Executive Assistant to the President, Secretary of the Board of Trustees, Caltech (Ret.)
By David Zierler, Director of the Caltech Heritage Project
June 21, July 15, August 3, 17, 2022
DAVID ZIERLER: This is David Zierler, Director of the Caltech Heritage Project. It is Tuesday, June 21st, 2022. I am so happy to be here with Mary Webster. Mary, it's so nice to be with you. Thank you for joining me today.
MARY WEBSTER: You're quite welcome, and it's a pleasure for me to help out in any way I can.
ZIERLER: To start, would you please tell me your most recent title and affiliation here at Caltech?
WEBSTER: My most recent title was secretary, Board of Trustees. I went part-time before I retired fully. I gave up my job as executive assistant to the president, which was essentially chief of staff, several years before I retired. My last and final position was secretary, Board of Trustees.
ZIERLER: Did you innovate that role? Was there a secretary, Board of Trustees, before you?
WEBSTER: Oh, yes, there has been one since 1891.
ZIERLER: Oh, wow!
WEBSTER: It's the corporate secretary position at Caltech. As a corporation or an entity within the state of California, they're required to have a corporate secretary, so the position has been there since 1891.
ZIERLER: Were you dual-hatted for most of the time when you were chief of staff to the president, and running the board meetings?
ZIERLER: Was that also something that was innovated? In other words, were there predecessors that did both jobs as well?
WEBSTER: No, it was not a precedent. It had been the arrangement in place for my immediate predecessor, Hardy Martel.
ZIERLER: Tell me about the circumstances of you retiring in January 2020 and the marvelous timing right before COVID. What were you thinking at that point in your career?
WEBSTER: I had had several conversations prior to making my final decision. David Lee was chair of the Board, and Tom Rosenbaum obviously was president. For the last couple of years, I knew the time was approaching when I should retire. I was well into my seventies. I had been doing this job for a very long time. I talked to both David and to Tom in January of 2019 and told them I had come to this decision and that it really was time both physically and for quality of work for me to step down and take on this new phase of life called retirement. I gave them formal notice a year ahead of time. In that final year, I prepared things and people for my departure. I thought I was going to be living in Pasadena. I had always thought there should be a new Board secretary in place when the next presidential search happens. That was also in the back of my mind. I wasn't prepared to do another presidential search.
ZIERLER: The initial plan was that you were going to remain in Pasadena?
WEBSTER: That's correct. That's a whole different story about how we ended up here in Cincinnati.
ZIERLER: Do you have family there?
WEBSTER: We have a lot of family here in Cincinnati. We have one child, one son—he worked at Caltech for a while—and as long as he was in California, we were going to stick it out there, and it looked like that was a long-term plan for him. Well, that changed. He moved to Syracuse, New York. I wasn't about to move there. That's probably not going to be the last stop for him. That left us with no family in California, and so that's what led to our move here to Cincinnati.
ZIERLER: What is your son's field? What brought him to Syracuse?
WEBSTER: He works in the food management area. He ran dining services at Caltech and then he worked for Bon Appetit at NBC Studios and Disney. He's at Syracuse University, doing the hospitality and food service there.
ZIERLER: Who else is in Cincinnati? You said you have other family there.
WEBSTER: It's my husband's family. His two brothers live here, and their families, and the next generation down all live here. That's how we ended up here!
ZIERLER: Retirement in a colder climate; you went the other way a little bit.
WEBSTER: Most people don't do it this way!
ZIERLER: Of course, the big surprise for you in retirement was COVID. What plans did you have that might have been deferred from 2020?
WEBSTER: When I retired in 2020, we were fixing up our house in Pasadena to become our nice retirement bungalow. I was going to do some volunteer work through the church that we went to in Pasadena, and I had always planned to take on some docent responsibilities. I had always been attracted to the Huntington Library. Mostly these activities were volunteer opportunities that I just didn't have time to do while I was working full-time. That was what I had in mind. And yes, it all got deferred!
ZIERLER: What ways have you remained connected to Caltech, informally through friends, or in any formal capacity?
WEBSTER: No formal capacity. When Cathy Light first was appointed Board secretary, I had a number of Zoom calls with her to get acquainted and to give her some clues about how I did things. I have no formal affiliation with the Institute anymore. My remaining connection to Caltech is through friends on the Board and the colleagues who worked in the office with me. It's people connections that I've maintained more than institutional connections.
ZIERLER: Are you looking forward to ever coming back if that becomes feasible at some point?
WEBSTER: For visits, yes. We have lots of friends in the Pasadena area, so we will be back there. It just hasn't been possible for us to travel, between COVID and getting settled in a new house that's a lot bigger than the one we had in Pasadena. And right now, it's almost impossible to get furniture, so we get sporadic furniture deliveries. So, there are things that have just kind of kept us here for close to a year now.
ZIERLER: When it was coming up on time for your retirement, reflecting on 50 years of service at Caltech, I wonder if that put you in a reflective mood at all, about how the Institute has changed over your five decades here.
WEBSTER: It did. As you can imagine, over that time period, with the state of technology and everything else, there were a lot of changes. The first 15 years of my service at Caltech, I worked at JPL, which is a very different institution than the campus. It was a big cultural shift for me when I made that change from JPL to the campus. Even at JPL, being the unmanned space leaders of the country, when I first started there in the procurement division, nothing was computerized yet. We were using—I think it was 12-page—purchase orders with carbon paper. Nothing was computerized. We still used the telephone and telexes to do business, none of which exists anymore.
ZIERLER: Of course, another one of the big shifts is the role of women at Caltech. When you started, women weren't even members of the undergraduate body at that point.
WEBSTER: That's correct.
ZIERLER: Do you remember that transition? Did that register with you?
WEBSTER: It registered with me. The student-related transition happened while I was still at JPL. Of course, there were women at JPL but not in official leadership positions, so JPL has changed as well, in very good ways, I would say. I was aware of the gender transition in the Caltech student body, but I wasn't intimately engaged in it because I was at JPL while that was happening. Obviously the most obvious change was on campus. Have you talked with Louise Kirkbride at all?
ZIERLER: No, I have not. That's a new name.
WEBSTER: She is a name you should have on your list. She was one of the first undergraduate women students.
ZIERLER: In 1970? Yeah.
WEBSTER: She's on the Board of Trustees. She can tell you some fabulous stories about how she made the decision to come to Caltech.
ZIERLER: Oh, wonderful.
WEBSTER: How Harry Gray talked her into it even though her parents didn't want her to come. She essentially ran away from home to come to Caltech. She would be a great person for you to talk to, to pursue that topic, because she was part of that initial class of students.
ZIERLER: I'm not surprised that you mentioned Harry Gray because the first part of this project, I've talked to most of the men who were undergraduates in 1968 and 1969 who were on the student committee that was agitating for women to be admitted. They consistently mentioned Harry Gray as one of the real champions on the faculty in pushing for this decision, so that's nice to hear.
WEBSTER: I assume Harry is still around.
ZIERLER: He is, absolutely. What about on the staff side, on the administrative side? How had the role of women changed from when you started at JPL to Caltech, all the way to your retirement?
WEBSTER: When I started at JPL, there were no women in leadership positions either at the Lab or on campus. I am the first woman to serve in the role that I had, either as executive assistant to the president or as Board secretary. By the time I took those positions, the Institute itself was very supportive of women. I can't say I personally felt I was ever discriminated against or didn't have an opportunity. In fact, I had opportunities that were just rather astounding when I look at it in hindsight, as to the positions I was offered and the responsibilities I was given and the challenges I was provided. Nobody ever said, "She's a woman; she can't do that." Personally, I don't think I ever experienced that, but I know having a woman in my positions was new for some people—both on campus and on the Board. I never viewed myself as a pioneer or leading the way. It just seemed to happen. I simply did my job.
ZIERLER: A question about the smallness of Caltech: of course, Caltech prides itself on how small it is, what an intimate place it is, but obviously it has grown over the years. How much bigger did Caltech feel at the time of your retirement relative to the first time you set foot on campus?
WEBSTER: Of course, my perspective is a little bit skewed coming from JPL which is a much larger institution than the campus; and of course, it has gotten bigger, too, since I left. When I left JPL, I felt as though I knew a good portion of the people there, and a couple years later, that would have been impossible. It just felt like sort of generic growth. I never noticed a drastic change. I guess the best way to phrase it is that it seemed like natural, programmatic growth. It never seemed to be a bad thing. The growth appeared to be something that was good, and in fact essential, for the institution, that is, something that would promote and enhance its mission. The physical size of the campus—the boundaries at Del Mar, California, Wilson, Hill—hasn't changed. The number of buildings within that envelope has changed. But the Institute has been very intentional about keeping the green space, so it still doesn't feel as though it is crowded. Obviously, there are a lot more people on campus than there was in 1981 when I came down to campus permanently, but to me it just seemed like a natural growth pattern.
ZIERLER: Working in the President's Office and with the Board of Trustees, obviously you were so involved on an administrative level. Did you have a chance, ever, to build relationships with faculty to gain an appreciation for all the science and engineering that happens here?
WEBSTER: I did, and it happened in a couple of ways. One of the reasons for my timing for my retirement was I knew physically and emotionally I wouldn't survive another presidential transition, a presidential search. The process is very intense. Through previous presidential searches and the faculty chairs of those committees, I had an opportunity to develop close relationships with members of the faculty. But the thing that gave me the most insight into the academic side and the educational mission of the Institute was working with the Visiting Committees. That started as a real program when David Baltimore came as president. (Steve Koonin was provost at the time.) Both had strong links back to MIT. MIT has a very structured visiting committee process, and Caltech did not. Caltech in many ways did things a bit more freeform. So, David and Steve initiated a structured Visiting Committee program that was run under the auspices of the Board of Trustees. As a result of that, I organized the process and sat in on all the Visiting Committee meetings for all six divisions. (For a while, they were doing them for JPL as well.) That gave me a great new understanding of Caltech's academic and research activities. It was a great honor and privilege, and it really opened my eyes to what a wonderful institution Caltech is.
ZIERLER: For family members or friends who might not appreciate how special Caltech is, what stands out in your memory when trying to convey just what a special place it is? How would you communicate that to people who might not know or appreciate it?
WEBSTER: At least among my circle of friends and family, and maybe it's because they know I work at Caltech, but they typically have questions about what the Caltech faculty is doing, what the Caltech students are doing. Just the extraordinary world-class work that's for the betterment of humankind that goes on at Caltech, it doesn't happen anywhere else. It really is amazing. People all over the world, if they've heard of Caltech, they're aware of what a special place it is.
ZIERLER: One of the ways to measure that, of course, is the number of Nobel Prizes that have been awarded to Caltech faculty. I wonder if you can paint a composite picture of all of the celebrations on campus when one of our faculty is awarded the Nobel Prize. What is that like? What is the feeling?
WEBSTER: Every October, everybody on campus is aware when the Nobel Prizes are announced. The Strategic Communications group has other direct links. There's kind of an anticipation: Is this the year? We keep hoping Harry Gray will get one. I'm still watching for the chemistry one here, all the way in Cincinnati. The faculty member who gets the Prize gets a very early telephone call from the Nobel Prize committee, and then typically the president gets a call. Then the process starts. Within each division, there's a celebration. There's an Institute celebration. There's typically a press conference, usually in the Athenaeum. For Frances Arnold's, we had a big party out on the Olive Walk, celebrating her Prize. So, there's all kinds of celebrations. It's a big deal, and it's a happy time for the Institute.
ZIERLER: An overall question from your perspective on the role of the president at Caltech, has the position and the responsibility more or less been the same for all the presidents you worked with, or has it changed over time?
WEBSTER: It has stayed relatively stable—on paper. The big transition happened between Robert Millikan and Lee DuBridge. Dr. Millikan refused the title of "president" when he assumed the executive responsibility at Caltech—although it's very clear that he functioned as the administrative head of the institution. When Lee DuBridge became to Caltech in 1947, he did hold the title of President. Over the next several years, working with the Board of Trustees, Dr. DuBridge led the effort to define not only the president's responsibilities, but also those responsibilities that were delegated to the faculty—and the powers that were retained by the Board of Trustees. The specific description of the president's duties was initially delineated in a Board resolution shortly after Dr. DuBridge's arrival at Caltech, and the job description was incorporated into the Bylaws in 1969 and has remained essentially unchanged since that time. The nature of the Institute and the things that presidents do, whether they're trying to build a telescope, hopefully in Hawaii, major projects—LIGO was another one, those huge projects like that, JPL, there's a contract coming up for renewal—those things consume huge amounts of time, and they come up sporadically, major projects like that. But overall, if you were to look at the job description, it has been stable.
ZIERLER: What about the division of labor between the president and the provost? Would you include that more generally in the stability of the president's job?
WEBSTER: I would. That's a key partnership for the Institute. It depends really on the personal interaction between the two as to how effective that partnership is. I didn't work for Harold Brown permanently, but I did come down from JPL and work for him twice when he was president. In addition to his responsibilities as Caltech president, he had a lot of international responsibilities related to critical strategic arms negotiations that caused him to be absent from the campus for extended periods of time. So, he relied on a strong provost, Robert Christy, to keep things running at Caltech. There is another critically important partnership: that between the president and the Board chair. Those partnerships have to be strong and effective for any one of those three parties to be effective in their jobs and to be good for Caltech.
ZIERLER: Because your vantage point is so unique, on that relationship between the president and the Board, speaking generally, what are the issues or the personalities or the interpersonal connections that really guarantee a mutually productive relationship between what the president and the Board is trying to accomplish?
WEBSTER: The strong relationship between the president and the Board chair is how that gets done. Dave Thompson took over after I retired, so David Lee is the last Board chair that I worked with. He and Tom Rosenbaum, unless they were traveling, met once a week, just to make sure they were on the same base. David would know what Tom was concerned about and vice versa. Tom would be aware of what David was hearing, if there were concerns from members of the Board or Board issues that needed to be addressed. I have to say that in all the time that I worked in that position, for all the presidents and Board chairs I worked with, Tom and David's was the most effective interaction between the two that I observed. I know Ben Rosen, for instance, stepped down as Board chair, probably sooner than anyone anticipated he would, primarily because he was based in New York, and he really didn't feel as though he had an opportunity to develop that relationship that was so critical. He felt as though the Board chair should be geographically local to the campus so that would be feasible. As we've matured as an institution, that relationship between the president and Board chair has become more critically important and more effective.
ZIERLER: Of course, board members have achieved success in so many different industries and fields. Is there one that stands out in your memory that you think has been most relevant in providing advice and leadership for Caltech?
WEBSTER: Are you talking about fields or person?
ZIERLER: The kinds of fields that Board members come from, whether it's academia, whether it's finance, whether it's manufacturing. Is there a kind of occupation that you think is particularly effective in providing the best possible advice and guidance that a Board member can provide?
WEBSTER: The way our Board is structured— "our Board"!—your board—
ZIERLER: No, our board!
WEBSTER: —the Caltech Board—is a lot larger than is typical. Over the years the Board has occasionally debated the issue of the size of the board, and those studies always concluded that although the Caltech board is larger than the typical university governing board, that is not a bad thing. In fact, the typical conclusion of these studies was that the somewhat unique structure of the Caltech's governing board is inherently a good thing for the Institute. To answer your question more directly, those board members who have succeeded in business and have knowledge of an effective CEO-type relationship tend to be effective board members. When that background is combined with a strong devotion and commitment to the Institute's mission the value of advice and guidance that a board member provides is greatly enhanced. That's not always a natural set of characteristics to find. Two examples who come immediately to my mind are Gordon Moore and Rube Mettler, both of whom were CEOs of major corporations, alums, and deeply dedicated to Caltech as an institution. They both had a strong desire to make Caltech succeed. They both had business knowledge that was important for Caltech to receive from the Board.
Of course, in niche ways, the board needs to have some people who have the investment knowledge that enables them to maintain fiduciary oversight of the endowment, which is one of the major responsibilities of the Board. It's the same thing with JPL. They need board members—Bob Inman, those type of people—who know the government, know NASA, and can help in ensuring that the tripartite relationship between Caltech, NASA, and JPL is strong and effective. Another example is the legal field. Shirley Hufstedler comes to my mind as a board member who provided the board and the administration with confidential, frank and astute legal counsel on critical issues. In essence, it is in these niche areas (business, government affairs, investment fields, legal counsel, banking, entrepreneurship), where a Caltech vice president or a Caltech president doesn't necessarily have expertise, that members of the board can add the greatest value through their individual areas of expertise.
ZIERLER: A question about benefactors: I wonder what you learned over the course of your career about the most effective ways in engaging with potential benefactors, people who were considering making significant gifts to Caltech, and the effective ways that Caltech has remained in good relations, has maintained a positive long-term relationship with those benefactors years after the initial check was written.
WEBSTER: Philanthropy wasn't my area of responsibility, but of course I was aware of the major benefactors. It goes back to the essence of Caltech. If a benefactor or philanthropist is in any way interested in any of the fields that Caltech is pursuing, making the connection between the philanthropist and the faculty member doing that area or working in that particular field, and building that relationship up from there, has typically been the most successful way to bring in the major donors. Then of course educating the philanthropists on the opportunities to broaden the work, to expand the work, to do the work, or to create the work. It just becomes a relationship between a Tom Rosenbaum, a Dave Tirrell, and Dexter and his team. It's a lot of work, but it can be fun, too. Making it fun, having fun interactions, for the philanthropists, with members of the faculty, with students, really lays the groundwork for major gifts. I don't want to do Dexter's work for you—he can do it a whole lot better than I can—but that's the essence of it. Again, it goes back to people. People, relationships, and interactions are what makes everything work the best.
ZIERLER: One more question before we go back and develop your personal narrative. I've been struck since joining Caltech a year ago by the level of pride that people feel here, even if they're not scientists or engineers themselves but that they're part of that team, that larger campus group that is doing all of the things that Caltech is doing, whether it's in basic science, understanding how nature works, or some of the translations or applications that really have changed the world. Either with one thing or just in general, what fills you with most pride, having been a part of Caltech for so long?
WEBSTER: You described it well. One of the key aspects is how much pride people in, for example, the dining services, the people working in the kitchen, the custodians, the mail service team—all the service functions take extraordinary pride in being part of the Caltech story. I think Julia McCallin has done a great job in making sure that the staff are recognized for what they do to support that work. I spoke at a service awards ceremony a couple years before I retired. I really went out of my way to tell the staff that I couldn't have done my job without their help.
It goes back to being a lean, small organization. The president couldn't do his job without all of that essential support from what could be considered the lowest levels of employees up to the top. They know they're contributing to something fabulous. They may not understand what the students are doing, I certainly never did! I certainly never understood the science, or most of the science, but it just felt good to be part of that important work. Knowing you're contributing to a world-class institution that is doing extraordinary, extraordinary work—it's amazing, it's a privilege, and it's an opportunity.
ZIERLER: Let's go all the way back to the beginning. Let's start first with your parents. Tell me a little bit about them and where they were from.
WEBSTER: My mother was the daughter of immigrants. Her parents immigrated to the United States in the early 20th century from Holland. My grandfather was actually born in Java, but his parents were Dutch. My grandfather was I guess an engineer. He worked with George Westinghouse, building the first electric station at Niagara Falls.
ZIERLER: Oh, wow!
WEBSTER: He worked for Westinghouse his whole life. My paternal grandfather was a Presbyterian minister, and my paternal grandmother was a poet and devoted most of her life to support her husband's work at the church. They lived in Minnesota (where my dad was born) and western Pennsylvania, where my mom and dad met. My mother was a stay-at-home mom. She made all our clothes, cooked all our meals, kept house, and kept all four of us (five, if you count my dad) on the straight and narrow. My dad was an industrial design engineer. He was a designer of water heaters, worked for the Ruud Company and was moved from Pittsburgh to Kalamazoo, Michigan, two years before I was born. I lived in Kalamazoo for the first 12 years of my life, and then my dad took a job with the Day & Night Company, and we moved to California, where I lived until 2021.
ZIERLER: Kalamazoo must have really been booming when you were a young girl there.
WEBSTER: It was booming more than it is now. My oldest sister stayed there longer than any of the rest of us, because she was married when we moved, but everyone ended up in California. Kalamazoo is not booming anymore; it's kind of sad. At my son's college graduation, the people we sat next to happened to be from Kalamazoo, and they were telling us that it was really on hard times. The population is less now than it was in 1957 when we left. It goes up and down. It's not the only town, unfortunately, in Michigan that's like that. But it was a great place to be born and to grow up. The winters there prepared me for last winter here in Cincinnati!
ZIERLER: Was it a suburban lifestyle that your family had there?
WEBSTER: You would call it suburban. It certainly was not a big town. We had to get on the train to go to Chicago to see a major museum. It had a small-town feel to it, but I would say suburban described it. There wasn't a lot of major industry there. We had a great deal of freedom as children—and no worries about safety or security. We had a lake cottage (that my dad built in our basement), where we spent a great deal of the summers.
ZIERLER: Was your father in a union?
WEBSTER: No. The company at some time may have unionized, but he was never a union man.
ZIERLER: Was your family involved in the church in Kalamazoo?
WEBSTER: Yes. Church has always been important to my family. My father's father, my grandfather, was a Presbyterian minister, and so church has always been an important part of our life, an important element of it. The first place my husband Wendell and I met was in the church choir in Arcadia. The first place that we found here in Cincinnati was our church, and then that told us where we'd buy a house!
ZIERLER: Do you remember when your parents announced that the family would be moving to California?
WEBSTER: Yes. It was I guess as natural a time for me as any—I was between elementary school and junior high school, so I would have had to change and go to the big school anyway. But my next older sister was a junior in high school, and it was not a happy time for her. I'm not sure she ever forgave my parents for moving at that time in her life.
ZIERLER: What was the particular opportunity that brought your family out to California?
WEBSTER: It was a new job for my dad. It was a change to the Carrier Corporation. He was still working with water heaters. They just gave him an opportunity that he couldn't turn down, so we ended up in sunny California.
ZIERLER: Where did your family land? What town?
WEBSTER: In Arcadia, not very far away. When Wendell and I got married, we moved all the way to Pasadena, all of five miles. I was always in the Arcadia/Pasadena area. When I was in high school—and girls were not admitted to Caltech yet in those olden days—one of the boys in my physics class said, "You ought to apply to Caltech," and I said, "I don't think they let women in there!" I ended up at to Caltech (in a different capacity) anyway!
