, Ivy League institutions and others. Holistic review involves a review of an applicant's entire application by the same readers — instead of different readers reading separate parts of each application, which had been UCLA practice — and is believed to be fairer and better achieves the goals of UC's comprehensive-review admissions policy. Abrams' office covered the added cost.

Abrams assembled a task force of campus representatives, alumni and community leaders to provide counsel to the campus and to promote discussion with the African-American community. Former UC Regent Peter Taylor '80 chairs the group. The chancellor also wrote to counselors at predominantly black high schools that he was distressed by reports that some were telling students that UCLA wasn't interested in them. "Nothing could be further from the truth," he said. He visited schools to reiterate his message.

The result? Black freshman enrollment doubled from 2006 to 2007, with African-Americans making up more than 4 percent of the initial intent-to-enroll numbers.

"The issue was front and center in the press," recalls task force member Blair Taylor M.B.A. '90. "Was the chancellor going to act, or forgo the opportunity to take on a challenging role? Norm took the forward-thinking approach."

While still being cognizant of and compliant with legal proscriptions, "you can't be passive in a position of leadership," Abrams concludes.

Abrams' response was "a turning point for UCLA's place in the community," says Janina Montero, vice chancellor for student affairs. "He has been not only a leader, but a mentor."

A Principled Core

In mid-November, there was yet another challenge. And again, Abrams met it head-on. During a routine 11 p.m. check of Powell Library, community service officers, following normal procedure, asked everyone to show UCLA identification or leave. When one person refused to do either, campus police officers were summoned and eventually used a Taser to subdue the man.

A bystander captured the scene on a cell phone, and a portion of the incident quickly appeared on YouTube.com and ignited a virtual firestorm of controversy. For weeks, UCLA, and especially Abrams, were bombarded by angry and threatening phone calls and e-mails.

Abrams spoke out to the campus and the media, counseling restraint and cautioning against a rush to judgment until all the facts were in. He appointed an independent investigator to review the incident, in addition to the campus police department's own internal review. The results of those investigations are pending as of press time.

"Norm has always had the capacity to look into things, solicit advice from people he trusts and make the call," says Professor Emeritus Herb Morris '51, Abrams' colleague for more than 40 years.

A week after the library incident, campus computer administrators discovered a security breach in a database of personal information on about 800,000 people. Abrams wrote to all potential victims and provided instructions on protecting personal credit files. He informed the Los Angeles Times to help spread the word. "Norm insisted on full transparency," says Morabito.

Throughout the year, Abrams' candor, strength, clarity and determination have been apparent, and so has the "quality of his human interaction," says Patricia O'Brien, executive dean of the College of Letters and Science. At a regular meeting with UCLA leadership days after the Virginia Tech tragedy, he asked for a moment of silence. "He operates from a principled core and brings his own values into whatever he does," she says.

Heart of a Leader

Norman Abrams, a native of Chicago, came to UCLA in 1959 to join the law school faculty. "As UCLA grew, so did I," he recalls. But he shied away from administrative posts until 1989, when he was appointed associate dean. "Norm is a flexible thinker and can act quickly when needed," says Susan Prager J.D. '71, then law school dean and now president of Occidental College. And Abrams says he found in himself "things I didn't know I could do." (He also served as interim dean in 2003-2004.)

Buoyed by that experience, in 1991 he agreed to serve as the university's vice chancellor of academic personnel, dealing with issues of appointment, promotion and retention of top scholars — a post he held until 2001. There he gained the wide respect of faculty beyond his own discipline, a great asset this year. "Norm's decisive leadership style quickly dispelled the notion of 'interim' chancellor," says Academic Senate chair Vivek Shetty. "He is a great collaborator."

As he prepares to pass the reins of power to Chancellor-Designate Gene Block later this summer, Abrams says he has thoroughly enjoyed his walk in the chancellor's shoes, and others have noticed. "He has fed off the stimuli of the role; it has energized him, and his energy has been contagious," says Turteltaub.

"He has given us his all," concludes O'Brien. And, not coincidentally, UCLA has moved forward.

Meet Chancellor Block

Gene Block, UCLA's new chief executive.