ZIERLER: What year did you graduate high school?
WEBSTER: I was the valedictorian of the Class of 1963 at Arcadia High School.
ZIERLER: Oh my goodness! Did you think about going to college near, far? What opportunities were you considering at that point?
WEBSTER: As you can tell, I don't move easily, so I went to Cal Poly Pomona, so that was not very far away. None of us (my sisters and I) ever went very far away from home for college. The interesting thing is that my three sisters and I, are now scattered all over the country, but we were all in that core group for a long time.
ZIERLER: Being the valedictorian, did you want to go to a place like Caltech? Was that upsetting to you that they didn't allow women to apply?
WEBSTER: No, it wasn't a bother to me. I wasn't going to pursue science. I was a liberal arts and history-type person. Plus, I didn't really understand physics. I never understood how I got an "A" in it, but anyway, I did.
ZIERLER: What was your major at Cal Poly?
WEBSTER: History. I started out Liberal Arts, and they eliminated the Liberal Arts major, and so I switched to history.
ZIERLER: Did the so-called Sixties arrive on campus at Cal Poly? Were there marches against the War, civil rights, women's rights, that kind of thing?
WEBSTER: No, not really. One of the interesting stories—I'll have to go back to my valedictorian thing. I was not a public speaker, and of course I had to give a speech. One of my classmates said if I agreed, he would be glad to give my speech for me. I had already talked to the vice principal who was coordinating the speeches, and he had already looked at my speech. I mentioned that to him, and he said, "No, no, no, he's not getting the speech." Well, it turned out—his name was Martin Roysher. You may or may not recognize the name, but he was one of the leaders at UC Berkeley, of the uproar there, so I can only imagine the kind of speech he might have given! All I remember is the vice principal saying, "Oh, no, no, you give the speech. Don't let him give it for you!" But no, I didn't experience that at all in college. It just didn't make it to the campus I was on.
ZIERLER: To foreshadow, did JPL register with you at all? Were you aware of all of the excitement that was happening in the 1960s at JPL?
WEBSTER: Yes and no. I know my dad was excited when I went up there for an interview. I was aware of the Space Race obviously, as was most of my generation, and it was one of the topics in my speech when I graduated from high school. But I hadn't really tied it to JPL and its actual location right there in Pasadena. I don't know why; I should have. I really didn't get hooked into it until I went up there for an interview and figured out what was happening there.
ZIERLER: What was the initial job and how did you hear about it?
WEBSTER: Oh my goodness. I went to the Sawyer School of Business in Pasadena, which doesn't exist anymore. The Apollo program was gearing up in 1966, so JPL was looking for anyone who would come work. All the graduates at the Sawyer School of Business, which is where I got my business training, were sent up to JPL for interviews. I didn't really have much choice; they just sent you up there! My first job was clerk steno. It's about as far down in the organizational chart—it was an "02"; they don't even have anything that low anymore. It was essentially a clerk steno in the procurement division. That's how I got started.
ZIERLER: What were your initial responsibilities and who did you report to?
WEBSTER: I supported three buyers. I was in the materiel procurement section, just purchasing the essentials to make JPL run. Our office was upstairs from the paint shop. I supported three buyers (Ed Schmidt, Ralph Cole and Bob Powner), answered their phones, typed their purchase orders, maintained the files, and hopefully managed to keep them sane. As I mentioned earlier, this was 1966 and there were no computers yet; everything was done on typewriters, telexes, and telephone. About two years later, I was then a group secretary, and the project to computerize the purchasing function was started, which meant sorting out all these cards. Judy Anderson and I sat there for days on end, working on it. It never did function very well before I left, but it certainly functions well now. It was that time of transition from typewriters to eventually computers.
ZIERLER: But not personal computers; you mean the big ones, the central computers?
WEBSTER: The big ones. Oh, big, huge—yeah, rooms full of computers. We had nothing on our desks. We had to carry these cards to the room where the actual computers were.
ZIERLER: What were the big missions at JPL that you remember in the early years, where it was an all-hands-on-deck kind of thing, or there was such excitement in the buildings?
WEBSTER: When I started up there, the Surveyor program was starting. The United States (JPL!) was trying to learn how to hit the Moon. Prior to my arrival there, the early Surveyor missions were not successful, so it was a learning process. We don't even think about this now, because we're flying off into the universe now, but JPL/NASA was just learning how to hit the Moon so they could land something on the Moon. Surveyor was the big project. It was a major project. Learning how to do interplanetary travel was the next step. There were more failures than successes at the beginning.
ZIERLER: In those early years, did you appreciate the special relationship between Caltech and JPL?
WEBSTER: It was drummed into us. I don't know if they still do this or not at JPL, but it was drummed into us. Bill Pickering, who I worked for later, his personality was all over JPL, and he made a point for everybody who worked there that we were Caltech employees; we were not NASA employees. It was a very important relationship. Everybody at JPL when I worked there understood that. I don't know if that's the case now, but it certainly was then. Yes, the relationship between the campus and JPL was critically important, and it was drummed into all of us that we were Caltech employees; we weren't government employees.
ZIERLER: Do you have a sense why it was so important for Pickering to emphasize that?
WEBSTER: Of course, he was a Caltech faculty member. All three of his degrees were from Caltech. I believe that he and Lee DuBridge had a great relationship, so it was just important. He saw JPL as being an integral part of Caltech. Of course, he oversaw its transition from being an Army laboratory that was doing military research to the unmanned civilian space program sponsored by NASA. I started there in 1966, and NASA was created in 1957 or 1958, something like that, so JPL hadn't been part of the NASA family for very long (in institutional years), so there were parts of the Lab that didn't quite understand NASA. There were old contracts and purchase orders that were hold-overs from the military era that were still being closed out when I was there in 1966. That whole transition from being an Army military base to being a civilian NASA-sponsored institution created a whole new culture, for JPL, and probably for the campus as well.
ZIERLER: Did you ever get to campus as a JPL employee? Was there reason to be here?
WEBSTER: I did, personally. To go back to my personal story: I worked in procurement for two years. Then I went to the contract management organization, reviewing contracts for another two years. It's kind of a quirky thing. I never applied for any jobs. In 1970 I got a call one day to come up and work in the Director's Office. I didn't even know what I was going to be doing. Once I was in the Director's Office, twice, I was called on special assignment to work in the President's Office, to work for Harold Brown, when there were issues in his office.
ZIERLER: You mean from JPL, you got called to the President's Office?
ZIERLER: Why you? What were you doing so well at JPL that you got tapped for this?
WEBSTER: I guess I was doing my job, or they wanted to get rid of me; I'm not sure which one it was! The first time I never quite understood, but I went down. There was someone who was absent on an extended leave in Dr. Brown's office, and they needed a temporary person to plug in the slot. Dr. Pickering sent me down there. I got to know Dr. Brown that way, so the next time he had an issue in his office, he asked for me by name, so I knew how that one happened the second time. The first one, I was never particularly clear on how it happened, but it was something between Dr. Brown and Dr. Pickering, and I ended up there. In essence, my services were volunteered!
ZIERLER: Did you have a sense that this might be parlayed into coming to campus and being at Caltech full-time?
WEBSTER: At that time, I wasn't ready to make that decision. Both times I was offered an opportunity to be in the President's Office permanently, but I wasn't quite ready to leave JPL. To be quite frank, I really enjoyed working for Dr. Pickering. At that point, the second time, Dr. Brown was transitioning to the Jimmy Carter campaign and what would eventually lead to his appointment as Secretary of Defense, which made that second assignment very interesting. The first thing he told me was, "Now, if Governor Carter from Georgia ever calls, you put him right through." Which was the first time I had ever heard of Jimmy Carter!
WEBSTER: During those temporary assignments on campus, I developed relationships not only with the people in the President's Office, but also with most of the Caltech vice presidents. Back at JPL, I also started developing relationships with trustees who had a particular interest in the Laboratory, and it typically fell to me to make sure that their needs were cared for at the JPL side as well.
My permanent move to the campus happened when Dr. Goldberger was president. Bruce Murray by that time was Director at JPL. Beginning in 1978, one of my primary jobs at JPL was to introduce the new Caltech president, Murph Goldberger, to JPL, so I developed a relationship with him. In 1981, Dr. Goldberger recognized that his office wasn't running the way he preferred it, and he asked me to come down to his office as a consultant for a while and figure out how to fix things. I did that for two months, and then I wrote up my report, and went in and talked to him. He threw my report in the wastebasket and said he had a better plan, which was he was going to hire me. He had already talked to Dr. Murray about this, and Dr. Murray was approaching the time when he was going to step down at JPL. At that time, it felt natural to make the change, and I agreed to take the position in the President's Office.
ZIERLER: Back into the chronology, what were the circumstances of you working for Bill Pickering? How did that happen?
WEBSTER: I was working in the contract management organization, in procurement, and JPL's director of personnel called and said they wanted me to come up to the Director's Office for an interview. They had an opening for a position in the Director's Office. Apparently, they were looking for people to fill it, and they looked through the people that had sort of similar job classifications, which included me. They asked me to go up for an interview, and because I always do what I'm told, I did! They offered me the job that day. So, they saw something they liked. I can't explain a lot of what happened in my career. It's not a normal career path. I get these phone calls, people ask me to come up for an interview, and the next thing I know, I've got a new job.
ZIERLER: Was that exciting to you, to work directly for Pickering?
WEBSTER: He was one of those "bigger than life" people, and so it was kind of scary, to start with. But yes, it was very exciting. Obviously then I created a whole new appreciation and sense for the work that JPL was doing outside of my little niche in procurement.
ZIERLER: Tell me what Pickering was like as a person.
WEBSTER: He was a wonderful man. He was born in New Zealand, which you probably know. Everybody we met from New Zealand was just the nicest person in the world. I remained good friends with him up until the day he died. He knew JPL from top to bottom and shared that organizational knowledge with all of us in the office. He did extraordinary things: he was a space pioneer. It's amazing to have had the opportunity not only to work closely with him but also to get to know him personally. Dr. Pickering was just an amazing man.
One of the things I tried to teach my son, and I think I did it successfully, is it doesn't make any difference if someone is a janitor or a trustee; I treat them all the same. They're people, and it doesn't make any difference to me. I did the same thing with Dr. Pickering. I did the same thing with Dr. Brown. The first time I went down to the President's Office, I went in and said "Good morning" to Dr. Brown and was chatting with him in his office. I came back out, and the other ladies in the office were aghast and said, "We don't talk to him! We're afraid of him!" I said, "Oh dear."
ZIERLER: What year was that, that you got the call to come work for Pickering?
WEBSTER: I started in the Director's Office in 1970, and he retired in 1976, so I worked for him for six years.
ZIERLER: What were your responsibilities? What were your key functions with him?
WEBSTER: I moved around in the office a little bit, but mostly I managed the office, made sure the paperwork flowed smoothly, supported the work of his technical assistant, and did a lot of document transcription.
ZIERLER: What were the initial conversations that sent you over to work for Harold Brown? How did that come about?
WEBSTER: Oh, they just told me, "Tomorrow you're going to report at the President's Office."
ZIERLER: It was considered like a detail?
WEBSTER: Yes. That one was kind of open-ended, and finally Dr. Pickering started calling Dr. Brown and asked when I was going to be coming back. Both assignments were semi open-ended, but yes, it was a detail kind of arrangement.
ZIERLER: To the extent you're able to talk about it, what were some of the issues that required your expertise with Harold Brown?
WEBSTER: Oh, in that case, it was running his office, managing the paper, handling his calendar, facilitating his communications with the vice presidents. When I was trying to get out of talking to you with the interview thing, I said, "I worked in the background." I try to make it so that the Dr. Browns and the Dr. Pickerings and the Tom Rosenbaums have everything they need to do their challenging jobs. That's essentially the function that I had from day one.
ZIERLER: It was essentially a staffing shortfall; they needed extra help?
WEBSTER: Right, and in both cases in Dr. Brown's office, it was because another staff member in his office was on extended medical leave.
ZIERLER: Was this common practice as far as you knew? Would Caltech and JPL exchange staff as needed?
WEBSTER: It was not unprecedented, because the lady who was on the extended medical leave the first time I went down to Campus had previously worked at JPL. It was relatively easy to move back and forth. At least I had no issue with it. But I also think it was somewhat uncommon.
ZIERLER: Was it a very different work environment coming to Caltech?
ZIERLER: In what ways?
WEBSTER: The first thing I asked for when I came down to campus was, "Where's the org chart?" You can't survive at JPL without the organization chart. Of course, I guess it's all computerized now, but it was actually a book back in 1974. There was a book of organization charts and a book of SPIs, Standard Practice Initiative. Nothing like that existed on campus! In fact, I was specifically told that they intentionally didn't have organization charts on campus because they couldn't explain who the faculty reported to. Therefore, they just didn't do it! Due to its size and the nature of its work, JPL is a much more structured organization than this campus.
ZIERLER: Did you work directly with Harold Brown?
WEBSTER: Yes, I sat right outside his office.
ZIERLER: What was it like to work with him?
WEBSTER: He was a very intriguing man. He was off-the-charts brilliant. If you've read anything about him, you know he got his PhD when he was 21 from Columbia in physics. He was a brilliant scientist. He was always buried in a book, reading documents and thinking not only about Caltech and JPL but national security issues and the proliferation of nuclear arms.
ZIERLER: What were some of the key issues he was dealing with? What do you remember from that time?
WEBSTER: One of the key issues was how to find a replacement for Bill Pickering as the director of JPL after he had been there since 1947. The JPL relationship was a key one for the Institute. Affirmative action is the wrong term, but female students, making sure they were integrated appropriately into campus life. Women faculty was another issue. A lot of it would resonate with what goes on now, but we've made progress from those days. He also thought deeply about management and governance issues—as they related to the campus and the governing board.
ZIERLER: Indeed. Initially that first stint was just a few months?
WEBSTER: Yes, it was three or four months. Then the second time, it was during the summer of 1976.
ZIERLER: You went back to JPL. Did you have the option of staying on campus if you wanted to?
WEBSTER: Yes, I was offered the opportunity to take a position in the President's Office permanently, but as I mentioned previously, I wasn't ready to make that transition. I really thought I would work out my career at JPL. At that time, I didn't ever really see myself leaving the Lab, but things happened!
ZIERLER: Besides just how much you enjoyed working for Pickering, was it also a sense that in the early 1970s, Voyager was just getting started, and was JPL just a very exciting place to be? Was that part of it for you as well?
WEBSTER: That was part of it. Voyager was not an easy project to get authorization or funding for. There it is today, sailing off into interstellar space. I noticed yesterday that they're turning off some of the instruments to save power. Because of the alignment of the planets, it was going to be the Grand Tour, and the Grand Tour got cancelled for lack of funding, and evolved into Voyager, which has ended up doing a "grander tour" than was originally envisioned. Yes, there was a lot of stress related to getting these major projects approved and funded, because they were a lot of money. These were major projects at times when the country was in recession. Did we really want to spend all that money to send a spacecraft off to Venus and wherever JPL wanted to go? There was a lot of time spent flying to Washington or in Washington, negotiating with NASA Headquarters and members of Congress and their staff.
ZIERLER: Did your responsibilities increase during those six years from 1970 to 1976?
WEBSTER: Yes. I worked my way up. It's a relatively small office, but when I left, I was overseeing significant NASA interactions. All international travel had to be approved by NASA headquarters, so I was responsible for that interface. When Bruce Murray became director, he asked me to develop better relationships with the other NASA centers, so I traveled to the NASA centers and gave talks about JPL. So, the answer is yes.
ZIERLER: What happened in 1976 that prompted the move back to campus?
WEBSTER: 1976 wasn't my permanent move to campus, that was the timing of my second tour of duty with Harold Brown. He asked for me personally that time, because we maintained a relationship after I had worked with him several years earlier. He asked if I could come down and manage things for him because a key member of his staff was on an extended medical leave. 1976 was also the year when President Carter was running for office, and Dr. Brown had a key role to play in his campaign and needed to make sure that the President's Office at Caltech ran smoothly while he was engaged in campaign-related activities.
WEBSTER: Yes, all that was happening. That was also the time when there was the transition in JPL Director between Bill Pickering and Bruce Murray. Because of that change in the directorship at JPL, I went back to JPL to help Dr. Murray get started as director.
ZIERLER: Did you cross paths again with Harold Brown, or he was already on his way to Washington at that point?
WEBSTER: He was still in the office in the Summer of 1976. When I was there, he was there. But Jimmy Carter was obviously actively involved in the presidential campaign, and the election would have been that fall. At that point, it was clear that he was elected president and that Dr. Brown was going to be the secretary of Defense. Some of that was going on, but yes, Harold Brown was there the entire time I was there that second stint. Then my path didn't cross with him again until he rejoined the Caltech Board of Trustees after he left government service.
ZIERLER: When you got to Caltech, what was the scene like at that point? What were your responsibilities, when you came down permanently?
WEBSTER: Murph Goldberger was the president, so that was in 1981.
ZIERLER: You were not involved in that search? That had already happened?
WEBSTER: Yes. Dr. Goldberger came to Caltech in 1979, so he had already been at Caltech for several years before I made the permanent transition from JPL to the campus in 1981. I was not involved in the Goldberger search. That was the last one I wasn't involved in.
Hardy Martel was executive assistant to the president and Board secretary. He told me in confidence when I arrived in the President's Office that he was thinking about retiring, and that he had in mind my taking that position. But my job initially was to organize the office along the lines of that paper that I wrote that Dr. Goldberger had thrown in the wastebasket. We restructured the office and got things running smoothly. 1981 was a life-changing year for me: not only did I change jobs, but that is the year that Wendell and I got married.
I was on maternity leave in 1983 when Murph asked me if I could come into the office to talk to him. He asked me if I would take Hardy Martel's job; that was 1983, so I had been in the office for two years before I moved up to those positions.
ZIERLER: Did you know in 1976 that this was a permanent move? Did you do it on that basis?
WEBSTER: 1976 wasn't a permanent assignment. I didn't move to the campus permanently until 1981. In 1976, I went back to JPL. 1976 is when Bruce Murray came as director of JPL, so I worked for him from 1976 to 1981, supporting him at JPL. I didn't come down permanently to the campus until 1981.
ZIERLER: Was your role for Bruce Murray essentially the same as it was for Bill Pickering?
WEBSTER: He restructured the office a little bit, and I've forgotten the title, but it was something similar to the executive assistant to the president except it was to the JPL director. It was a position that had always been held by a PhD male, and he asked me to do that job. I supported him. It was a staff support position.
ZIERLER: In 1981, what happened?
WEBSTER: In 1981, I thought it was another temporary assignment down at campus. Murph called me and then he also talked to Bruce Murray and asked if I would come down to the President's Office and do this function analysis and figure out what was wrong with this office and recommend how to make it work right, which is what I did. I thought I was down there just for a couple of months. At the end of what was my temporary assignment, I wrote up my report, which he promptly threw in the wastebasket. At that point, he had already talked to Bruce Murray and told him he was going to offer me the job permanently, so I never went back to JPL.
ZIERLER: Was that exciting to you at that point, to get that offer?
WEBSTER: It was, and it was a time of transition in my personal life. I was traveling a lot at JPL, because I had these assignments with the international office at NASA headquarters and I was supposed to be maintaining these relationships with the other NASA centers. At that time Wendell and I had decided to get married, and I knew I couldn't keep up that travel schedule and be married at the same time, and start a family, which is what we also wanted. Bruce Murray told me that he wasn't going to be staying at JPL much longer either, so it seemed like a natural time to make the change.
ZIERLER: Meeting your husband, was that a JPL or a Caltech connection?
WEBSTER: No, it was a church connection. We met in the church choir. After I left JPL and came down to campus, he did work for 15 years at JPL, but it was after I left. No, we met in the church choir.
ZIERLER: Was this an opportunity to relocate as well, knowing that you'd be at campus?
WEBSTER: Yes. When we first got married, we were renting, but when we bought our home, it was geographically located halfway between the campus and JPL, because he was working at JPL at that time, and I was working on campus.
ZIERLER: Tell me about your initial role. What was your first job title as a permanent Caltech employee, or at least Caltech employee on campus?
WEBSTER: Oh my goodness, I have to remember. I don't actually remember what my title was. It was probably something like administrative assistant or assistant to the president, but I don't really remember what the title was.
ZIERLER: But it was definitely being right next to the president? It was going to be that role?
ZIERLER: Tell me about Murph. What was he like?
WEBSTER: I would classify him as a character. He would commute up to JPL on his moped. He taught sections of Physics 1 while he was president, so he was very interested in students and particularly in the quality of their Caltech education. He was intimately involved in the work at JASON and arms race issues, giving frequent public talks on MAD, mutually assured destruction. The fears of the proliferation of nuclear weapons and war were real—I guess we're getting back there now—in those days. Like many of the Caltech presidents, he had a broad range of interests: art, cooking (we shared recipes with one another), family, students, physics, national security. He had a very strong and engaging personality. He was very decisive.
ZIERLER: Now, it's very interesting, because if I understand correctly, Murph came to be president of Caltech directly from being a professor at Princeton—not a department chair, not a dean—and so that must have been quite a leap.
WEBSTER: It was a very interesting choice for Caltech. As I said, I wasn't involved in that particular presidential search, so I have no background insight to offer. Because of the suddenness of Harold Brown's departure to become secretary of Defense, there was not an opportunity for strategic planning prior to the initiation of the presidential search. That presidential search, just from reading the Board records, went on a long time, and concerns were being raised by the Board of Trustees about the lack of a decision. All that said, it was a somewhat unusual choice.
ZIERLER: What aspects might you think of as Murph having a steep learning curve in this new role?
WEBSTER: It goes back to our initial conversation—really understanding the role of a president of a top-tier educational institution, research institution, and how a president should interact with faculty members.
ZIERLER: Tell me about the first presidential search that you were involved with.
WEBSTER: That was the Murph Goldberger to Tom Everhart transition in 1987. That was another one where there was very little advance notice about Murph's decision to take up his new position at the IAS at Princeton. I'm trying to remember what faculty member chaired the Tom Everhart search. It might have been Don Cohen. I was going to suggest you talk to the faculty members who chaired presidential searches, and then I started thinking of how many of them are no longer with us—a reflection of the passage of time.
ZIERLER: I know, I know. It's sad.
WEBSTER: Bob Grubbs is gone.
ZIERLER: Who did Bob Grubbs chair?
WEBSTER: Bob chaired the search that brought Jean-Lou Chameau to Caltech. Kip Thorne would be a good one for you to talk to. He and Gordon Moore led the David Baltimore search.
ZIERLER: Is your sense that Murph's tenure as president was shorter than everyone envisioned initially?
WEBSTER: I think the idealized pattern was that presidents would serve about ten years and Board chairs would serve about ten years, and they would switch at the five-year interval so that a Board chair would have some experience as chair of the Board before undertaking the presidential search that he or she would be responsible for—I am assuming that at some point, there will be a "she." There will be one day.
ZIERLER: It will happen. Absolutely.
WEBSTER: Murph served as president from 1978 to 1987, so it was close to the "typical" length of a presidential term.
ZIERLER: It was a little shorter than that; it was 1978 to 1987.
WEBSTER: Yes: so his tenure was pretty close to the "typical" length of a presidential term. The other thing you'll notice in the presidential transition to presidential transition is they tend to alternate between someone who is really strong organizationally, managerially, with someone who is a really strong, world-renowned scientist, researcher. That alternating pattern has faded a bit as we move through history. Harold Brown succeeded Lee DuBridge, who had been at Caltech for an extraordinarily long time, a national leader on the science front. Then Harold Brown was really strong organizationally. At that point, there were major strategic planning activities both on the Board side (the governance side), and on the Institute side, in preparation for Harold's arrival. I always assumed that was partly at his request and reflected the transition from a president who had served Caltech from 1946 to 1969 (23 years). Then Murph had less managerial experience; and he was followed by Tom Everhart who had a very strong university managerial portfolio—he had been a dean of engineering at both Cornell and Berkeley, and he was a very successful chancellor at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Also, world-renowned, but he was a world-class engineer, so he was the first Caltech president who was an engineer as opposed to a physicist, so that was a change.
ZIERLER: Tom did incredible work in his career. Really, really important work.
WEBSTER: He was astounding—and again, a nice person. We stayed good personal friends after he stepped down as Caltech president. He also had an amazing relationship with Arnold Beckman, which predated his arrival at Caltech, through Illinois, which was Arnold's other institutional love, which was an example of Tom's philanthropic skills.
ZIERLER: I'll relay a story. You might have heard this one. It's very important on campus, and perhaps you have some perspective on this. I heard it from Lee Hood. That is that when Lee's research group was getting big, and he was thinking about entrepreneurialism, famously or infamously, at least as I heard the story, Murph told Lee that, "This is not the kind of place Caltech is. We do fundamental research." That was sort of the origin story of Lee moving on to the University of Washington. I wonder if you have a different perspective, if you've heard that yourself, or what you might be able to share about that.
WEBSTER: I have heard Lee's story before. The Lee Hood issue was not handled in the best possible way at Caltech, but his work (both at Caltech and later at the University of Washington) enabled world-class advancements in the biological sciences.
ZIERLER: Is your sense that Murph's perspective was old fashioned, behind the times? In other words, was what Lee Hood was doing where Caltech was headed, and Murph simply didn't see that?
WEBSTER: I can't reply definitively, but my sense is that the origins of the "dispute" can be found in their different world views. Murph was a theoretician. In his mind, instrumentation was a support function, not a real research function. The two of them simply viewed science from a completely different viewpoint. It would be interesting to know what Murph would think about the campus now, with so much instrumentation going on there.
ZIERLER: But never letting go of fundamental research.
WEBSTER: Exactly. My sense is Murph and Lee were both strong personalities and simply looked at issues from a completely different world view, one as a theoretician and one as an instrumentalist.
ZIERLER: Last topic for today, and it will be a nice narrative point for our next discussion—tell me how the presidential search gets up and running. In other words, when Murph makes the announcement that he's leaving, what are the mechanisms in place that get this whole process started to find the successor?
WEBSTER: That's one reason why I wanted to retire before the next one started.
WEBSTER: Particularly when it's an unprepared departure, meaning that the Institute is not prepared for the departure, or the departure comes precipitously—
ZIERLER: Was that the case with Murph?
WEBSTER: Yes, that was quite sudden. He simply announced that he had accepted the position at IAS. I knew he was looking, but he hadn't told anybody.
ZIERLER: That's one of those confidences that you hold very closely.
WEBSTER: Yes. In essence, the presidential search at Caltech—and I'm assuming it will continue to be this way—has always been a dual function. The faculty functions as the search committee, and the Board of Trustees constitutes the selection committee. How that is implemented is that the Board chair asks the faculty chair to appoint a search committee to work with a committee that the Board chair also appoints of trustees, a small selection group. The two committees work collaboratively, but the faculty committee does the initial work of letting it be known that Caltech is looking for a president, what the job description looks like, and doing the search, getting input from the faculty primarily, but also from JPL staff. I believe the last time they got input from campus staff, alumni and students. The faculty committee does the hard work of getting the search started. The Board chair interfaces with the chair of the faculty committee probably on a weekly or daily basis, depending on the state of the search. They stay closely connected during the entire search process. I believe in the last two searches, the trustee committee and the faculty committee met jointly, earlier in the process, so that when the selection time came along, it went along smoothly.
ZIERLER: What was your role in the process? What did you manage?
WEBSTER: I excluded myself from the search process, because I didn't want to be in the position of having anything to do with selecting my next boss. I just simply guided the Board chair in what his responsibilities were, what he needed to do to get the search up and running, and then I backed out of it. Then I kicked back in when the person was appointed, when I'd become the interface with getting the person started.
ZIERLER: Providing that advice to the Board chair, what was your sense of who makes what decisions about ultimately selecting the next president?
WEBSTER: The trustees. The trustee committee asks the faculty committee to present them with—it depends on the Board chair—either a prioritized or un-prioritized list of candidates for the position, and to make the case for each one of the candidates. Then the trustees take that list, contact the individuals, and conduct their own interviews with them, and make the decision. The decision is made on the trustee side. If they receive a prioritized list, it would be unusual, at least for the ones that I'm aware of, for the trustees to select anyone other than the top recommended candidate.
ZIERLER: What was your sense generally of what Caltech was looking for in the next president, even before we knew it was going to be Tom Everhart?
WEBSTER: To go back to our conversation about Murph Goldberger, it was somebody who had managerial expertise of institutions such as Caltech and an educational institution. The trustees recognized that was a weakness in Murph Goldberger's portfolio of skills and talents.
ZIERLER: Even though you weren't involved yourself, what was your sense of the interplay between the faculty committee presenting possible candidates and how the trustees deliberated on who would be the best?
WEBSTER: In Everhart's case, I'm guessing that Arnold Beckman was intimately involved in that one. Of the presidential searches that I am aware of, which would be from Everhart on, I don't believe that there has ever been any disagreement between the faculty committee and the trustee committee about who the candidates should be.
ZIERLER: You mean one? Not just, "Here's three and we can argue among"?
WEBSTER: Yes. The two committees interact with one another. I'm sure the trustees, being trustees, ask for the faculty committee's logic or their reasons for ranking the candidates the way they did, the weaknesses and strengths of each candidate, but I don't believe there has ever been a case that I'm aware of where the trustees and the faculty committee were not in agreement on who the candidates should be. That's because they collaborate through the process. As they have gained more experience with presidential searches, they realized that the two groups need to collaborate throughout the process. Part of it is that Caltech's process has matured as the Institute gained more experience with presidential searches. I certainly know that the last time, Fiona Harrison and David Lee were in constant communication, collaborating, making sure that the trustee group and the faculty group were on the same path.
ZIERLER: Last question for today: How was Tom Everhart announced? What were the mechanics of that? And to the extent you followed up and did some background reading on who your next boss would be, what did you know of him up to that point before he arrived at Caltech?
WEBSTER: I didn't know a great deal about any of the presidents I worked for before they were announced, so my developing a personal relationship with them really starts—there's usually a three- to six-month period—in Tom Rosenbaum's case, it was longer than that—where I develop a personal relationship with them, getting them ready to come and getting things arranged on the Caltech side for their arrival: everything from their stationery and scheduling preferences to how to make the president's residence a comfortable home for their family. Mostly I get introduced to them, usually either by the Board chair or the chair of the faculty committee and start asking them what they need and what they want to get ready to come to Caltech, and providing that to them. I start to develop a personal relationship with them. But I didn't have any inside information on any of them before they came to Caltech.
ZIERLER: Next time, we'll pick up on the Tom Everhart years, and we'll take the story from there.
[End of Recording]
ZIERLER: This is David Zierler, Director of the Caltech Heritage Project. It is Friday, July 15th, 2022. I am delighted to be back once again with Mary Webster. Mary, it's great to be with you. Thank you for joining me again.
WEBSTER: Thank you. It's good to talk to you again.
ZIERLER: What I'd like to do today, before we move ahead with the onset of Tom Everhart's presidency at Caltech, I wanted to go back to 1969 and capture some of your perspective about what you see as a major turning point, a major milestone, in Caltech's development. To set the stage, what was happening around that time, and what has been the legacy of that?
WEBSTER: What was happening at that time was that it was the transition from a long-term presidency by Lee DuBridge to—and let's see, in 1969, they knew Harold Brown was coming—but it was the period between the DuBridge and the Brown presidencies. Dr. DuBridge had been president for 23 years, and if you go back even farther in history, Dr. DuBridge became really the first president of the modern Caltech, since Dr. Millikan didn't use that title. During World War II, how Caltech funded its research activities drastically changed. Prior to the war, the idea of Government-supported research was generally an anathema to the Institute's leadership and faculty, although there were precursors to this approach to the funding of research during World War I. However, during World War II, the federal government's support of university-based research was an integral part of the country's war effort and evolved into the funding of university-based research that we see today through agencies such as the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. While this basic change occurred, Caltech's governance and administrative structure remained basically unchanged.
I believe that facing that transition from a long-term presidency by an inspirational, powerful man (Lee DuBridge) to an unknown factor—where is the Institute going to go in the future—led Dr. Beckman, who was Board chair and others on the Board and I assume within the faculty to initiate a major strategic planning exercise and concurrently, a study of the Institute's governance structure—both the Administration and the Board of Trustees. I was not involved in any of the discussions leading up to these review (as I was still working in the Procurement Division at JPL), but this is the essence of the issues I've picked up through my studies of Caltech's history and its Board records. Prior to this study, for example, the Board of Trustees retained the same structure that had been put in place in 1921, and probably even before that, and that wasn't an effective governance structure for a modern institution in either research or education.
The Board engaged a management consultant to look at the Board of Trustees' function and structure. The consultant's report—which is in the records I left behind in my office—presents a comprehensive assessment of how the Board functioned and how it should be structured. The Board's response to that report, is essentially reflected in the bylaws that the Institute has now. At the same time, there was a whole Institute-wide effort—I think Clarence Allen maybe led it; I'm not real sure what faculty member was behind it. His name popped into my mind, but I'm not quite sure he's the right one. But there's a whole series of very thoughtful in-depth analysis reports—there's 11 or 12 booklets—of every aspect of the Institute, including JPL. Each one of the divisions, student affairs, every aspect of the Institute was looked at, and a report was written up on each one of them. The current management structure of the Institute evolved from those studies—e.g., before that time, Caltech didn't have a vice president for student affairs. There were other management changes, structural changes that came out of that effort. It really was Caltech's effort to modernize itself, adapt to the current world, which it really hadn't done, structurally, Institute-wide, since that original 1921 effort to create Caltech.
ZIERLER: I can't help but ask, but the idea that Caltech was looking to modernize and get in step with the rest of the world—1969, if you recall, was also the year that undergraduates, men of course, started agitating for women. I wonder if you saw any historical connections between this broader impetus and this effort to get women to join the undergraduate student body.
WEBSTER: Yes, that was a definite part of this. Since I wasn't directly involved in what gave rise to this, my guess has always been that it has just been this—1969 was just a natural transition point for Caltech to look at itself and what it wanted to be like. I'm guessing that was part of it. I'm pretty sure that they looked, as they do perpetually, especially for accreditation studies, looking at the core curriculum and making sure, on the education side, if that was still the right core for the kind of education that the Institute wants to provide. So yes, that was part of it.
We'll get into Tom Everhart shortly, but even before his time, the challenges that early female faculty members had, after they were appointed, in gaining tenure—Jenijoy La Belle, Judy Cohen, Mary Kennedy, Frances Arnold; I would encourage you to talk with them—they faced significant challenges. Each of their tenure decisions went all the way up to the president and the Board of Trustees. So, it was a time where the Institute, organizationally and structurally, was lagging where, I think, it wanted to be. Those women issues, both on the student side and the faculty side, arose in those 1969 studies as well.
Harold Brown was a great advocate for women students and faculty members. He had two daughters himself and although they were quite young when he was at Caltech, he had that personal perspective as well. Looking at it in hindsight, it doesn't make a lot of sense, but the structure of any organization doesn't turn around on a dime; it takes a while to do it. On the faculty side, it took some strong women having the courage to challenge decisions that weren't fair.
ZIERLER: Given that this strategic report still influences so much of Caltech's mission and its structure, what was it about it that has stood the test of time?
WEBSTER: If you were to read the reports, I believe you would recognize the current Caltech in that structure—just as you would recognize today's Caltech in the documents written in 1921. There have obviously been changes. At some point, I believe Caltech is going to need to look at itself and see whether maybe it's time to do another major strategic study of this kind. Maybe every half-century or so, an institution needs to look at itself and see if that's the way it still wants to be. The outcome of it can be that "This still works," but it can also assure you that you're on the right path.
Going back to my experience with the Board of Trustees, I mentioned earlier that Caltech has a very large board, and that's out of step with other peer institutions. Every couple of years, the Board becomes concerned about that, they look at it, they study it, and they come back and say, "Yes, we're different, but Caltech benefits, because the Board is structured differently." In my mind, it never hurts to look at those things. It never hurts to look at your structure, how you're doing things. The best thing that can come out of it is that you realize, "We're still pretty good at how we're organized or how we're doing business." You might find something. Going back to those Visiting Committee reports that we spoke about earlier, you get some outside independent people who care about the Institute, looking at the Institute, and you get some very insightful, independent input. A lot of it can just be, going to the Visiting Committee example, "You're doing great."
ZIERLER: It's good to have that feedback, one way or another.
WEBSTER: Yes, it's nice to have somebody from outside say, "You're on the right path. You're doing great," so you don't have to say it yourself.
ZIERLER: I'm getting the sense, Mary, you're talking about distinguished alumni, people who know Caltech, not a McKinsey, not a cold consulting agency kind of thing.
WEBSTER: To go back to 1969, the management report on the Board of Trustees and the Institute's administrative structure was actually done by Cresap, McCormick & Paget. (The lead on preparing the report for Cresap was David Morrisroe, who later became Caltech's Vice President for Business and Finance.) So, they did have an outside consultant firm come in and look at the structure. Because that was a business function that kind of review made a certain amount of sense to the trustees. And that's the world Arnold Beckman came from. But the other kind of assessment (the research function, the educational programs, etc.) you definitely want distinguished alums and other independent thinkers from peer institutions involved. The 1969 strategic reports were generated by faculty-led committees.
The Visiting Committees, on the other hand, have alumni on them, along with independent academics and members of the Caltech Board. One of the most eye-opening experiences for me going to Visiting Committee meetings was how much outside academics from around the country, from unaffiliated institutes, and in some cases, what could be viewed as competition, want Caltech to succeed. It was nice for someone like me to hear how much these other academics care about what is going on at Caltech, and they want Caltech to be great. It's not hard to find people that will do those kinds of reviews. Visiting committees are common at academic institutions; Caltech does it slightly differently by having members of the Board on the committees, but that gives the Board some insight into a function of at least one of the academic divisions.
ZIERLER: Based on your perspective and advice, I'm going to let Diana know that maybe it's time for a new one. Maybe 1969 is a little too far in the past!
WEBSTER: I've been gone for two years, but I'm just guessing that, for instance, the experience of having gone through the pandemic might have opened new ways of doing education, new ways that maybe need to be thought about on a strategic basis. I realize it's not the seat of the pants anymore, but in January 2020, it probably was. Experience was gained over the last two years in doing a different kind of education, doing research education remotely. Doing Board meeting remotely was not in the cards prior to January 2020. I still don't understand how they did freshman chemistry remotely! Maybe the impetus will be looking forward that Caltech might have learned something (or many things) from the pandemic shutdown that could make the Institute better in the long run, for the next half century.
ZIERLER: That is very interesting.
WEBSTER: Or maybe we need to go back to the way it was. Maybe it's the right time to look at that.
ZIERLER: Let's now go back in the narrative. In 1987, Tom Everhart arrives on campus. Let me start with a question to really set a broad stage. As you know as well as anybody else, when a new president comes in, there is a duality. There are the things that the Institute needs regardless of who the president is, and there are the unique projects that are important to the president and the Board at that time, to make a new mark. Where did you see that mix when Tom Everhart came on board?
WEBSTER: He succeeded Murph Goldberger. The search committees, the trustees and the faculty, recognized that one of Dr. Goldberger's weaknesses as a president was his lack of prior management experience. In answering your question, going back to the basics of how the budget is formulated, how research is conducted, the nitty-gritty of how the Institute functions were some of the key factors that they were looking for. Tom Everhart, who had been chancellor at University of Illinois, dean at Berkeley, and at Cornell, had that experience. I'm kind of guessing, to answer your question—I think they were looking more at the basic issues of how the Institute functioned. Special projects obviously arise out of the research program of the Institute.
ZIERLER: What was your sense of the finances of Caltech circa 1987?
WEBSTER: It was a challenge. Our financial infrastructure—I'm trying to remember when we computerized the budgeting functions—but if they were computerized at that point, the output was not very effective or useful. We got reams of paper for our budget reports. It was nothing like we get now. You turn on your computer and you can find whatever numbers you want on your computer; nothing like that. It was difficult, not just for the president but for any member of the staff. I managed the budget for the relatively small group, the President's Office, and I couldn't get accurate numbers. You really had no way of getting accurate, current information, which made managing budgets at any level of the institution close to impossible.
ZIERLER: Beyond the budget or related to the budget, what was happening at the Institute about the constant concern that Caltech needs to retain its preeminence in a given area? What were some of the big challenges facing Tom at that point?
WEBSTER: I'm trying to go back to some of the concerns we had. Some of it was making sure that faculty members received the support that they needed. The 1980s were not a great time for research grants, if you just reflect on the national financial picture. Research grants were tight. Caltech in times like that usually fares fairly well because we have top-tier faculty, and their research grant proposals compete well in the environment created by restricted funding. The issues that he dealt with really were a continuation of some of the issues that Murph faced—trying to retain world-renowned faculty who didn't perceive that they were receiving the support they needed from the Institute to conduct the research that they wanted to do and do the kind of teaching they wanted to do. Starting with Murph and carrying over to Tom Everhart, the focus on faculty teaching, the quality of teaching, what the students were learning and how they were going to be challenged, was a continuing issue from one president to the other.
At Caltech the major faculty-related issue that arises to the president's attention is retention, followed closely by finding the resources the faculty needs to conduct their research. Each situation can be very individualized. With more and more female faculty, for instance, it occasionally comes down to some aspect of family support, childcare support. Dual faculty where you have faculty members married to each other, maybe at different institutions, and then the conflict about, "I don't want to live in Boston with you living in Pasadena. What do we do about that?" Those kinds of retention issues are still challenges. But at Caltech, they are unique to each faculty member. The president and the provost and the division chairs work collaboratively on many of these issues—and that happens at Caltech through the IACC (Institute Academic Council). The IACC meets, if I remember correctly, once a month or on an as-needed basis. The IACC is a unique management function at Caltech, and they can do it because they're small. The representatives of each one of the six divisions, the president and the provost, sit down in a room for half a day or longer, and talk about these issues. In my mind this is a real strength of Caltech, that the president becomes aware when there's a retention issue bubbling up, and then he does what he can to address the issue, even to the extent of bringing trustees into the deliberations, if need be.
ZIERLER: What about the idea of Murph's insistence that Caltech or even academia in general should be aloof from industry and entrepreneurialism, as illustrated by that famous or infamous exchange with Lee Hood about not getting involved in startups and things like that? Was your sense that Tom Everhart was aware of that, and that one of his mandates was to move more in that direction, to get Caltech more involved in industry?
WEBSTER: I'm not sure I agree completely with the context of your question regarding Murph's views regarding entrepreneurism. As we discussed earlier, I believe the essence of the different points of view (Goldberger/Hood, e.g.) arise from the natural "conflict" between the mindsets of world-class scientists working as theoreticians and those working as experimentalists.
Industrial relations and entrepreneurism were areas where the Board pressed hard: Si Ramo and Rube Mettler in particular. They didn't have to press too hard with Tom Everhart, however, because that was an area of interest for him. But yes, the impetus came from the Board of Trustees, and they recognized the value of these type of endeavors. That's a trustee function. The board members hold the institution in trust for society at large, so a natural question for trustees to ask is "what is the Institute doing for society at large?" That leads directly into entrepreneurism, which is a focused effort to apply research-generated knowledge in a way that benefits both society and the institution supporting the entrepreneurial endeavors.
ZIERLER: I love this argument about "Tom Everhart; was he an engineer or was he a physicist?"
ZIERLER: This comes up within the context of if you see him as an engineer, then we can say that there's this pendulum shift, from president to president, from physicist to engineer, to physicist to engineer. Then Jean-Lou Chameau says, "No, I am the first engineer, because I'm a civil engineer, and Tom Everhart, he worked on electron beams, and he was really a physicist." What was your perception of how he was perceived and how he thought of himself in terms of his scholarship?
WEBSTER: I don't know if he told you this, but when I worked for Murph Goldberger, there was a great effort to attract Tom Everhart to Caltech as a faculty member. They tried hard to get him, and he decided—I can't remember now if it was Cornell, or maybe it was his time at Berkeley—but he decided he was going to stay where he was, mostly for family reasons. My father was an engineer, and I must tell you that Tom Everhart's thinking and management style to me was definitely that of an engineer.
ZIERLER: That's very useful.
WEBSTER: He reminded me a great deal of my father in the way he addressed issues, wanting every detail covered. Jean-Lou was correct—he did work with electron beams. But he designed an instrument to measure electron beams. He's probably a crossover, I guess, is the best way to describe him. On a personal basis, just the way he functioned, the way he thought, the way he addressed issues and challenges, in my mind. he was very much an engineer.
ZIERLER: What were your first impressions when you met him?
WEBSTER: Sort of the same impression I had with all of them—a very nice man, and he wanted very quickly to come up to speed on how Caltech functioned, what he needed to do first to get started, introductions to the Board of Trustees. He already knew Arnold Beckman, so that was a step up right there. But the initial challenges include getting to know the Board, how to become engaged as quickly as possible, not only with how Caltech functions, but with its people—with the students, with the faculty, with the staff, with the folks at JPL, and with the alumni. Tom asked me to set up a series of introductory meetings to get him started, to give him a chance to get acquainted with the major groups on campus.
ZIERLER: On the specific topics of professors agitating that they needed the resources to conduct their research and to teach the way they wanted to teach, how did Tom and the Board respond at that point?
WEBSTER: It depended on the issue. Anything that bubbled up to the president and certainly anything that bubbled up to the Board would be a major issue. A lot of that is handled through the normal flow of how things happen at Caltech. The division chairs play an important function in managing those issues and alerting the provost and the president when it looks as though it is becoming a critical issue, hopefully in time that they can step in and make a retention offer if that's what they decide they want to do. Some people, it's okay to let them go. But when they really want to keep somebody, then it naturally (and very often quickly) bubbles up through the division chair, to the president and provost, and then if there's a role, if there's already an engagement between a certain trustee and a certain faculty member, and then they reach out to some trustees. But in almost any case, if they really want to retain someone, starting in the division and then bubbling up, they find the resources to do what they need to do to retain someone.
ZIERLER: Do you remember if Tom Everhart inherited a provost or did he bring someone new on right from the beginning?
WEBSTER: Oh, dear, I should have gone through and done the president/provost analysis. Barclay Kamb was a relatively new provost when Tom Everhart started his presidency. (Murph Goldberger worked with four different provosts—Bob Christy, Jack Roberts, Robbie Vogt and Barclay Kamb—which was very much out of character for a Caltech presidency.)
ZIERLER: How much interaction did you have with Barclay? I've heard some remarkable stories, particularly about his singular genius.
WEBSTER: I interacted quite a bit with the provosts as well as the presidents. Barclay tried very hard to keep his research going while he served as provost, which required him to make extended trips to Antarctica.
ZIERLER: Professor first, provost second, sometimes?
WEBSTER: That's a good way to put it. Of course, provosts are appointed because they are talented Caltech faculty members, so there's an inherent risk factor involved in that model,
ZIERLER: I want to talk to you about Tom Everhart and "big science" at Caltech, some of the major initiatives. Perhaps we'll start with LIGO. What was your sense of Tom's involvement in really making LIGO a viable collaboration between Caltech and MIT?
WEBSTER: He knew the president—Chuck Vest—at MIT well, so they had a good working relationship. That was helpful. One of the strong suits for Tom as president is he had long-standing, effective relationships with presidents and chancellors of major research universities. He was very active in the AAU and the National Academy of Engineering, and because he knew these other presidents, it helped a great deal. About LIGO, it was a key advantage that the two university presidents knew each other well. Yes, he was involved in those negotiations. Most of the negotiations with NSF, however, were conducted by Robbie Vogt; following on from Kip Thorne's "birthing" of the project. How Kip ever got the NSF excited about LIGO, I still don't know. It's the Kip Thorne magic, somehow.
ZIERLER: It's a bureaucratic as well as a scientific miracle; there's no doubt about it.
WEBSTER: Yes. A lot of it happened through the faculty. Kip started it. I don't know how many trips he made back to Washington and the National Science Foundation. He had an open communication link to Tom. If there was anything Tom could do to help, he did it. He was a hard worker.
ZIERLER: From your perspective, did you see Tom Everhart as getting involved in some of the drama surrounding the personalities with LIGO—Ron Drever, Robbie Vogt—or did he stay above the fray at that level?
WEBSTER: He attempted to stay above the fray. Well, you've talked to him; he's a very level-headed, hard-to-fluster person. He was kind of the grownup in the room during all that drama—Robbie, Ron. I have to say that Kip was very level-headed, too, but by that time he was more involved in the creative (theoretical) side of LIGO, not the building of the instrument. (LIGO is perhaps another example of the dichotomy between theoreticians and experimentalists.) In my mind, Tom was the right president to have there at the time. He was very level-headed, solid, hard to fluster, listened to complaints, wrote everything down. He had voluminous notes. He told people he'd think about it. And he did. He thought about issues. He thought deeply about issues. He listened to people, analyzed what he heard—obviously two different sides of an important issue, and he heard two completely different stories—then he started talking to other people. I don't know how many interviews he conducted, but it was a lot.
This is not the only issue he addressed in this way. There were a couple of very difficult tenure cases that came to him. He handled them the same way. He talked to everybody, took notes. It was his final decision when he made it, but he was fully informed on all sides of the issue, and I don't think anybody could ever argue with any of the decisions that he made. He was a very, very thoughtful manager, administrator, president. I've never met anybody quite like him. He had very legible handwriting, too! It was very nice.
ZIERLER: That must have been a pleasure for you. What about JPL? What was your sense of his relationship first with Lew Allen and then with Ed Stone as directors of JPL?
WEBSTER: Tom had a good relationship with both of them. Murph Goldberger's self-proclaimed "claim to fame at Caltech" was that he talked Lew Allen into coming to JPL. Dr. Allen was the right appointment at the right time, another person who was hard to fluster. I mean, look at his background: very solid, plus he was a world-renowned physicist in addition to the air-force chief-of-staff. Dr. Allen's predecessor as JPL director was a visionary planetary scientist, Bruce Murray, who was a bit of a free-form thinker. My sense is that Bruce's relationships with NASA could be strained at times as he did not have a great deal of patience with bureaucratic institutions. Dr. Allen came in and very calmly, and competently, got the NASA-JPL-Caltech relationship back in order. He and Tom worked very well together. It was the same with Ed Stone. Every president I worked for, JPL issues are going to roll up, whether it's a contract renewal or a mission failure, or NASA budget cuts. Because JPL is such a large institution and is completely dependent on federal funding those issues are just going to bubble up, and every president has to handle them. The directors of JPL that I worked for and the ones that I knew after I left JPL were extraordinary people. I don't know how they do that job. The three-hour time difference between Pasadena and NASA headquarters causes some strain in relationships with the upper echelons in NASA simply because they're not right next door; they're across the country.
ZIERLER: On the specific issue of budgetary issues at JPL, of course when Ed Stone became director, the Cold War had ended, and that correlation between military spending and support for space science—the budget did not go up as expected. Do you have a recollection of how Tom Everhart managed to keep things going in such a successful direction at JPL?
WEBSTER: A lot of the credit goes to Dr. Allen and to Dr. Stone. "Guns and butter," was that the expression after the Cold War was over. All that money that had been going into guns was going to fund exciting new projects—well, lo and behold, it didn't happen! Every JPL director took the lead on all those issues, naturally, and called the president in, when needed. Tom also recognized the importance of key congressional and federal agency relationships, not only for JPL but also for the campus. Although Caltech is not a large enough institution to support its own office in Washington D.C., Tom instituted a permanent presence in Washington by initiating the contractual relationship with the Lewis-Burke team.
Tom had a good relationship with the NASA administrator, but the president and the NASA administrator aren't typically in daily contact with one another. When a major issue bubbles up, then they talk to each other. The key point of contact for managing the JPL-NASA relationship, is from the JPL director to the director of science or the administrator for science at NASA and then up to the administrator of NASA. When it gets to the administrator of NASA, if it's a major issue, then the Caltech president—and occasionally the Caltech trustees-get involved. When Lew Allen came, for instance, the JPL director really didn't have any administrative role on the campus. More typically, JPL directors (Bill Pickering, Bruce Murray, Ed Stone) were Caltech faculty members, so they had an obvious "home" on the Caltech campus. That was not the case with Dr. Allen, so he became the first JPL director that concurrently held the vice president title, a tradition that has continued for each of his successors. I think that has gone a long way in making clear to NASA and others that the JPL director is not a NASA employee; the JPL director is a Caltech employee, and Caltech appoints that person. Yes, the Caltech president contacts the NASA administrator when a decision is made about appointing a new director and gets the buy-in, but NASA does not have veto power; that would be the Caltech Board of Trustees.
ZIERLER: For Tom Everhart's own work, as you well know, presidents like David Baltimore, Tom Rosenbaum, they came in wanting to maintain their own research, to maintain a lab. Had Tom Everhart kept that up at all at Illinois? Was he involved at all in research, or he was purely administration at that point in his career?
WEBSTER: No, even by the time he got to Illinois, he didn't have a functioning lab anymore, and he certainly didn't at Caltech. David was really the first president who managed to keep a research laboratory going while serving as president. Lee DuBridge didn't either. Murph Goldberger occasionally taught Physics 1, so he tried to keep the teaching up. That happened either once or twice, and it was overwhelming, the number of classes he had to cancel or find a substitute for because he couldn't be there on that day. It's a difficult task to fulfill both roles: the chief executive officer of Caltech—and an active research scientist or teacher!
ZIERLER: What about the era of mega-donors at Caltech—the Moores, people at that level? What influence did Everhart have in bringing philanthropy really to that new level in higher education?
WEBSTER: It started with Arnold Beckman. Arnold's other institution is the University of Illinois, so even before Tom came to Caltech, he already had a strong personal relationship with Dr. Beckman. I would describe Dr. Beckman as our first mega-donor, and that happened very naturally. Of course, he had a love for Caltech as well. Most mega-donors—Arnold is one, Gordon Moore is the other one that I know personally—as long as they have confidence that the Institute is being run well, managed well, and functioning well, they don't need to be convinced of the value of what Caltech was doing. It was pretty natural. Tom also had a good relationship with Gordon and with Betty. The personal relationship between the president and the donor, or potential donor, is really the key. In that way, the donor knows the president personally, and knows that the Institute is in good hands, and that it's a good place to make their gift. In those cases, both the Beckmans and the Moores had a deep love for Caltech and a strong commitment to Caltech's mission and vision. If they had confidence that the president was managing the Institute well, it was a natural place for them to make a major gift.
To look forward now, it has changed a bit, because the more recent mega-donors—the Resnicks, the Merkins—are not alums, and they first have to be educated in what Caltech is doing and want to know that what Caltech is doing has a benefit for society. This goes back to the talk we just had about entrepreneurism. Is Caltech doing something that is benefiting society? Just thinking particularly about the Merkins and the Resnicks, they had to be convinced, by the president. It started with Chameau and obviously Tom Rosenbaum. It's not just, oh, one day you talk to them, and they say, "Oh, Caltech is doing fabulous things. I'm going to give them many millions of dollars." It's a long-term relationship. The key is the relationship between the president and those donors, and the key purpose of that is to assure the donors, the philanthropists, the mega-donors, that their gift will benefit society if they entrust Caltech with it.
ZIERLER: Did you have a sense of how Tom Everhart and Arnold Beckman developed their relationship, how far back it went?
WEBSTER: That would probably be a better question to ask Tom. He was at Illinois for ten years, so I believe their relationship developed through the University of Illinois and Arnold's association with Illinois as an alum and a donor. It probably just developed through the process that I just described, since Tom was the chancellor there. I do know that by the time Tom came to Caltech, they had a very warm personal relationship.
ZIERLER: Was it even social? Would their families get together and that kind of thing?
WEBSTER: I don't know how much their families interacted, but certainly Doris and Mabel Beckman were good friends. The Everharts have a very warm, wonderful family. I think it is from their Kansas roots, but they have just a wonderful family-based life. But certainly, the two couples had a close relationship. Doris was a key partner in the Everhart presidency; she almost always went with Tom when he visited with the Beckmans or with the Moores.
ZIERLER: As you well know, the Beckman support of Caltech was really a game-changer, not just for Caltech but in higher education. Did you have a sense of how involved he was in how the money would be deployed? If it's a range from "Blank check, do whatever you want," right to "Micromanage everything and I want to see the books at the end of the year," where was Beckman in terms of managing this generosity?
WEBSTER: A president could not dream of two better donors than Arnold Beckman or Gordon Moore. Of course, both of them happened to be Board chairs, so they did have some influence. Arnold's philanthropy tended to be more project-directed. In that way, he was perhaps a little bit more involved in the details of how the funds were deployed. The negotiations that went on about creating the Beckman Institute went on for years, primarily because Arnold had one vision in mind, and it didn't quite match with the way Caltech does business. This goes back to whether we were quite ready to do entrepreneurial types of activities or not. I'm sure he also watched the creation of the tech transfer function at Caltech which arose out of those patent discussions that Si Ramo started with Dr. Everhart. In Arnold's case, his philanthropy tended to be project-based rather than just, "Here's a gift; do with it as you want." But as Board chair, he was well-informed about where resources were needed. His major philanthropy, the mega-gifts from Dr. and Mrs. Beckman, tended to be for specific purposes, and a lot of them related to biology and chemistry.
ZIERLER: In the sense that it was project-based, what was the project or projects that ultimately gave life to the Beckman Institute itself?
WEBSTER: That's a very complicated topic. The conversations with Dr. Beckman and the Beckman Foundation really went on for years and covered the tenures of several Caltech presidents. In trying to create a vision for the Beckman Institute that worked with Caltech and also met the more entrepreneurial vision that Dr. Beckman had for the future of biochemical research took a long time. Harold Brown also had a very deep and long-term relationship with Dr. Beckman. He chaired the Beckman Foundation board, so he was a key also in those discussions. Rube Mettler was also very strongly engaged in the negotiations. A lot of particularly project-based major philanthropy takes time to bring to fruition, to make sure that everybody is "on the same page." Any such gift must be beneficial for Caltech, but it also needs to meet the vision or the desire of what the philanthropist wants to accomplish with the gift. When there's a divergence of vision, or those things don't coalesce right on day one, it takes a long time and much listening and negotiation. In the case of the Beckman Institute, Dr. Beckman maintained his love for Caltech, but he really wanted to move forward with his vision of the Beckman Institutes. The outcome was a bit of a compromise on everyone's part: i.e., the creation of multiple Beckman Institutes in addition to the one at Caltech, some of which could fulfill the part of his vision that didn't mesh well with Caltech's function.
ZIERLER: To go back to that earlier conversation about Caltech and industry, given what Dr. Beckman had achieved, did you see his philanthropy at Caltech as really pushing Caltech into that direction, to become more involved with applied science?
WEBSTER: Towards the end of his life, and so this is the Beckman Institute discussion, the answer to that is "yes." Earlier in his association with the Institute, the answer is probably "no". He was obviously a great entrepreneur himself, so he knew how that world worked. Beckman Instruments grew out of his work as a Caltech faculty member. So, he knew that the transition from laboratory to industry could work, and it was just natural to think that there were great things happening in the labs at Caltech that could benefit the economy, industry, society, life for people. That's what his mindset was, because that was how it had worked for him. But he left the Caltech faculty in order to create Beckman Instruments: so, this was a new thought for Caltech, and also, perhaps, for Dr. Beckman.
ZIERLER: Moving now onto Gordon and Betty Moore, as we say, success has a thousand parents. That incredible gift, that game-changing gift that he eventually gave Caltech, what do you see—and also that it has such a long story; there are so many years between the initial conversations and when the gift came through—what do you see as Tom Everhart's role in seeing that to fruition?
WEBSTER: Of course, the $600 million gift came after Tom was no longer president, but the foundation started with the relationship between Tom and Gordon and Betty, and subsequent presidents. The Moores are different kinds of philanthropists than anybody could ever imagine, because their gifts often tend not to be project-based. Gordon makes a very generous annual gift to the Institute, and every time one of his stock certificates arrives, the president calls and asks Gordon what he has in mind, and he typically replies, "Just use it wherever it is most needed." Now, how could you ask for a better philanthropist than that?
It was a longer time developing a relationship with Gordon. First, he was relatively young at Intel when he came on the Board, and so there was some growth required. If you look at the pattern of his and Betty's gifts over the years leading up to 2000, they started with annual alumni gifts, of what they could afford, and grew from there. He had a deep personal relationship with Carver Mead, so that was a natural place for him to fund his first professorship. Again, it grew out of his personal interest to start with, but for Gordon and Betty, it's whatever is good for Caltech, wherever it is most needed for Caltech. They are extraordinary, wonderful people, and great friends of Caltech.
ZIERLER: Do you have a sense of the parameters of the gifts in the early discussions? In other words, were the Moores thinking smaller, and they were inspired to go bigger? Was it even bigger and they needed to contract? Or was it always going to be around that $600 million figure?
WEBSTER: Oh! You're talking about the big gift.
ZIERLER: The big gift.
WEBSTER: Wally Weisman would be the best person to talk to about that, because he led the negotiations. As Caltech's representative, Wally had a bigger number in mind, and the outcome was the number that Gordon and Betty had in mind. The gift was announced at a time when the price of Intel stock was contracting, so that was probably an element in establishing the final dollar amount. I would encourage you to talk with Wally Weisman, he can give you a better perspective than I can. Wally was chair of the campaign, so he was doing the one-on-one negotiating with Gordon and Betty. During this project, are you talking with trustees as well as other people?
ZIERLER: Wally is on my list. I hope to get to him soon.
WEBSTER: Tell Wally I told you to speak to him! He can give you the whole inside story.
ZIERLER: The Moore Laboratory of Engineering which went up during Tom Everhart's presidency, was that part of the larger gift? Was that prelude? Do you have a sense of how that worked out?
WEBSTER: No, that was not part of mega-gift. The Moore Lab was finished before Tom left, so that was quite a bit before the $600 million gift. That was part of the process of their growing philanthropy with Caltech, going from simple alumni gifts up to funding a professorship, and on to a building. There was a progression of their philanthropy at the Institute: an upward trajectory.
ZIERLER: What about the Fairchild Library and the Sherman Fairchild Foundation? Do you have a sense of Tom's relationship with the Foundation?
WEBSTER: Yes. That relationship was through a trustee who is unfortunately no longer with us, Walter Burke, who was the head of the Fairchild Foundation. Walter had no natural association with the Institute except through the Fairchild Foundation. Harold Brown, I believe, knew Walter Burke through the Fairchild Foundation, and that's how Walter came on the Board. Then a great, evolving connection developed between, Walter, the Fairchild Foundation and the Institute, built upon the synchronicity between what the Foundation wanted to fund and the work going on at Caltech. Walter developed a close relationship with Kip Thorne. Any time Kip called the Fairchild Foundation and said, "Stephen Hawking wants to come to Caltech; can you cover his expenses?" they sent in a check. Why the Fairchild Foundation wanted to support Kip Thorne and/or Stephen Hawking when their work was not directly connected to what the Foundation does, can be directly tied to the personal relationship between Kip Thorne and Walter and Connie Burke. Again, it's not always the president; sometimes faculty members develop these key philanthropic relationships—Carver Mead with Gordon Moore, Kip Thorne with Water Burke are good examples of that dynamic. That's how that one happened. It was essentially through Walter Burke and his dual function at the Fairchild Foundation and at the Institute as a trustee.
ZIERLER: Yet another great construction success story during this time was Keck Observatory in Hawaii. What was Tom's role both in managing relations with the University of California and Hawaii itself, considering the challenges that we've seen from parts of the Hawaiian community as it relates to the Thirty Meter Telescope?
WEBSTER: The comparison between Tom Everhart and Tom Rosenbaum and the challenges in Hawaii couldn't be more different: not because of the president, but because of the circumstances. Tom Everhart and the Keck Observatory had the benefit that in the era when that was being funded, Hawaii had a very strong United States senator who was interested in having the project done, and there were no issues. Keck II was a little bit more difficult, but it was absolutely nothing compared to what's going on with the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT). Is it still in progress?
ZIERLER: It's a very complicated story. They hope that it will be built in Hawaii, still, but that's by no means assured. It's a whole saga, and where you left off, there has been probably not much more movement since then.
WEBSTER: Occasionally, I check the newspaper just to see if magically something is being built, but I haven't seen anything yet. Anyway, the comparison between the Keck and the TMT is like night and day. There were minor issues, but they were handled in a businesslike manner, and the telescope was built. The biggest challenge with the Keck telescopes was developing the technology for the mirror segments. Tom Everhart's role in driving that technology to a successful conclusion was key. It was absolutely nothing like what is going on right now. The technological challenges for the Keck Observatory were the issue of primary concern, whereas the societal and governmental issues have obviously taken the forefront for TMT.
ZIERLER: More broadly, in the way we talked earlier about Tom Everhart's understanding of where to maintain preeminence in research at Caltech, what were some areas, not just in maintaining but in making Caltech even better than it was? What was Tom's focus in that regard within the various divisions?
WEBSTER: This is one area where the president doesn't lead; the faculty leads on this issue: the whole entrepreneurial spirit, research initiatives, and education. LIGO was probably the biggest project that required Tom's attention, along with deciding to stay with optical astronomy and build the two Keck telescopes on Mauna Kea. But all of that, every one of those projects, bubbles up from the faculty, so those discussions are coalesced among the faculty in the six divisions and then take form in IACC discussions with the six division chairs, the president, and the provost.
Sometimes a donor can lead the way in thinking about new areas of research.—Peggy and Andrew Cherng are good examples. Medical engineering was not a field that bubbled up naturally from the faculty. In fact, Caltech doesn't want a medical school, so what do with a donor who wants to fund medical engineering activities at Caltech? There were other donors pushing this area of research, but the Cherngs were the leaders. The donors were committed to this new area of research and were convinced that Caltech could lead in it. The donors were persistent and convinced individual faculty members that society would benefit from the type of work they were doing, and that medical engineering could flourish at Caltech. At Caltech, a president doesn't come in and say, "This is my vision of the field that we're going to work in, and this is what we're going to work towards." At Caltech, every research-based initiative bubbles up from the faculty.
ZIERLER: For you personally, what was your working relationship like with Tom Everhart?
WEBSTER: I would describe it as a very close personal and working relationship. Rube Mettler was Board chair when Tom Everhart arrived, and Tom noticed that I was doing the work as Board secretary, but I didn't have the title, and he fixed that. He's an egalitarian. It doesn't make any difference what color you are, male, female, young, old. He has an innate vision of equity for everybody, which is an integral part of who he is. I really enjoyed working with him. We had a very close working relationship, and as I said, we're still friends.
ZIERLER: Tell me about the development and formalization of the role "Board secretary." How did he see that this needed to be formalized?
WEBSTER: There was a Board secretary who had the title but wasn't doing the work; I was doing the work. I had a longstanding relationship with Dr. Mettler that went back to my time at JPL and working for Dr. Pickering. When he became Board chair, Dr Mettler worked and lived in Cleveland. This is in the day and age before email. TRW's corporate headquarters are in Cleveland, but the big operations are in Southern California. He directed all of his communications as Board chair to me, and Tom Everhart observed that, and recognized that I was doing the job but somebody else had the title.
ZIERLER: To clarify, were you doing work that somebody else should have been doing, or were you innovating the position just by going above and beyond?
WEBSTER: Probably mostly the latter. I saw a need and I met it. This goes back to our initial discussion about how I function. I do what I can to make people able to do their jobs: and at that time in 1987/1988 that included the president, the board chair, and the individual trustees.
ZIERLER: What were you doing that you recognized needed to be done?
WEBSTER: When I first started working with the board in 1984, I had no training or background to support my newly assumed governance responsibilities. As a result, I started researching and studying all the information I could find on university governance—and at the same time, studying the historical files regarding Caltech's board. The key impetus, however, was when Dr. Mettler was finding it necessary to circumvent the established governance structure and work through me to fulfill his duties as board chair. He used me as his interface with the Board, and that tends to be a function from that time on that I held with the Board. I was going to meetings in the role of the president's Executive Assistant but assumed the responsibility for taking the minutes in order to ensure that there was an accurate historic record of the board's and standing committees' deliberations.
ZIERLER: At the first part of our talk, we discussed how Tom Everhart inherited some financial challenges. When did the ship get steadied, in your memory? When did things start to be more on an even keel?
WEBSTER: Probably in the second half of his term. He also had a different vice president for business and finance, so he was getting the accurate financial information he needed, solving a long-term frustration for him. It started with Tom, and it probably continued after that, but the much-needed upgrade of Caltech's institutional computer support systems for our HR function and for our budgeting function became a reality. It was clear by the time Tom got there that for the California Institute of Technology, our business functions, computer systems, and other support systems, were way behind where they needed to be. I just remember the first time I showed him these long piles of paper, when he asked about the office budget.
ZIERLER: Did you start using email first during Tom Everhart's presidency, in the early or mid-1990s?
WEBSTER: We had computers on our desks as sort of a novelty when Murph Goldberger was president, and we started using email, but we seriously moved into the technology age when Tom was there. We computerized calendars. Before that, we had paper calendars. I remember one of our trustees, Steve Ross, asking me about a date, and when I pulled out a piece of paper, he said, "This is the California Institute of Technology; get your calendar on a computer!" Gradually, we got there. Tom was a big leader in getting the business functions up to a level for Caltech where they should be.
ZIERLER: What were the kinds of issues that would pull Tom away from campus, when it was important for him to have a presence elsewhere—another university, Washington, things like that?
WEBSTER: In his case, Washington. I can't remember how often he went to Washington, but a lot of it was—we don't use the term lobbying, but lobbying—Congress, both for NASA, for LIGO, these major national efforts where Caltech had a role. He was very active in the National Academy of Engineering and the AAU, so he had a national presence. I have a sense that the AAU is less functional now than it was then, but it was very useful forum for him, and I assume for the other research university presidents. As I said, he already had relationships with a lot of the key university presidents and chancellors before he came to Caltech, and that was a great benefit for the Institute.
ZIERLER: A general question as it relates to presidents and terms, is it a contractual or a general understanding that a term is five years, but really the hope is that if everything works out, there will be a renewal so that a standard presidency at Caltech is about ten years?
WEBSTER: Now it's contractual. For instance, Tom Rosenbaum has a written contract for five years, renewable for five years, and there's a renewal option beyond the ten years because he was relatively young when he came. Jean-Lou's contract was essentially the same. The five-year renewable to ten is standard in Caltech's written presidential contracts, but there is verbiage to cover the contingency should a president leave prior to the conclusion of his contractual term.
ZIERLER: When Tom Everhart was getting to the end of his second term, was he at a point in his career where it was understood that when he stepped down, that would be tantamount to going emeritus, essentially?
WEBSTER: That's correct, yes. He stayed on with his faculty appointment—he had a faculty office on campus. He was 65, and he was ready to step back. That's the way you would want it to happen. There was no question about a third term at all, either on his side or on the Institute's side. I think that would be the right way to phrase it.
ZIERLER: All of which is to say that by the latter portion of his second term, there was no surprise when the announcement came that he would be stepping down.
WEBSTER: That's correct. There were enough assumptions that was the reality, and that meant that the planning for the presidential search for his successor could start before he was gone. As a result, there was a very smooth transition from Tom to David Baltimore, with no need for an interim presidency. In fact, Tom was in the office one day and David Baltimore was in the office the next day! The physical overlap—we in the office could have stood a two-week break in there so we could get the office furniture moved around and the way David wanted it to be. That's the best way to have it happen, to have everybody in agreement that "It's going to be ten years; I'm going to retire on such and such a date." Then Caltech can start its search process with that in mind.
ZIERLER: For the last part of our talk today, just some retrospective questions about Tom Everhart's legacy. Considering what we talked about at the beginning of our discussion today, in terms of the challenges that he inherited, what do you see as the key points of success, what he was able to achieve in his tenure as president?
WEBSTER: The tech transfer initiative, which is going to have long-term benefits and grow beyond what it is now, is really one for the future. Getting the Keck Observatory built and operational on Mauna Kea, and LIGO, of course. And, on the very practical, administrative side, getting the business functions updated to modern standards is a great legacy. (David: We didn't talk about this issue in our interview, but one of the greatest legacies presidents create for Caltech is the appointment of provosts and vice presidents.)
ZIERLER: As you mentioned, Tom cared about the talent, not about the color of your skin or your gender or anything like that. This is obviously long before the way we currently talk about inclusivity and diversity. But do you think at least in an implicit way, Tom's style laid a foundation for those advances that would come later?
WEBSTER: I do, I do. I haven't specifically asked him, but I would guess he is perfectly in line with Tom Rosenbaum and the initiatives on inclusivity and diversity that are going on right now. He would just see that as a natural outflow of the initiatives he put in place when he was president. So, the answer is yes.
ZIERLER: Finally, for you, when you knew that he was going to be stepping down, what would you miss about that and your day-to-day interactions?
WEBSTER: The day-to-day interactions. That's one of the hardest things, and one of the reasons I decided to retire when I did. I found presidential transitions emotionally and personally difficult. For ten years, in most cases, you work closely, day to day, with someone, supporting their work and activities, and then your loyalties and focus change directions, almost instantaneously, and you find yourself building a relationship with the next president, it's very hard. I've been able to maintain personal relationships with all the presidents I supported, but they understand that I'm not going to tell them what's going on in the office right now. That confidentiality factor that you and I discussed in our early conversations was a constant element in all my relationships.
ZIERLER: That's right.
WEBSTER: In order to stay sane, I tend to compartmentalize confidentiality.
ZIERLER: Mary, on that note, we'll pick up next time. These discussions are leading very well from one presidential administration to the other. We'll pick up with David Baltimore.
[End of Recording]
ZIERLER: This is David Zierler, Director of the Caltech Heritage Project. It is Wednesday, August 3rd, 2022. I am delighted to be back once again with Mary Webster. As always, it is so nice to be with you. Thank you for joining me again.
WEBSTER: Thank you, it's a pleasure.
ZIERLER: Today we're going to pick up right at that transition from the Tom Everhart to the David Baltimore years. Just to set the stage, we talked a little bit about Tom letting everybody know that he was going to step down. I want to ask, given that Caltech never had a biologist as a president before, if you had a sense from the faculty searches, discussions in the hallway, if intellectually, from a scholarly perspective, Caltech was specifically not looking for a physicist at this juncture.
WEBSTER: As I've mentioned in our earlier conversations, I have never been actively engaged in the actual discussions for the presidential search, but I guess it would sort of astound me if they were specifically looking for a biologist. They always look for who is the best possible person. I don't believe the search committees, or the trustees intentionally set out to find a physicist, an engineer, or a biologist. That evolves in the discussions: who might be attracted to come to Caltech, who might be qualified to come, and let that set the parameters for the search. It's my impression that it would be very much out of the ordinary for Caltech to go into a presidential search with the intention of hiring someone with a specific field.
ZIERLER: I'm sure you've heard the stories I have, the legendary lengths that people like Kip Thorne went to keep the discussions secret, meeting in houses and in hotels under the cover of night. Was that something new? Had that always been done? Was there always such a cloak of secrecy involving interviewing potential presidential candidates before?
WEBSTER: Yes: probably since the time following the Harold Brown search. That search was relatively open and that led to some complications. As part of the "lessons learned" from that experience, the current emphasis on confidentiality and secrecy became the typical pattern, and I assume that will probably continue to be the normal pattern in the future. Being a private university, Caltech has no requirement for public openness for meetings or any kind of discussions. By agreement, I'm sure between the faculty chair and the chair of the Board of Trustees, strict confidentiality is a key element of every search.
ZIERLER: I know you weren't involved in the discussions themselves, but as we discussed previously, the kinds of things that Caltech was looking for when we transitioned from Murph to Tom Everhart, what were the things generally, to the extent that you were aware, of what people were thinking, and what were some feelings around campus—what was Caltech looking for in terms of characteristics in its next leader?
WEBSTER: You're talking now about the Everhart-to-Baltimore transition?
WEBSTER: I don't believe there was anybody who believed that the Institute was broken at that time. As we talked about in our previous discussion, Tom was a great manager, really had the Institute in very good shape. There was certainly no need to be looking for someone to fix the Institute. My guess is that they went for someone who was an inspirational, dynamic leader, and someone, obviously from who they selected, who had great credentials in the scientific world.
ZIERLER: What are your first or earliest memories of the announcement that it would be David Baltimore to succeed Tom Everhart?
WEBSTER: I certainly knew who David Baltimore was before he was elected Caltech's president. I received a call or a visit—I can't remember which one it was—from Kip Thorne and also from Gordon Moore, of who they had selected, and asked me to interact with David when he was on one of his final visits to the Institute and to provide him with some information that he was wanting about Caltech. At that point the Board of Trustees hadn't yet formally elected David as president, but it was essentially a signed-and-sealed deal. That's when I started the process of providing David with the information that he was needing to get started as the Caltech president. I was thrilled about his appointment! Everybody was.
ZIERLER: Tell me about meeting David for the first time.
WEBSTER: He was ensconced at the Huntington Hotel, which is now the Langham. He was staying up there in preparation for meeting with the Board of Trustees for the final vote on his election as president. I met him at the hotel, and we just had a very nice informal discussion. Prior to that, our interactions were on the phone. When I went up to the hotel to meet with him, one of his first memories of me is I showed up with this pile of paper, which was everything that he had requested.
ZIERLER: What was his first day like at the job? What was it like in terms of scheduling, in terms of meet and greets, in terms of speeches? What was that like?
WEBSTER: Before his first day. The day the president is elected there is a Board of Trustees meeting and then in his case there was a press conference at the Athenaeum where Kip and Gordon announced who the new president was going to be. There was a great deal of media interest in his election. His first day in the office, it was what I would call one of the tightest presidential transitions, because Tom Everhart was Tom Everhart, dedicated to his duties, and so he was working in the office right up to the last day of his term. The next day, David Baltimore was president, so we had a one-day turnaround. We didn't exactly have a chance to get the office ready! To get started, we set up a one-on-one meeting for him with each of the division chairs, obviously the vice presidents, the provost, students, groups of faculty. I believe he met with not just the division chairs but with the faculties of each one of the divisions as well. The first couple of weeks, the first months of any new president's term in office is kind of structured that way—get-acquainted meetings, meetings with students, meeting with groups of staff. This is also the time when every new president starts building relationships with the members of the Board of Trustees, the alumni leadership, and key philanthropists. There's really not a great deal of structure to a president's first weeks in office, other than introductory meetings.
ZIERLER: Obviously as you said, there was nothing broken at Caltech. Once David got comfortable in the position, what was your sense of what he wanted to do in terms of growing Caltech? New buildings, expanding academic programs, those kinds of things.
WEBSTER: First, expanding academic programs, those issues tend to bubble up from the faculty. At Caltech, those types of initiatives typically are not led by presidents. All the assumptions were that when David came in as a Nobel laureate biologist that some new emphasis would be placed on the biological sciences. But Caltech was ready to make that move, and the faculty was ready to make that move, so it was something where he didn't come in and introduce the new idea. It was something where the seeds for that were already there. It would be extraordinary for a new president to come in and say, "We're going to go in this direction" without having already vetted that thoroughly with the faculty. Part of Dr. Baltimore's initial discussions with the faculty in each of the divisions was to reassure them that he wasn't going to transform Caltech into the Caltech Institute of Biology; he was committed to supporting the whole broad spectrum of Caltech's academic fields—and the work at JPL. I don't think you could state that he came in with the idea of growing Caltech. A lot of the biological sciences—and other areas of research--—required more lab space, specialized facilities, and you can see the evidence of that on the campus now. Those kinds of things became part of what you might refer to as the growth of the campus. But presidents don't normally come in with an idea of "These are the fields I'm going to lead Caltech into" or "These are the buildings we're going to build." Those initiatives emerge naturally from discussions with the faculty and the division chairs.
ZIERLER: A question that applies in all presidential transitions—were you at all involved in the physical moving of one family to the next in the presidential house?
ZIERLER: I want to hear all about that. I'm so fascinated by this.
WEBSTER: That's another reason why I didn't want to do another one. So, yes. I worked closely with the new president's spouse and the new president to ensure that they had a home to move into when they arrived at Caltech. Going back to the Tom Everhart shortly after he and Doris finally got settled into the house along came one of our major earthquakes, which caused considerable structural damage. That required them to move into temporary quarters, and we took advantage of the experience to upgrade many of the systems at the house.
In more typical presidential transitions, we tend to do renovations of the president's residence when there's a vacancy between presidents, to do the normal upkeep that is hard to do when somebody is in residence and to prepare it for the new family to come in. We do those kinds of things in between presidential transitions. Even though Tom Everhart stayed until the last day coming into the office, he and Doris moved into a Caltech house out of the president's residence. Then I was in communication with Alice and David, and they had already visited the house with me, so I knew what they wanted to have done. During those presidential transition times, between the time when they're elected, announced, and when they take up residence are some of the most intense times, because we're getting not only an office ready but a home ready for a new family.
One of my jobs was working very carefully to make that house comfortable for them to live in. It's an odd arrangement, because essentially the downstairs of Caltech's president's residence is public space, and the upstairs is their private space, their private home. Yes, some of the busiest times in my life were the presidential transitions and making sure that everything was then ready for the new family when they arrived. David and Alice arrived with a dog, and there hadn't been a dog in the president's residence for many decades, so we had to make sure Lady Baltimore the Fourth was also accommodated! I also worked closely with the president's spouse to make sure that the staff was in place to support them in their (uncompensated!) work for Caltech. As we've moved into a more realistic recognition of the work the president's spouse performs for Caltech, we have developed a more professional team to provide them with the support them need. In Alice Huang's case, I supported her in the effort to hire a staff member who would help her manage the house and help manage her calendar.
ZIERLER: I'll ask a general question, not specific to any president or their spouse. How much leeway is there in terms of specification in everything relating to decorations to remodels, of when a president requests changes that they want to see in order to be comfortable in the house?
WEBSTER: Most of them understand that it's an institutional house. When David and Alice moved in, there was a lot of structural work that needed to be done on the house—electrical upgrades, plumbing upgrades. The basement was awful. To go into other details, there were some pest control issues that needed to be solved. Doris Everhart was and is a jewel. She left behind a bible of the house, which detailed everything about the house, what needed to be fixed, where repairs needed to be made. That helped, and she and Alice had a couple of conversations in which I was also involved. The transition at the house is usually managed on a very friendly basis between the two families. As I said, even though Tom was still coming into the office up until the last day, he and Doris moved out and let us proceed with fixing the house and getting it ready for David and Alice.
ZIERLER: What about furnishings? In other words, you sell your house in Boston, where David was coming from; are you expected to either put it all in storage or sell it, or can you bring that and furnish an otherwise empty house? How does that work?
WEBSTER: The upstairs is their personal space. If they wish to bring furniture from their home, from wherever they live, they're perfectly welcome to do that. The downstairs, where the public entertaining takes place, is more institutional in character. We upgraded that for the Everharts, and we upgraded it for the Baltimores, because after ten years of usage, it gets worn. The upstairs furnishings are personal furnishings, so they either purchase those or bring them from their previous homes with their own funding. Downstairs is Caltech's responsibility.
ZIERLER: Given all the upgrades that needed to happen, was the house ready on day one of David's presidency or there was a bit of a lag there?
WEBSTER: It was! I don't think I failed to have the house ready on day one for anybody.
ZIERLER: Wow. Now, that's an achievement right there. That's great. Once you started to get comfortable in your working relationship with David—as you said, you've had wonderful relationships with all of the presidents, but they're all very different—how did your day-to-day change, in working with David?
WEBSTER: It actually didn't change a whole lot. I had a very good relationship with him. He was very open. His door was always open to me, and likewise he would pop into my office all the time. I've never had a scheduled meeting arrangement with any of the presidents. I always had an open communication link to address issues (theirs and mine) when they arise. It's essentially an open-door policy. I had access to his calendar so I knew when he wasn't engaged in meetings, so I could just go down there and talk to him—oftentimes, at the end of the day. It's hard to describe; it's a very intense personal interaction, but not formal. It's very informal, but it tended to work.
ZIERLER: I asked about the day-to-day. What about the longer term, in terms of long-term projects or things of a strategic nature, that you worked on?
WEBSTER: My responsibilities tended to focus primarily on the Board of Trustees. If there were issues related to governance issues, structural issues, how the Board was functioning, how it needed to function to support the Institute, those were the kinds of things that I would get involved in. I didn't typically get involved in major issues. From time to time, David would ask me to represent him in confidential negotiations or conversations when he needed a reliable set of ears. One of David's early initiatives was to establish a strong Visiting Committee program for Caltech, which he had seen had great benefits at MIT. Steve Koonin was provost, and he also had an MIT background and had a very similar impression of the value of visiting committees. The two of them really drove an initiative to get a good, strong, effective, independent Visiting Committee program working for Caltech. They both believed that Caltech is a great institution, and great institutions benefit from being assessed independently by outside experts on the quality of the work going on, the validity of planned research initiatives, the identification of areas of weakness and strengths That's essentially where a lot of the strategic plans get tested out as to effectiveness and whether they're ready to proceed.
ZIERLER: One unique aspect of David Baltimore's presidency of course is that he maintained an active research agenda. He was a working biologist while he was president of Caltech. What did that mean in terms of his availability, his day-to-day, how he balanced all those things, as you saw it?
WEBSTER: How he balanced it, I don't know—it was a miracle—but he made it work. So, for the Baltimore presidential transition, we were not only moving a family into the house, a new president into the office, but there was also a cross-country move for a very large scientific enterprise, which we had never encountered before. Fortunately, he had a very experienced lab manager who coordinated that aspect of the move. There were a lot of moving pieces with the David Baltimore transition.
Once the lab was up and running, David took a very structured approach to that aspect of his life. He set aside times on his calendar that he spent in the lab every week. If an emergency came up, either on the lab side or on the president's office side, there was some flexibility in that. His postdocs and grad students were always welcome in our office and came over as needed, but most of those interactions took place in the lab. How he made it work, I don't know, but he was a great president and an astounding scientist at the same time. That gives you a sense of who David Baltimore is. He is driven not only by his great scientific talent and a strong sense of integrity. Meanwhile, he had other interests outside—his daughter, dogs, modern art, jazz, wine tasting, growing orchids, fly-fishing. He is what you would call a true Renaissance man. Just extraordinary. He enjoys life—and science.
ZIERLER: Because you had access to his calendar, of course, did he have science time blocked off, or he would squeeze that in when he could?
WEBSTER: Oh no, there were set times on his calendar every week that he would be in the lab. It would take a major issue for us to make a change to those blocks of time. Tom Rosenbaum is doing a similar thing.
ZIERLER: Of course, the president is a public face and requires a lot of travel beyond Pasadena. What were the kinds of things that would pull David away from campus on official business?
WEBSTER: Number one would be Washington DC. Interactions with the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, National Academy of Science, members of Congress and their staff. Then NASA, of course, for JPL. Washington DC was the core of it. The other is philanthropy, because philanthropists are not located just in Pasadena or Los Angeles; they're all over the country. I believe that Gordon and Betty, by that time at least, were transitioning to their home in Hawaii, so that was also another regular visit to make sure they stayed in the Caltech loop. David was also a leader in the nation's scientific policy issues which occasionally led to national and international travel. His pattern was not a great deal different than that of other Caltech presidents.
ZIERLER: I'm sure you remember that very difficult period at JPL with the two high-profile failures in 1999. What was your sense of David's involvement in navigating through that difficult period?
WEBSTER: That's one reason why his interactions with NASA headquarters were probably more time-consuming than maybe with some other presidents. He established a very good relationship with the NASA administrator as a result of those issues. There were a lot of communication failures that led to that, and there were several changes that were made. Ed Stone was the director, and then Charles Elachi. David asked the provost (Steve Koonin) to undertake an in-depth study of the Laboratory and how it functioned to see if there were structural or programmatic changes that needed to be made to ensure mission success in the future. Things had gone so well at JPL that an effort needed to be made to make sure that the president and the NASA administrator were communicating or could communicate whenever a need arose.
ZIERLER: Were you involved informally or formally in the selection of the next JPL director? How does that work from the President's Office point of view?
WEBSTER: The JPL director search is obviously a nationwide search. Typically, a trustee chairs the search committee. I believe it was Bob Inman in the Charles Elachi case. There are trustees on the committee, and then there are some faculty, and some staff people and leadership from JPL to make sure their needs and wants are known. It is just a typical search committee. We haven't typically staffed that out of our office, but because there are trustees involved, we support communications and that sort of thing, but we don't get involved in the actual search process.
ZIERLER: Tell me about some of the things that were most important to David from a building perspective. Of course, architecture was very important to him.
WEBSTER: Oh yes, I forgot to mention architectural interest in listing his areas of interest!
ZIERLER: When he had opportunity for new building campaigns, what was important to him just from an aesthetic perspective?
WEBSTER: You can look at some of the buildings that were built when he was president—the Broad Institute, Cahill—to get a sense of his more avant-garde theories of architecture. There were a lot of intense deliberations about the design of those two buildings, particularly with the Buildings and Grounds Committee of the Board of Trustees. The architects met with the committee to share their vision for the buildings. The most intense discussions were related to the design of Cahill, the building on the south side of California, and how it tied into the more traditional architectural style of the core campus north of California.
ZIERLER: It was such a long process and there were so many people involved in making it happen; what do you understand as the shift of responsibility in making sure that the gift from Gordon and Betty Moore went through, which of course went through during David Baltimore's tenure?
WEBSTER: As I mentioned last time that the one-on-one negotiations with Gordon and Betty were conducted by Wally Weisman, one of the trustees. Wally was in almost daily communication with David to make sure that he had at his hands, the information of how the gift could or would be used at Caltech, what it would do for Caltech. Then Wally also had obviously provided feedback from what he was hearing from Gordon. I don't believe that David was ever one-on-one in negotiations with Gordon and Betty about that gift. I know I suggested last time that you talk with Wally; I'm sure he's on your list.
ZIERLER: Oh, yeah.
WEBSTER: He can fill you in on how his one-on-one conversations went, but there was extensive communication between Wally and David and there are recorded notes of those interactions. Wally was very in tune with David's vision for this gift, and Wally was very good about communicating back what he was hearing from Gordon and Betty. It was an iterative process to adjust the gift agreement, the gift design, with all the feedback that was being heard. Obviously, Caltech wanted to do what Gordon and Betty wanted to do, more than anything. As I mentioned last time, they're the world's best philanthropists. They wanted to do what was best for Caltech. Gordon wanted to hear from David and from the provost and from the division chairs how this extraordinary gift could be used to transform Caltech, to make it a better place. They have a deep love for Caltech.
ZIERLER: I'm curious, once the gift went through, it's a game-changer, right? Nothing like this had ever happened before in higher education.
WEBSTER: And never has happened since!
ZIERLER: I know. Was there an immediate impact in terms of possibility, in terms of expansion, in terms of improvement, or was your sense that David and the Board of Trustees managed this in a more incremental fashion?
WEBSTER: It was more or less incremental, and this was actually the way Gordon and Betty structured it through their foundation. $600 million wasn't automatically transferred into Caltech's bank account. Half the gift came from the Moores' personal funds, and half the gift came through their Foundation. Caltech had to submit proposals to the Foundation in order to receive the grant money. I think it would be very informative for you to read the report that the Foundation wrote at the conclusion of the Foundation's Caltech Initiative, if you haven't already done so. It was a very structured program through the Foundation. It was the Foundation gift that had this more structured approach. Most of the Moores' personal gift was invested in the endowment to ensure its impact would continue in perpetuity.
ZIERLER: What sticks out in your memory of what changed as a result? What was made possible, what was improved, simply because Caltech now had this phenomenal gift?
WEBSTER: There was this instantaneous "Oh, we got $600 million; all our problems are solved." Then, lo and behold, we got $600 million, and all our problems weren't solved.
People expected to see magically that all the Institute's research funding problems and budgetary challenges were resolved. It took some time for the faculty, in particular, to understand the very structured approach the Moore Foundation had put in place to disburse those funds. Caltech had the privilege of leading the process that identified the projects that were sent to the Foundation for funding. And, of course, the impact of a major gift to the endowment has long-term implications, as opposed to short-term impact.
ZIERLER: It's a challenge not only of disbursing the funds but in managing everybody's sensitivities.
WEBSTER: Exactly. The Moores' personal funds were specifically directed to the endowment, so the outflow from that was controlled by the endowment payouts—leaving the principal invested for the long-term benefit of the Institute. One of Gordon's desires was to make sure that the endowment grew to the size that would support the enterprise that is Caltech.
ZIERLER: Given the challenge, was there a committee? Who was essentially in charge of determining how to deploy the funds?
WEBSTER: There was initially a committee, but essentially, I believe it ended up being the IACC—the division chairs, the president, and the provost. Those types of decisions are made for the Institute within that group. As we've discussed before, the IACC is a key group at Caltech. Unlike most other educational institutions, the heads of every academic enterprise on the campus—of course, we only have six, so we have this advantage—meet, at least monthly, or perhaps it's more frequently, with the president and the provost, and they talk strategically about what academic programs are needing support, what maybe needs to disappear. That's where these decisions are at least initiated and thought of on an Institute-wide basis rather than in a particular academic silo. Because of the structure of that group, they're forced to think of things on an Institute-wide basis rather than just what's good for CCE, what's good for BBE, et cetera.
ZIERLER: It's a somber question, but one that's important for history—September 11th. What was that day like for you personally, and what was it like at Caltech?
WEBSTER: By coincidence, Tuesday, September 11, was a day that the Caltech Board of Trustees was scheduled to meet. Ben Rosen was the chair. By the time I got to campus, on West Coast time, the buildings had already been hit and fallen and we were starting to comprehend the scope on the tragedy. We knew there couldn't be a Board of Trustees meeting. Art Goldstein, one of our trustees who lived in Boston, was scheduled to be on the flight that went into one of the Towers. He was sick that morning and decided to cancel out on the flight, so he would have been on that flight. There are just stories like that. Ben Rosen personally knew people who worked in the Towers, so he was just glued to the TV.
We had to scramble at first. We sent out the notice to cancel all the Board of Trustees meetings, but we had trustees who had flown in and hadn't turned on the news that morning and showed up on campus for the meetings and had no idea what was going on. Then we had trustees who were stuck in Pasadena. Because remember, all the flights were cancelled; they couldn't leave. Ginny Weldon and Shirley Malcom roomed together at the Athenaeum and became lifelong friends as a result of being forced together. Somehow Ben Rosen found a private plane that would fly him back to New York, before commercial flights were available. He was only here for one or two days. But Shirley and Ginny and others were just stuck here for days. People like Phil Neches stayed with his son who lived in Los Angeles. We had a few Board members who were stuck in Pasadena from all parts of the country for a week. It seemed like forever, but I believe that the flights were grounded for about a week. It was a traumatic day for the country. Those of us that lived through it will never forget it. But the immediate reaction was, "What do we do with Trustees who are stuck in Los Angeles and can't go home?", which gave us something concrete to think about rather than focusing on the vast scope of the national tragedy.
ZIERLER: What was David's leadership style in a moment like that? Did he give a speech? Were there campus support groups? What happened? What was the feel on campus?
WEBSTER: Obviously everything shut down. Normal activities shut down just as they did everywhere else in the country. There were candlelight gatherings around the flagpole, which is where those sorts of things happen on the Caltech campus. I don't think David made any formal comments. He was really distressed obviously, having New York background. I had some very uncharacteristically frank conversations with him in those days, of a very personal nature. But I don't think he ever gave a formal address. He went out and participated in the campus gatherings, which is what everybody did; it just seemed like the only thing to do. There was really not much—it was a very traumatic time. On a personal note, my son had just gone off to Wooster, Ohio. He went to the College of Wooster, and that was his freshman year. The plane that turned around and then was taken down in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, flew quite low right over Wooster.
ZIERLER: Oh, wow.
WEBSTER: That October was parents' weekend, and we got there.
ZIERLER: Amazing. Another common theme we've touched on as it relates to David Baltimore is the relationship between the president and the Board of Trustees. What was your sense of that relationship?
WEBSTER: He had a very good relationship with the Board. He had some personal governance challenges with Ben Rosen, who was the Board chair, which most likely arose from the geographic distance between New York (Ben's home) and Pasadena, and in doing so Ben made a strong recommendation to the Board that the Board chair should be local to the president in order to build that essential board chair-president relationship.
ZIERLER: Was Ben Rosen's successor local, according to plan?
WEBSTER: Yes, it was Kent Kresa, and then there was David Lee, both of whom work and live in southern California. Ben Rosen's theory is now being tested, with the election of Dave Thompson as Board chair who lives on the east coast.
ZIERLER: What about the relationship with Steve Koonin as provost? What was your sense of the provost-president dynamic?
WEBSTER: Steve Koonin—this is a little off topic, but it would be good for you to have a similar type of interview with him as you're having with me. Steve has some strong opinions about the long-term viability of the Caltech model, so it would be very interesting for you to talk with him. He cares deeply, obviously, about Caltech.
Back to your original question: Two very smart gentlemen, David Baltimore and Steve Koonin, and their relationship was very good. Because he had a strong provost in Steve Koonin, David was able to keep his lab going at the same time as being president. As they developed their relationship, David turned over more administrative-type responsibilities and interactions with vice presidents to Steve.
ZIERLER: I'm not sure of the timing. Did Steve Koonin step down during David's presidency and David was able to choose his successor? Was there someone between Steve Koonin and Ed Stolper?
ZIERLER: I just pulled it up. Ed was acting provost in 2004, and then he was named officially provost in 2007. But I'm not sure; does that mean that he held the position of acting provost until 2007, or was there someone in between?
WEBSTER: Steve left to go to British Petroleum in 2004, and that was a somewhat unexpected departure, which is what led to the need for an acting provost. I believe Ed was the senior division chair (in terms of tenure) at the time, which is why he was selected for the acting role. Ed served as acting provost until the search for a new provost resulted in the appointment of Paul Jennings as provost. Paul had previously served as provost between 1989 and 1995 (while Tom Everhart was president) and came out of retirement to serve Caltech as provost.
ZIERLER: To go back to an earlier comment, as you said—and it's a good point, point well taken—that David Baltimore did not want to make it the California Institute of Biology. Of course, there was that interest in enhancing the biological sciences at Caltech. How did that play out? What were some of the ways that Caltech became more firmly rooted in biology during David's tenure?
WEBSTER: It took some convincing of faculties in divisions like EAS and probably HSS and PMA that don't have direct, obvious biological connections, that the Biological Sciences Initiative was an Institute-wide initiative; it wasn't just for the Division of Biology. The big concern was that the Division of Biology was going to grow and become this huge JPL-like institute within Caltech. One of the goals of David's initial conversations with the faculties in each of the divisions was to moderate the tone of what the vision was for biologically related research and science activities at Caltech, which evolved into the more defined Biological Sciences Initiative. Those initial conversations were critically important in formulating the Institute-wide vision for the biological sciences, which incorporated research programs in all six of the academic divisions—and even expanded to work at JPL. It was a challenge, but a positive challenge, because faculty and other researchers started thinking in creative ways about how biologically related research could happen within their scientific field, often in ways that weren't obvious, and at the same time ensuring that Caltech didn't evolve into the Institute of Biology, that is, it remained a healthy, scientifically balanced institution.
ZIERLER: All of these advances and expansions, how much of this physically and intellectually was centered around the creation of the Broad Center? Was that really the anchor point for this or were there other things happening as well?
WEBSTER: The Broad Center was the anchor for the discussions. That gift came along and forced some of these discussions. Eli Broad was very involved in those discussions. Eli Broad was very specific about what he wanted his gift to be used for. His expectations, without endangering the gift, had to be an element in the discussions. This goes back to the conversation we had about philanthropists, and whether their gift was directed to a specific project and whether the project envisioned by the philanthropist fits within the "Caltech model." Sorting out those complexities is where the president comes in. David was the intermediary between Caltech and Eli Broad and his foundation. Out of those discussions, Eli and David became very good friends. I don't know if David is still on the Broad Foundation board, but he was for a long time even after he served as president, because the two individuals involved (David and Eli) came to admire one another through these negotiations.
ZIERLER: Another theme that we've explored previously—this gets to Murph Goldberger's ideas about what an academic institution should and should not do—the idea of entrepreneurialism and a startup culture. Would you say based on what Tom Everhart embraced and promoted, was startup culture fully mature by the time David Baltimore became president?
WEBSTER: Oh, no, I'm not even sure it's fully mature now. It's something that has evolved and matured as Caltech gained more experience with entrepreneurial activity. Not all of the OTT successes come out of biology; it's an Institute-wide endeavor. In fact, I believe EAS has generated more successful entrepreneurial activity than BBE. The OTT, the Office of Technology Transfer, had been established and it was identified as a need for the Institute by the time David arrived as president, but with his encouragement, it did continue to mature through his presidency, and it has been on a growing path since. I would be surprised if Tom Rosenbaum or Dave Tirrell would say it's mature at this point. From my perspective it is still a growing enterprise.
ZIERLER: What about specifically, again given his area of expertise and the biotechnology revolution, all of the advances in biotechnology, was that something just in terms of the timing, who David was, what was happening in the field, was that something that was sort of a boost in this longer-term trend of the maturation of startup culture at Caltech?
WEBSTER: In fact, it probably was, because I'm not sure that in the initial phases of our OTT/start-up activities that the biotech element was a strong part. (However, Lee Hood's one patent was the most impressive in terms of generation of income.) Most of Caltech's start-up initiatives emerged from work in the Engineering & Applied Science Division. Having David at Caltech, and his interest in biotechnology, probably brought that element of the program to the fore. That was part of the maturing process, moving into a different field.
ZIERLER: A question that's more about the sign of the times and not so much about individuals: Nowadays of course promoting diversity and inclusivity is so important on campus. During David Baltimore's tenure, do you recall either those words or those sentiments being discussed?
WEBSTER: The sentiments, yes, but those specific words, maybe less. The DEI nomenclature, which is very common now, has evolved out of grassroots efforts over the last several years. As we talked last time, Tom Everhart was focused on these issues as was David Baltimore. In the Everhart/Baltimore/Chameau eras, there was a definite focus on "diversity". At that time, equity and inclusivity concerns tended to be folded into diversity discussions. But the sentiment was definitely there as a top presidential priority for each of them. For instance, David appointed several committees to address these issues, and Dr. Huang's experiences in academia informed his particular concern about equity for women faculty.
ZIERLER: We've also talked about the idea of presidential terms and understandings of how long someone would serve. Was the basic understanding that David would serve that sort of standard ten-year term? What was your sense of those decisions as they were happening?
WEBSTER: At Caltech, the president's employment contract is based on an initial five-year term, with the provision for the renewal of the contract for a second five-year term. Since the Institute has executed written employment contracts with its presidents, there hasn't been a single case when the option for the second term has not been enthusiastically exercised. David was well into his second term when he made the decision to step away from his presidential duties and become a full-time Caltech faculty member. I believe that both he and the Institute were ready to transition.
ZIERLER: Did you get word of this privately or did he confide in you? How did you come to learn of this decision?
WEBSTER: He told me personally, as has every other president I have supported.
ZIERLER: Without divulging any personal details, what was your reaction when David Baltimore shared this news with you? Were you surprised? Did you sense it was coming?
WEBSTER: In his case, he and I had had several conversations about life beyond our current roles, so I sensed it was coming. In most cases, these decisions by Caltech's presidents are made at what seems like the natural time (both for the president and for the Institute), so it is rare for them to be totally unexpected.
ZIERLER: What was your sense of David's own feeling of what he had accomplished, that there was a chapter that he had closed, and it was the right time to step down?
WEBSTER: David can give you a better sense that I can, but he had accomplished a great deal.
Another element that comes into play about presidential tenure is Caltech's major capital campaigns, which seem to have become a perpetual part of the Caltech tapestry. When David decided to step down as president, Caltech was also approaching the time when a new capital campaign would be kicked off, and those major fund-raising campaigns place great physical and time demands on presidents, in essence, they become all-consuming. You had previously asked about travel and what portion of the time is devoted to philanthropy, all of that obviously kicks into high gear when Caltech enters a capital campaign. There are certain donors that only the president can go to for their once-in-a-lifetime major gift, so the president is engaged in all aspects of the planning and execution of such philanthropic initiatives.
ZIERLER: What did that mean for you in terms of your day-to-day once he made this decision? I know you're not involved in the next presidential search, but just when there's that transition point between the announcement and the next president, how does your work life change?
WEBSTER: My work life was typically controlled by the steady sequence of Board of Trustees meetings every six weeks, so that element of my job stayed steady for 40-plus years. What happens during a presidential transition is that I ensure that the outgoing president (and his spouse) have the support from the Institute that they need to settle in their new home and work environment. In David's case, he continued to support the Institute's philanthropy and to engage in national scientific policy discussions, which required financial support from the Institute, since they could not be charged to a research grant.
ZIERLER: What was your sense, just the esprit de corps on campus? What had David accomplished in terms of those intangibles, the things that you can't measure in terms of dollars or buildings, just where Caltech was at that point circa 2006?
WEBSTER: To me, I had never observed it being a broken institution. Yes, there were some things that didn't work quite right. We talked about the computer support issues. But I don't think anything was particularly broken. He had strong personal relationships with a wide variety of people on campus and with members of the governing board. I believe the esprit de corps on campus, and at JPL, was good. I didn't really observe that he had broken relationships with staff and students, or any other Caltech constituency.
ZIERLER: Did you talk with him about what his next life decision was? Was it obvious that he would remain in Pasadena?
WEBSTER: Yes. He told me, and lots of people, that he was not stepping down; he was stepping up to the best career in the world: being a fulltime Caltech faculty member.
ZIERLER: He could pursue that full-time at that point?
WEBSTER: Yes. When he and Alice originally came to Caltech, their plan was to return to Boston or New York, where their daughter lives. They took to Pasadena during the time when they were there, so they were both very happy to stay in the warmer climate. When he first arrived, the first couple of winters, when we were complaining about the cold weather or something, he just would call us weather wimps. A couple years later he came in one day and he said, "I've become a weather wimp just like all the rest of you!" No, David became a true "Pasadenan" through that process.
ZIERLER: Did you ever engage with him, just on an interpersonal level, about the science, the things that were important to him?
WEBSTER: I tried. I tried my best. I'm not a biologist by any stretch of the imagination. One time, he walked into my office waving around a copy of a major scientific magazine. It had a picture of the double helix on the cover (at least I recognized that much!). He said, "Do you know what's wrong with this picture?" I said, "I don't have any idea!" He said, "It's backwards! They've put a mirror image on the cover!" Yes, I attempted. He did try to educate me a little bit. Every president I supported is a professor at heart and tries to be a teacher, so I've learned a little bit of physics, a little bit of biology—even a bit of geology along the way.
ZIERLER: [laughs] That's great. As we transition now to Jean-Lou Chameau, in that way that we were talking earlier in our conversation, not that the selection committee is looking for a particular area of expertise, but generally where was Caltech circa 2005, 2006, in the kinds of leadership characteristics it was looking for?
WEBSTER: In most cases, it would be more informative to talk with the chair of the faculty search committee for a better understanding of that issue, but in the case of the search that led to Jean-Lou's appointment, that's not possible since we recently lost Bob Grubbs. Kent Kresa was Board chair at the time, so he's probably the best source of information. I don't know who's on your list for future interviews, but the better way to get stronger insight into those kinds of questions would be to talk with the Board chairs who led presidential searches (Gordon Moore, Kent Kresa, David Lee) and the chairs of the faculty presidential search committees (Kip Thorne, Dave Stevenson, Fiona Harrison).
From my own personal perspective, I don't believe anybody thought that the Institute was broken at that point. There was general agreement, I believe, that David Baltimore is a "tough act to follow." Jean-Lou was a slightly unusual choice (besides being an engineer), but he had a strong background having served as provost at Georgia Tech and having "real-time" experience on the entrepreneurial side. He had a reputation of being a "people person," which laid a good foundation for his relationships with students, staff (both on campus and at JPL), alumni, and, of course, donors.
ZIERLER: What about its finances? What was important in terms of the next leader and managing Caltech's finances at that point?
WEBSTER: At that point in time, I believe everyone thought Caltech was in relatively good position at that point, with some emerging concerns among members of the Board that the endowment was not of sufficient size to support the Institute in the future. There were some discussions in the Board of Trustees about the Institute's finances during David's presidency: both the management of the operating budget and the investment philosophy governing the endowment. There was emerging awareness, particularly on the Board, that Caltech has a structural deficit in the operating budget that needed to be addressed. However, I don't think there were any major financial issues at the presidential transition time.
ZIERLER: When the announcement was made that it would be Jean-Lou Chameau, what was your reaction at that point? Did you know of him? Were you aware of what he had done before?
WEBSTER: No, I did not know him, and the name Jean-Lou Chameau was new to me. Bob Grubbs came to talk with me to inform me about the decision—and to express his enthusiastic support for his appointment at Caltech. He and Jean-Lou had known each other for a number of years. Following that conversation, I had a follow-up conversation with Board Chair Kent Kresa, and I then started the communication process with Jean-Lou. The initial conversations were via phone and email. Selected presidents don't tend to come to campus until the day the Board election takes place and they are introduced to the campus and JPL communities and the media. My first in-person meeting with Jean-Lou was again at the Langham Hotel. After our conversation, I drove him to the campus, which he had never visited, and gave him a bit of a tour. Unfortunately, we ran into somebody who knew him at that point, so the word started to get out.
ZIERLER: When I first got to campus, I saw olives all over the place, and I thought to myself, "Is Caltech ever doing anything with these olives?" Were you aware before Jean-Lou if there was any campus-wide initiative to put them to productive use?
WEBSTER: No. In fact, there was some effort to spray those trees to make sure that they would never fruit out an olive, because they were messy. No, that was a Jean-Lou initiative, in conjunction with the students. There was a group of students who gathered up some olives one year and attempted to make olive oil and presented him with a cruet of it. He thought it was such a great idea that the next year he encouraged the creation of the olive harvest.
ZIERLER: From your perspective, how did that start? What was the impetus? Did it come from Jean-Lou himself, or was it from students or faculty?
WEBSTER: No, faculty weren't involved at all. It was the students. I believe they were graduate students, but I can't remember exactly. But it was students. They just went up to the "Pres Res" and rang the doorbell and presented Jean-Lou and Carol with a cruet of olive oil that they had made from the olives (which wasn't very good, by the way). Then they started to learn how to do it more professionally and how to make the trees fruit out.
ZIERLER: We've talked about physicists. We've talked about Tom Everhart being a physicist in some regards and an engineer in the others. Jean-Lou Chameau of course was an engineer through and through. From your vantage point, did that influence his management style? Did he take an engineer's approach to being Caltech's president?
WEBSTER: The answer to that is probably yes. I think I told you when we were talking about Tom Everhart, because my dad was an engineer, and I always classify Tom as the engineer's engineer even though he's a physicist. Jean-Lou was an engineer; he thought in a more—creative is the wrong word, but less structured way than, say, Tom Everhart did. In my mind, personally—Jean-Lou would disagree with me—but Tom was more of an engineer in his thinking processes than Jean-Lou. Jean-Lou was one of those very creative, visionary types, very similar to David Baltimore, but when faced with a major challenge (e.g., the 2008 financial challenges) his leadership skills and organizational insight enabled Caltech to make quick, difficult and effective decisions that protected the Institute, its people and its mission at a time when action was essential.
ZIERLER: I'm sure you remember well the financial crisis, the stock market and real estate collapse in 2008. What was that like from where you sat?
WEBSTER: It was a crisis! That was the focus of every meeting, every discussion, and immediate action had to be taken. Jean-Lou gathered his leadership around him, and we were making decisions in real time that worked, that protected the Institute during that time.
ZIERLER: What worked? Amazingly, Caltech's academic programs did not appreciably shrink. There weren't major losses. What was the secret? How did they navigate the ship?
WEBSTER: They made some targeted withdrawals from the endowment. One of the remarkable things that they did was they used that opportunity to hire young faculty. Caltech was the only major research university that was hiring young faculty during that period. It was an extraordinary approach to a crisis, but it was sort of like making lemonade out of lemons or whatever the expression is. Every department on campus, every unit on campus, had to cut their budgets, some administrative organizations were consolidated, and there were staff lay-offs. The Institute had never laid off staff before, so this was again something out of the Caltech tradition where people came and worked for their whole lives. These were very difficult decisions. The budgets, particularly on the administrative side, have remained tight ever since, never returning to "the way they were."
ZIERLER: Of course, one of the hallmarks of Jean-Lou's presidency was the idea of translating the research to have societal impact. What stands out in your memory as some of the ways that Jean-Lou promoted that approach at Caltech?
WEBSTER: One of Jean-Lou's strengths was communication. He communicated well with staff, with students, but also with the faculty. He was out and about on campus. He interacted with people. He was very personable and had a very engaging personality. That paid off in spades because he had strong relationships and was able to encourage people to think differently about things, even convincing faculty members to think differently about how they did their research. Again, this was part of the maturing of Caltech's technology transfer activities and the entrepreneurial spirit on campus. Jean-Lou had seen the entrepreneurial enterprise from both sides, from the corporate world and on the academic side in his previous life as provost at Georgia Tech. He had successful, real-life experience in both worlds, and he was able to share those experiences with people. (His wife, Carol Carmichael, was a great asset to him in this aspect of his work.)
Jean-Lou had a heavy French accent, and it was sometimes difficult to hear everything or understand everything he was saying, but he had great communication skills, and he used them effectively, and he built great relationships on campus.
ZIERLER: One of the most important aspects was the way that he promoted applications, societal benefit, what we now call sustainability, everything from conservation to energy efficiency, water use. What do you remember in terms of the things that were most important to him to promote at Caltech in that regard?
WEBSTER: You've highlighted them. Putting the solar panels on all the flat roofs of the buildings. Sustainability: making sure that the landscaping around the new buildings (Annenberg is a good example) was appropriate for the climate in Southern California rather than the expansive lawns and water-hungry trees and plants that had traditionally characterized the campus landscape. In my mind, the gradual transition of the appearance of the campus landscape is a clear legacy of Jean-Lou's initiatives. (Again, sustainability is an area where Carol Carmichael was a strong partner with Jean-Lou.)
ZIERLER: What about expansion? I understand that during Jean-Lou's presidency, there were discussions about not just another building, but really a substantial expansion, discussions about perhaps having a business school or a medical school. What was your awareness of those kinds of discussions?
WEBSTER: I don't believe there will never be a medical school or a business school at Caltech. Those discussions you mention were part of what came out of the creative thinking during the financial crisis. One of the questions Jean-Lou's support team was asked to address was: "Are there cash cows that Caltech could take advantage of in its field?" Nothing really emerged. Yes, there was talk about a medical school or a business school, but those discussions never evolved into anything because, in reality, Caltech remains a small institution. Caltech bought the St. Luke Hospital property in northeast Pasadena thinking that could be a future campus expansion site, but then reality struck, and faculty weren't interested in having their activities that far from campus. As a result, Caltech sold the St. Luke's property and moved on!
ZIERLER: You're saying it will never happen because it's not specific to a presidential administration; it's just beyond what Caltech is.
ZIERLER: This intangible of keeping Caltech at just the right size, how does one go about measuring that? What are the metrics to figure out when Caltech should expand and when it should not?
WEBSTER: I don't think there are any real parameters to it. A lot of it is just instinct. This goes back to our previous discussions about the IACC, which is really the guiding strategy group for the Institute. For instance, discussions about the appropriate size of the student body evolve around the need to balance the Institute's need for tuition income against the financial needs of its students and their families. Discussions about the size of the academic enterprise focus on the issue of how Caltech maintains balance among the fields it pursues. Some areas tend to be intrinsically smaller (GPS, HSS—particularly the humanities) and some by nature tend to require significant staff and research support (PMA, BBE, CCE for example). Every decade or so there also tends to be a discussion about how JPL fits into the Caltech character. The essence of any discussion about the size of Caltech is to determine how the intellectual enterprise might need to be adjusted (grow?) for Caltech to remain Caltech.
But this sort of amorphous thought about "What is Caltech?" remains surprisingly unsettled. Everybody says they want Caltech to remain Caltech, but when you get down to the core of it, getting somebody to sit down and say "What is Caltech? —What is the appropriate size? What are the appropriate fields for us to be pursuing?"—emerges from these kinds of discussions. There really aren't specific parameters or targets.
We talked about these two transitions last time we spoke—the 1920/1921 transition when Caltech emerged out of the Throop Polytechnic Institute. At that time there were specific numbers established for the maximum size of the student body, how the divisions should evolve one after one another, what was the right sequence, what the campus should look like, etc. Those kinds of discussions took place in the 1920s and strategically Caltech hasn't felt the need to abandon that vision. If you go back to the educational principles adopted in 1921, you will recognize the essence of the current Caltech. A lot of the language is outdated, but the core idea is: "This is what Caltech is."
ZIERLER: A question for you personally. I'm not sure where it orients in the chronology, but as you were gaining seniority, are you able to take on new areas of responsibility that are separate from the president, or is really the president that sets what it is that you're doing, and that's more about their style than it is about how long you've been in the job?
WEBSTER: It's more the second. There were some structured parts of the job that I had. Before I started cutting back and just became the Board secretary, when I was executive assistant to the president and chief of staff, that side of my job was more in flux and really mapped with the presidential initiatives and the guidelines they had. I mentioned the visiting committees that David Baltimore—I would call it re-envisioned, because we had a sort of non-functioning Visiting Committee program—but that whole evolution to a structured Visiting Committee program was my responsibility, to establish the structure and guidelines and then get it rolling. I mentioned one time that for me personally, that was one of the most insightful jobs I ever had, because I sat through all the visiting committee meeting. It was the first time in all the years I had worked in the President's Office that I really had an opportunity to get a good insight into what the divisions were doing academically, scientifically. Sitting in the President's Office, you can get isolated, and it was fun to be exposed to that.
ZIERLER: What were some of the big takeaways?
WEBSTER: Part of what I was hearing was the strength of Caltech's faculty and students and their interest in and excitement about their individual areas of research. They aren't thinking about Institute-wide policies, which is where most of my experience was centered. So, you get a clear picture of what each of the divisions is doing, what they're thinking about for the future, in addition to getting a sense of programs where they feel like they're not doing as well as they would like and realizing how open they are to outside advice. By design the visiting committee meetings were also an opportunity to focus on DEI issues and the quality of the education our students are receiving.
The questions that are posed for the faculty and the division chairs by the Visiting Committee are not always simple; they're challenging. "Are you happy with the way things are?" Some people are happy with the status quo. Having just made the move to Cincinnati from Pasadena, change does not come automatically to me, and I don't think change comes automatically or comfortably for a lot of people, particularly faculty members who are focused on their research and their students, and they develop a narrowly focused vision. An effort to expand their vision to what's good for the Institute, rather than what's good for their own research group, and encouraging them to focus on broader institutional is healthy, both for them and for Caltech. But, that doesn't happen comfortably, and it doesn't happen automatically.
ZIERLER: With this visibility, the way that you saw how the divisions operated, how they interacted with each other, I wonder if you ever got a sense of—that quip something along the lines of, "All the divisions are equal, but some are more equal than others," I wonder if you ever got a sense of that dynamic at Caltech.
WEBSTER: Of course, and every division thinks that they are the most important one. For a long time, and this probably comes out of the Millikan history, PMA was thought to be the star, but with the passage of time, I believe that things have balanced out. I would guess that HSS received the least attention, but that has also changed. Faculty in other divisions are starting to recognize the quality of the research that goes on in HSS and the importance of thinking processes that come out of the students' humanities studies. I think social sciences are easier for other research-focused faculty and other divisions to understand; the understanding of the importance of the humanities is not. This goes back to the Educational Principles document we discussed a couple of weeks ago, which laid the foundation for the essence of Caltech. The importance of the humanities requirements is strongly emphasized in that document. However, I do think faculty in all the other divisions now recognize the importance of the students' training in the study of the humanities.
ZIERLER: Last question for today, and we'll leave it as a bit of a cliffhanger. When Jean-Lou announced, or at least privately to you, was it purely a shock? Were there any inclinations whatsoever, or was it really entirely out of left field?
WEBSTER: I was aware that he was being recruited; I wasn't aware he was being recruited by KAUST. In essence, it came out of the blue.
ZIERLER: That's great. Mary, just to clarify, whatever Jean-Lou was thinking himself, the feeling around campus was that he was an extraordinarily successful president. People were thrilled with what he was doing. That's part of what made this so difficult and shocking.
WEBSTER: That's right. He was well-liked and he provided extraordinary leadership through very challenging times—not only at Caltech, but nationwide. Yes, it was the most unanticipated presidential transition that I was involved with. He had just negotiated the contract for his second term with the Board of Trustees, so the trustees were shocked. Everybody. It essentially came out of the blue.
ZIERLER: On that note, we'll pick up next time. We'll see how Caltech reacted to this shocking news. We'll go from there.
[End of Recording]
ZIERLER: This is David Zierler, Director of the Caltech Heritage Project. It is Wednesday, August 17th, 2022. It is great to be back with Mary Webster. Mary, lovely to see you as always. Thank you so much.
WEBSTER: Likewise, and today we can see each other, so that's great!
ZIERLER: Before we jump back into the narrative of Jean-Lou Chameau's announcement that he would be stepping down as Caltech president, let's go back and clarify the historical sequence. Last time, there was a bit of confusion on both of our parts on who appointed whom in the David Baltimore and Steve Koonin period. Let's go back to that period. I know you've done your homework; let's clarify.
WEBSTER: When David became president, Steve Koonin was already provost. He had been appointed provost by Tom Everhart, if my memory is right, about two years before Tom retired. So, Steve was already in place for two years before David came to Caltech.
ZIERLER: David essentially inherited Koonin as provost?
WEBSTER: That's correct. Going back and refreshing my memory, that pattern is more typical, that a provost is in place when a new president comes. It would be difficult for a president to come in without a provost or to be in the position of having to appoint a new provost when they first arrived. That's a situation the Institute, so far, has not encountered.
ZIERLER: Did you have a view on the transition from Steve Koonin to his successor?
WEBSTER: Steve Koonin left Caltech somewhat abruptly when he accepted his new position at British Petroleum. He was replaced by Paul Jennings, who had previously served as provost during Tom Everhart's presidency. Paul came out of retirement to serve as provost again. 2004 was an interesting year: in that year, Caltech actually had three provosts: Steve Koonin who left for BP; Ed Stolper who stepped in as interim provost and continued as chair of GPS; and then later in that year Paul Jennings was appointed to his second tour-of-duty as provost.
ZIERLER: Do you have any sense of David's decision in picking Ed Stolper to serve as interim provost, and was there any discussion about it not being an interim appointment at that point?
WEBSTER: I don't know. I know you've talked with Ed, but I don't know for sure if it was discussed with Ed or not. I believe the process entailed David consulting with the six division chairs, which led to the decision to appoint Ed as interim provost. I believe at that time; Ed was the senior serving division chair. With Ed in place as the interim provost, David then instituted a more traditional search for a new provost. That search led to the recommendation that Paul Jennings be appointed, and David was very persuasive in convincing Paul to come out of retirement to serve as provost again.
ZIERLER: Was this simply reputational? Had he known that Paul had served ably in this job before and that is what he needed?
WEBSTER: Oh, everybody on campus knows Paul Jennings, and everybody on campus knows he was an extraordinary provost, he was an extraordinary division chair. Yes, he was well-known on campus, certainly to David and to everybody in leadership on campus.
ZIERLER: I assume Paul agreed to take this on a temporary basis, with an end line in sight.
WEBSTER: Yes. At that point I believe that David was already thinking about stepping down from the presidency, and this was just two years before David stepped down. I wasn't party to the conversations between the two of them, but I believe Paul went into this with the knowledge that there was a presidential transition coming up, and he would stay in place through that. Now we're getting to Jean-Lou Chameau. Paul and Jean-Lou had conversations, and Jean-Lou received a commitment from Paul that he would stay through the start-up phase of Jean-Lou's presidency. Paul was there as a stabilizing influence as the Institute transitioned from the Baltimore presidency to that of Jean-Lou Chameau.
ZIERLER: Was it understood that after a certain amount of time in Jean-Lou's presidency, that Ed Stolper would return to the role of provost in a permanent way?
WEBSTER: I don't believe there was an agreement that the new provost would be Ed Stolper, although he would have been an obvious candidate. When a provost steps down, there's a very thorough search, conducted by a faculty search committee appointed by and reporting to the president. The search committee brings forward recommendations to the president. I don't believe that Jean-Lou had any pre-conceived notion that he would appoint Ed as provost. He would have made his decision based on the recommendation he received from the search committee.
ZIERLER: Now, we can fast-forward once again to where we left off last time. The last thing that we discussed was, as you called it, really the shocking nature of Jean-Lou's appointment, even if you had a sense just privately that this was in the pipe to some degree. I want to ask, once that announcement became official, before we get to the institutional response, what did that mean for you personally? How did your day change on that day?
WEBSTER: You're talking about Jean-Lou's departure from Caltech?
ZIERLER: His announcement of his intention to step down, that day or that moment.
WEBSTER: To me, it was very unanticipated. I wasn't prepared for it. Before there was any public announcement about his decision, Jean-Lou came and talked to me and told me about his decision and where he was going to be going. I was not expecting it, since he had just signed his employment contract at Caltech for his second five-year term.
ZIERLER: How did he make the announcement? What was the sequencing? Was it the Board of Trustees first? Was it a general announcement to faculty? How did that play out?
WEBSTER: No, a president always, if he has any wisdom about him, always notifies the Board of Trustees before he makes a more public announcement. That happened in his case. He notified David Lee, the relatively new board chair, who asked me to set up a conference-call meeting of the board's Executive Committee to start the formal notification and decision-making processes. After Jean-Lou notified the Executive Committee of his decision, he left the meeting and the trustee leadership discussed and agreed upon the next steps to be taken.
ZIERLER: Who makes up the Executive Committee?
WEBSTER: It's essentially the Board leadership. The membership includes the Board chair and vice chairs, the chairs of the standing committees of the Board, and separately elected ad hoc members of the committee who are nominated by the Board chair. At David Lee's request, Jean-Lou notified that group first of his decision. After Jean-Lou left the meeting, the members of the Executive Committee discussed the implications of his decision for the Institute and made several critical decisions: (1) to call a special meeting of the full Board of Trustees to obtain formal approval for the interim leadership arrangements for the Institute, (2) to approach Ed Stolper about serving as interim president after Jean-Lou's departure until a new president was identified, elected and in office, (3) and to empower the Board chair to initiate the presidential search process.
ZIERLER: As I'm sure you can appreciate, there's a range of positions on something like reacting to this decision. One is, it's a free world; people can pursue their career as they see fit. The other is, there was a term, there was an agreement, there was an expectation. What was your sense generally of how people felt about Jean-Lou's decision?
WEBSTER: Going back to the Board, they were generally taken aback that Jean-Lou made this decision so quickly after renewing his presidential appointment for a second term, which led to a certain degree of unhappiness. But the Trustees are realists and they recognized that Jean-Lou's decision was made, and I believe at that point in time he had already signed the papers and agreed to go to KAUST. There was never any initiative to try to persuade him to change his mind. When somebody makes a decision such as that, particularly as a university president, arguing with him or trying to convince him to change his mind or telling him he can't do what he has already done, doesn't do the institution any good.
ZIERLER: Then you have an unhappy president serving right there. That doesn't help anyone.
WEBSTER: That's correct. At that point, everyone's focus was on moving forward and doing what's best for Caltech.
ZIERLER: We talked about this last time. Jean-Lou's tremendous achievement in navigating Caltech through the 2008 crisis, coming out in some ways even stronger than ever, do you think in some sense as difficult as it was to lose him, was he leaving Caltech in a very strong position which made the decision, the announcement, somewhat easier than it otherwise might have been?
WEBSTER: I don't think I would phrase it that it made the decision easier, but he did leave Caltech in a good place, particularly in light of the astute leadership he provided while navigating the 2008/2009 financial crisis. During his tenure at Caltech, he was supported by faculty leadership, the division chairs, and the vice presidents in everything that he did, so it's a collegial effort, but he had an extraordinary capability in leading collegial efforts. He was a leader, and he was the one who made the final decisions. Yes, in those respects Caltech was in a good position to move forward, before peer universities were. Jean-Lou also had an inherent communication ability and made sure that the students and the staff were fully informed about the reasons those very difficult decisions had to be made.
ZIERLER: What was the timing between the announcement and when he left? How long did Caltech have to figure out who to replace him and on what basis?
WEBSTER: He left I believe on either June 30th or July 1st.
ZIERLER: This would have been 2013?
WEBSTER: That's correct. The announcements were made in the February/March timeframe of 2013. For university timescales, that is very short.
ZIERLER: Did you have a view into the decisions about whether to have no president, whether to have an interim president, whether to fast-track a permanent successor? What were some of the conversations around those topics?
WEBSTER: Number one, Caltech would never fast-track a presidential search. If there is not an obvious candidate, you just keep going until you find the right person. However, a university also cannot function without a president, so one of the earliest decisions was to appoint as interim president to ensure the Institute's stability during the transition. From the Board's perspective, there was really only one choice: Ed Stolper and that decision was made rather quickly. Ed at that point was well-known to the Board of Trustees, and because of his service a provost, he was also well known (and trusted) on campus. He was a very logical and, in my mind, an excellent choice. Asking the provost to serve as interim president is the typical pattern at Caltech, and in this case, Ed was in the right place at the right time.
I don't believe there was anybody else who could have done what he did. Remember, at that point Caltech was actively engaged in campaign planning. As provost, Ed had nurtured relationships with members of the Board and with many of the Institute's chief philanthropists, which made him well positioned to seamlessly continue the planning work that laid the foundation for the recently completed, highly successful capital campaign. It was a difficult time for the Institute, and we were lucky to have him.
ZIERLER: I'll ask the obvious question. For all the reasons you stated, were there discussion about Ed not being interim president but simply president?
WEBSTER: There may have been, but not at the Board of Trustees level where I have some insight. If such a conversation took place, it would have been a discussion that occurred among the members of the faculty presidential search committee and the trustee presidential selection committee. It would surprise me if they didn't have that conversation, but it would break the Caltech tradition that presidents are outside appointments and provosts are internal appointments. That tradition may be broken at some point in the future, but to date, I believe that it has served Caltech very well.
ZIERLER: What does that say about Caltech, that it has those traditions and maintains them?
WEBSTER: I think it's the essence of what Caltech is. They've thought through the implications of having an internal candidate serve as president or an external candidate serve as provost, and so far, the existing process has served the Institute well. If a Caltech person were to be appointed to the presidency, assuming he or she would be a faculty member, the major question would be if they could set aside their divisional/research field loyalties. Of course, provosts go through this all the time—i.e., being viewed and accepted as someone who fairly represents the entire Caltech without showing favoritism to their home division. Of course, it's not healthy for an institution to continue blindly following traditional patterns because they've always been done that way; the institution needs to assure itself that the traditional pattern for the appointment of presidents and provosts remains valid. In other words, the process should be discussed as part of the appointment process for each position.
ZIERLER: How much interaction did you have with Ed simply when he was provost?
WEBSTER: He and I have known each other for a long time. We had a lot of interaction. We developed a strong relationship. I admire him, and I believe that's mutual. That doesn't mean, because of probably both of our personalities, there weren't bumps in the road along the way, but we stuck with it, and developed what I sense was an effective and collaborative working and personal relationship. I had a lot of interaction with him when he was provost, certainly even more when he became interim president. He came to me for advice on interactions with the trustees and other matters, and I did the same thing with him that I do with all presidents—doing what I could to make him an effective president.
ZIERLER: Maybe it's a minor question, but simply the phrase "interim president" what was the decision-making on that? Temporary president, president on hold; why interim?
WEBSTER: Interim is just the term that has been used at Caltech. There have been other interim presidents. Bob Christy was another one who served for a long time (close to two years) between the presidencies of Harold Brown and Murph Goldberger. He was also another one who continued serving as provost while fulfilling Caltech's presidential duties.
ZIERLER: It's such a unique role that Ed had at this period in Caltech's history: provost and interim president. Is your sense that he very well blended both, or was he primarily provost who had interim president responsibilities, or was he primarily interim president who also had provostial responsibilities?
WEBSTER: I would say he did both. He had kind of a split personality. He had great insight into when he should be performing which role. I think that's kind of the magic of who Ed Stolper is, that he was able to manage that complex process as seamlessly as he did. I wasn't on campus when Bob Christy was filling both roles, but from what I've heard, I don't think he was quite as adept at separating the two roles. I really don't know how they do it, but Ed managed to do it, and act presidential when he needed to be presidential, and provostial when he needed to be provostial. During the interim presidency, the six division chairs really kicked in and were very supportive of him as well.
ZIERLER: Of course, it's two full-time jobs rolled into one. There are only so many hours in the day. You mentioned of course Ed did do it, but how? How did he do it?
WEBSTER: I really don't know. Ed is an excellent delegator, and he relied on people like me, the other staff in the Office of the President, Stacey Scoville, the office manager on the provost's side of the hall and the vice presidents to make sure the wheels, or if you want to call it the bureaucracy, kept functioning while he was having to do this split service role.
ZIERLER: Was the search for the next president launched right at the beginning of Ed's interim president appointment? Did that happen right away?
WEBSTER: The presidential search process started immediately following the announcement of Jean-Lou's impending departure--prior to Ed's officially assuming the role of interim president on July 1. As we discussed last time, the Executive Committee of the Board of Trustees immediately initiated the transition and search process at the meeting when Jean-Lou formally notified them of his decision to accept the presidency at KAUST (February 2013). The plans were fully formulated by the time Board Chair David Lee made his presentation to the full Board of Trustees several weeks later. By that time, David Lee had consulted with the Chair of Caltech's faculty board and authorized the creation of the faculty presidential search committee, which Fiona Harrison chaired. Concurrently, he developed the membership of the trustee presidential selection committee and had obtained agreement from Ed Stolper to serve as interim president. The full Board approved all those actions at its meeting, and the search process was initiated. So, yes, the search started right away.
ZIERLER: Just an institutional question: who determines who serves on the faculty search committee for the president?
WEBSTER: Historically, it is the role of the chair of the faculty, and I believe the faculty chair consults with the division chairs. The faculty presidential search committee has a representative on it from each division.
ZIERLER: As you wisely noted earlier, Caltech never should fast-track an appointment of this magnitude. What was your sense of how long it took, identifying the right candidate? Was it a normal amount of time? Was it happily sooner than it otherwise could have been?
WEBSTER: I would say it was fairly typical. In the initial phases of any presidential search, and probably any high-level search in any organization, the slogging hard work occurs right at the beginning: appointing the committees, establishing effective communication channels between the faculty and trustee committees, creating a job description, developing the list of characteristics the committees envision for the successful candidate, and consulting with the various Caltech constituencies to obtain feedback and advice. The faculty committee typically meets with the faculty in each of the divisions, JPL leadership, students (both undergraduates and graduates), postdocs, staff, and alumni to seek counsel and to request nominations.
ZIERLER: As you mentioned earlier, once the process is up and running, you step back. You don't have a view into the decision-making process.
WEBSTER: That's correct. I don't know whether that has been typical with previous Board secretaries, but that was my personal decision with each of the presidential searches that occurred during my tenure in the Office of the President. At that point in the search that led to Tom Rosenbaum's appointment, I continued to serve as the Executive Assistant to the President, and I assumed I would be working with whoever came to Caltech as its next president, so I intentionally absented myself from the search process after it was set up and simply responded to any inquiries I received—mostly from the Board Chair or other trustees on the selection committee.
ZIERLER: Was your sense that Ed's arrangement was he would serve in this role until the successor would be named?
WEBSTER: Yes. Ed agreed to do that, and to continue as provost when the new president arrived.
ZIERLER: He liked remaining provost? That was attractive to him? That was his long-term interest?
WEBSTER: I believe so. Ed could probably give you a better answer to those questions than I can.
ZIERLER: What was your sense of when the search committee was getting towards choosing final candidates and ultimately naming its decision?
WEBSTER: To me, it felt like a very normal process. I get drawn back into the process when the committees have reached their final decision and they are ready to move forward with the formal nomination to and election by the full Board of Trustees.
ZIERLER: As you indicated earlier, you don't know exactly who the president is going to be until it is announced, but did you have a sense of the kinds of qualities Caltech was looking for in its next president at that juncture?
WEBSTER: At that juncture, the answer is no. The two committees come up with the list of characteristics and the key factors. Again, we were engaged in the initial phases of a campaign, so I'm sure one of the things they were looking at was fundraising capability and a good history or record of fundraising success. The new president was going to assume leadership of the campaign, which Tom did a great job at.
ZIERLER: What were your recollections when the announcement was made that it would be Tom Rosenbaum as next president?
WEBSTER: It's going to start sounding a bit repetitive, but it was a "normal" process for me. David Lee contacted me and gave me Tom's contact information, and we started communicating with one another at that point.
ZIERLER: Do you have recollections of some of the discussions about the new position that would be created for Diane Jergovic coming on board as well?
WEBSTER: The answer is yes. That was a discussion that was initiated with the Executive Compensation Committee of the Board of Trustees and moved forward to the Executive Committee of the Board. Because the Bylaws govern the number and duties of each vice president, the creation of a new vice presidency necessitated an amendment of the bylaws before Diana could be appointed as Vice President for Strategy Implementation. The trustees diligently fulfilled all their fiduciary responsibilities, supported by Ed and the Institute's general counsel, so that Tom's request was handled the way it should be, very professionally and with all the governance requirements and processes handled in good order.
ZIERLER: Of course, with all talented professionals like Diana, it's unthinkable to imagine all of the work that she now does, all of the things that happen as a result of her position, her leadership, but obviously there wasn't anyone in that role before her who did all of the things that now fall under Diana's group and her specific responsibilities. How did that work?
WEBSTER: Some of the functions (e.g., external relations, strategic communications) were facing natural leadership changes and needed new leadership. Some of the functions were spread between several divergent organizational units and needed to be consolidated. Then, there functions that fall under Diana's umbrella that Caltech simply wasn't doing and should have been. In essence, it was a timely (and perhaps overdue) appointment.
ZIERLER: Diana has such strong and warm relations with so many trustees, members of the Board. Was there anybody, even in an unofficial capacity, who had that in their portfolio, that high up in the administration?
WEBSTER: Aside from my own personal relationships with the Board, the answer to your question is "no" as it relates to the Board as a whole. Each one of the vice presidents naturally developed those kinds of relationships with the trustees that are on the standing committee that oversees their administrative function. And of course, Dexter (and his predecessors) developed close relationships with individual trustees from the philanthropic point of view.
ZIERLER: An even more intangible question: all of the fires that Diana puts out behind the scenes—things run so smoothly because she's orchestrating, she's strategizing, she's just making things more efficient, more timely, more everything. Who was doing that at a very unofficial level at Caltech prior to Diana?
WEBSTER: Part of it, depending on where the fire arose, would have been under the purview of a vice president. Some of it, I might have found out about. A lot of it fell to the president. It was a wise decision by Tom to gather all of that into one position.
ZIERLER: Do you have a view of the phrasing of the title "Strategy Implementation"?
WEBSTER: No. I thought it was kind of unusual—well, it was unusual—when she started. But it's a good definition. Going back to the creation of the position, it was very difficult for the Executive Compensation Committee of the Board to find comparable positions to set a salary for her, which is one of their normal functions, because there weren't any other vice presidents of strategy implementation in the higher education environment in 2014. But now as you look around higher education—this is probably a sign of the wisdom of Tom's foresight—they are becoming more and more common.
ZIERLER: Tell me about the early days of Tom Rosenbaum's presidency—the things he was talking about, the ideas and the imperatives that were most important for him.
WEBSTER: He is a very strategic thinker. Because there was a longer interim between his appointment and his physical arrival in Pasadena, by the time that he took up his presidential duties, Tom had thought very deeply about Caltech. He was aware about where the Institute was regarding this really major capital campaign. His initial announcements, pronouncements were all very well-structured in terms of what Caltech needed long-term, essentially structured within the confines of the campaign. I assume you know him well enough now; he's a great communicator. He loves language. One of the joys of my relationship with him was to have a president who enjoyed language. He's the only person in the higher echelons of the Institute who read my Board minutes and gave me feedback.
ZIERLER: [laughs] Caltech has a strong relationship going all the way back to its founding with the University of Chicago. Tom coming from the University of Chicago, did you sense that there were historical parallels in terms of him coming from Chicago and bringing new ideas to Caltech?
WEBSTER: I don't think so. There has definitely been an interwoven history between the University of Chicago and Caltech—that would actually be a good topic for a book at some point. Robert Millikan and George Beadle are obvious examples, along with several long-term key faculty members. There is an obvious intellectual and scientific interchange between the two institutions, but no formal agreement. They're similar institutions, similar excellent institutions, so a natural ebb and flow has developed between the two of them.
ZIERLER: Under the circumstances in which Jean-Lou left in the middle of his second term, did the contractual or negotiation process with the next president change at all as a result, perhaps in ways to protect the Institute from that happening again, if such a thing is possible?
WEBSTER: I don't think there is any way to protect the Institute against it in the future, and the drafting process was very similar to those with past presidents. Tom is a very detail-oriented person, and his presidential contract reflects his thoughtful and formal approach to such matters. Tom rightly and wisely had his attorney look at it, and Caltech's General Counsel was fully engaged in the drafting process. Although there are obvious changes from previous presidential contracts, Tom's is not greatly different than the one executed between Jean-Lou and the Institute.
ZIERLER: Something we talked about with David Baltimore—that is, an incoming president with an active research agenda—what discussions were there about how much Tom wanted to remain active in physics and how to balance that with all the responsibilities as president?
WEBSTER: It was clear that he would transfer his lab and his science work to Caltech. The negotiations on where his laboratory would be, the size of his laboratory, and the construction of the special facility that he needed for his scientific work, all took place through the PMA Division, and that's appropriate. It was the same thing with David; all those negotiations for his laboratory happened with the Division of Biology (at that time, it wasn't BBE yet). In each case, when there has been a president with an active research program, the research program setup is handled appropriately through the division. In recognition that the president is not going to be a full-time faculty member, both David and Tom received a stipend from the Institute to support their research activities, because they don't have time to write research grants.
ZIERLER: Tom coming in with an active research agenda and being a faculty member, was that relevant in the decision to have him get a named chair from the Davidows?
WEBSTER: No. One of the goals of the campaign was to endow each of the Institute's key leadership positions. Caltech had never done that before. The president, the provost, and all six of the division chairs are now named and endowed. That was actually part of the plan for those leadership positions that emerged out of the campaign.
ZIERLER: Is that to say previous presidents did not hold named faculty positions?
WEBSTER: That is correct.
ZIERLER: What do you think the value of this transition is? What does it tell about the Institute and what's important?
WEBSTER: I should correct something. These are leadership chairs, so when Tom steps down as president, he won't take the Davidow Chair with him; that stays with the presidency.
ZIERLER: I see, I see.
WEBSTER: Ed Stolper gave up the Larson Provostial Chair when he stepped down as provost and Dave Tirrell now holds that chair. Those are endowed positions for the leadership positions. I believe David Baltimore did have a faculty named position associated with his work in biology that he carried with him when he retired. Unless something has changed since I left, Tom does not have a named faculty chair, but he does have the presidential leadership chair.
ZIERLER: We talked about the strong financial shape that Jean-Lou left in. With that in mind, what were the financial challenges that Tom inherited? What were the things that were important for him to start at the beginning?
WEBSTER: One of the challenges he faced was addressing the rather sudden departure of Jean-Lou. He needed to be a solid, assuring presence, both on campus and with the Board. In essence, however, the Institute once again was not broken. Another challenge was picking up the reins, getting started and actively engaged in campaign planning and leadership. And as with every new president, getting to know faculty, students, staff, alumni and Trustees and becoming an integral part of the Caltech community. When you come in as an outsider into a small community, you need to get acquainted, and so that's part of the initial year. The president spends time meeting with the individual faculties. In Tom's case, he not only got acquainted with the faculties but started communicating the goals and having the faculties communicate back their desires for the campaign. There were also pressures starting to appear, especially among the business-related trustees, for Caltech to seriously address the structural deficit in its operating budget.
ZIERLER: It has been a running theme in our conversations how your day-to-day changed according to the president you were working with. On that basis, how did it change? What was your working relationship with Tom like?
WEBSTER: Once again, I had a very close working relationship with him. We had an open communication arrangement, based on trust and confidentiality. We worked very closely together, and we had a very warm and collegial relationship, and I really appreciated it.
ZIERLER: We have also talked about the different relationships and the divisions of labor between presidents and provosts. What was your sense of how that played out between Tom and Ed?
WEBSTER: Tom and Ed had a great personal relationship, and they were a very effective team. Tom admired Ed Stolper, and even after Ed stepped down as provost, Tom kept him on in a special counselor role, so he could still take advantage of Ed's relationships and his knowledge of the Institute.
ZIERLER: When Charles Elachi stepped down as director of JPL—he was such a charismatic, almost larger-than-life figure. Did you have a view on the decision-making process on who to succeed him?
WEBSTER: Once again, it was trustee-led search. They had a difficult job, replacing Charles Elachi. It probably goes back to a very similar situation when Bill Pickering stepped down in 1976. These long-tenured great leaders leave big holes behind, and it's not easy to replace them. That was a long search. I wasn't involved in that search, so I don't know how they were led eventually to Mike Watkins. Mike had a long-term relationship with JPL before he went to Texas, so he was a known entity at the lab when he was brought in as JPL director.
ZIERLER: A topic that I know is very important to Tom Rosenbaum and very important to higher education is increasing diversity and inclusivity on campus. Do you have a specific memory of when that started in earnest as not just a dialogue but formalizing this in processes and policies on campus?
WEBSTER: It has become a great deal more formalized as a process under Tom's leadership, and that's a good thing. We spoke in some of our earlier conversations about how DEI is a maturing process at Caltech. In my mind the initial conversations about, and resulting actions, related to diversity and equity occurred when Tom Everhart was president, and each president since addressed these issues on a more or less ad hoc basis. As in our society at large, these are long-standing issues at Caltech and, more broadly, in academia. The renewed focus on these issues by Tom Rosenbaum places an appropriate focus on the need for Caltech to be a world leader in this arena, just as it is in the world of scientific research and education. It is a natural part of the maturing of the process and recognizes that this is an important piece of who Caltech is.
ZIERLER: We talked about how Tom had inherited a strong financial situation. What about on the academic side? What were some of the issues facing Caltech on everything from divisions to new buildings, things that professors were interested in? What are your recollections of the things that raised to Tom's level that he needed to deal with or that were important for him to deal with?
WEBSTER: A lot of this emerged from the strategic planning for the campaign. The key elements of that planning process, in Tom's case, emerged from his initial meetings with each of the divisional faculties, where he learned from the faculty where they saw their fields of research going and where were the blank spots. Questions arose about whether there were areas where Caltech needed to make difficult decisions about work not to continue or the more exciting deliberations about new fields to pursue. At Caltech, those kinds of discussions always emerge from the faculty.
ZIERLER: We talked about the mega-gift from the Moores. What were some of the key relationships that Tom built with benefactors during his administration?
WEBSTER: The key ones you can tell from the results of the campaign: e.g., Gordon and Betty Moore, the Resnicks, Richard Merkin, the Brens, the Chens. Those benefactors are looking for an intimate relationship with the president, the leader of the organization, so that they know that their philanthropy and their gifts are being managed well. The Brens, both Brigitte and Donald, are a key example of where Ed Stolper was a jewel. He had developed a personal relationship with them and nurtured their philanthropy along. All you have to do is look around the campaign gifts and you know where Tom did good work-- probably still is.
ZIERLER: Definitely. What were your recollections of—and I'm not sure of the timing on this in terms of when you decided to retire—but the renaming issue. When did that first come on your radar?
WEBSTER: The renaming of—?
ZIERLER: Of the campus assets that were associated with the eugenics movement, taking down Millikan's name.
WEBSTER: Oh, that all happened after I left, so I wasn't involved in those discussions. I was aware of Robert Millikan's history because there are elements of it that are recorded in the Board minutes, which I had indexed from 1891 to the time I retired. No, I was not involved with that at all. That all emerged after I retired.
ZIERLER: It's a unique thing that you were aware of some of these problematic comments that Millikan had made. There's a range of responses—emotional, intellectual, historical—about what to do when you find this kind of information, from "this was a different era" to "it's totally unacceptable." When you came across these things, what were your reactions?
WEBSTER: The pieces that are recorded in the Board meetings don't mention eugenics at all. What was the name of the—? The Human Betterment Foundation or something?
ZIERLER: Foundation, yes.
WEBSTER: There was no indication of what that entity was. What was recorded in the Board minutes was Dr. Millikan's desire to have Caltech establish a relationship with this group, which never came to fruition, by the way. There was no indication in the Board minutes, so I was not aware of the eugenics factor. It all kind of fell into place after I heard about the renaming discussions.
ZIERLER: Just a personal question, from you looking in retirement from the sidelines, what was your perspective both in the way this issue came about and how Caltech responded to it institutionally?
WEBSTER: I must say it's a difficult decision, particularly in Millikan's case, because he was the big hero of Caltech and a founder, so it must have been very difficult. I must say I was torn until I found out that Ben Rosen chaired the committee. I trust Ben. If that's what in good conscience they felt was the right recommendation to make, I felt that it was good for Caltech.
ZIERLER: Obviously we know why you trusted people like Ben, but looking back, what makes sense, now that it's a done deal? Why has it been a good decision for Caltech?
WEBSTER: It's Caltech coming to terms with its past and moving forward, and in a lot of cases, not denying what happened in the past, or covering up what happened in the past, but learning from what happened in the past. (Caltech is an educational institution, after all.) The world is culturally and sociologically in a different place than it was in the 1930s, but an institution such as Caltech needs to recognize that fact and make informed decisions. As far as I can tell, the committee investigated this in detail and thought about the aspects of what to do with people like the Chandlers and Dr. Millikan, who have historically been key elements of the Institute's life?
ZIERLER: As you probably know, it's a divisive issue. There's many faculty, mostly senior faculty, who were upset about the decision. What would be your response in terms of how they might be able to move past this?
WEBSTER: I'm not sure they will or want to.
ZIERLER: If I could refine the question, the charge of erasing history, that what we're doing is erasing history or it's the so-called cancel culture, what might be a response in which we can recognize Millikan's legacy in a way that acknowledges more fulsomely both his scientific and institutional contributions as well as this aspect of his world view or belief system?
WEBSTER: As I said, I was retired and not active. In fact, when all this was going on, we were trying to sell our house in Pasadena, so my interest was focused someplace else. My understanding of it and my reading of the report—and I read the long report at the recommendation of one of the trustees—is that Caltech didn't erase the scientific history of what Dr. Millikan did in his laboratory, and Caltech acknowledged that the views that he promulgated were outdated by the time he was making them. They were not generally accepted statements of society at the time when he was making them. But based on my observations of faculty life over the past 50+ years, you will not be able to change the minds of the senior faculty who are coming to issues from a completely different perspective of sociological norms.
ZIERLER: You talked about Tom's eloquence, his love of language. In many of his public speeches, as I'm sure you know, there are common themes that come up about Caltech's fearlessness and its ability to do research with a minimum of administrative walls. I wonder if you had a view of how he operationalized those ideals, the kinds of things he put in place to encourage both fearlessness and multidisciplinary, collaborative research across the Institute.
WEBSTER: Yes. Again, a lot of this would emerge through the work of the IACC—the division chairs, the president, and the provost. I keep going back to them, but they really are a key element to what Caltech is and how Caltech does its work. Going back to the Davidow chair, as an example, the president is able to direct the funds that he receives as a result of that gift to seed projects, to get some of these new initiatives going until they can survive on their own. But the president has to be persuasive. If the division chairs and the provost aren't on board, nothing is going to go anywhere.
ZIERLER: I'll ask a general question, but I'm thinking specifically when Donald Trump became president and how upset for so many reasons people were around the country, on campus, about that. What was your sense of when presidents feel moved to make statements that are really outside of their boundaries as academic presidents, but they feel, as a leader of a community, compelled to speak out?
WEBSTER: It depends on the issue. Presidents, universities, and historically the Caltech president walk a fine line. University presidents must be really careful about not appearing to have a political preference or stand, but they also need to stand up for what's right for their institution, what's right for the broader society. Tom has been very careful in his language to make his statements in a way where it's not because I'm a Democrat or a Republican but because the issue on which he is making a statement is important for society at large, for the institution he represents, for the university world more broadly. It's a place where his language is important, and I know he's very careful with those kinds of statements.
ZIERLER: As we said in, I think our first talk, you had made the determination that you would retire before the next presidential search. When did you start to think about retiring? What was that process like for you?
WEBSTER: The first time I talked to a president about retiring was David Baltimore.
WEBSTER: Then I had a strategic plan all in place with Jean-Lou, and he surprised us all by leaving and going to Saudi Arabia, so I couldn't go through with that plan. When Tom came, I made a commitment to him that I would stay through his first term, his first five years, and then start transitioning out. I worked three days a week for a while, and I gave up the title executive assistant to the president and just served as Board secretary for the last couple of years. Tom knew coming in I wasn't going to make it through his whole ten years.
ZIERLER: This time, you were determined; it would be "third time's a charm."
WEBSTER: He always countered with this story—he kept telling me about this lady at the University of Chicago who worked in the President's Office. She kept getting older and older every time he talked with me, but she worked there for 70 years and was something like 100 years old. I said, "Save your breath. I'm not staying that long." So, we had long-term conversations. Then in December 2018, I talked with my family, and it was clear that us that the time had come. I was becoming increasingly exhausted mentally, physically, and every other way. So, in January 2019, I told both Tom and David Lee that I would be retiring in January of 2020. It turns out to have been a perfect time to retire.
WEBSTER: My official retirement date was about two weeks before anybody ever heard about COVID-19. At supper following my official retirement party at the end of January, I remember asking David Baltimore whether we should be concerned about COVID. Because of the timing of my retirement, the date of which was set a year earlier, I didn't have to deal with any of the Institute's pandemic decisions, and I'm grateful for that.
ZIERLER: Between the significance and the span of your career, were there events or conversations where you had the opportunity to speak publicly, reflecting on your service at Caltech?
WEBSTER: There were two of them. One, I gave a talk at the Staff Service Award ceremony. The focus of those comments was how a person in my position really couldn't succeed and really couldn't do their jobs without the support of every level of staff, from the cooks and dishwashers in Dining Services up to the other vice presidents. The same is true for presidents and anyone in Parsons-Gates. We could not succeed in our work without the support that we get from the remarkable staff at Caltech. I also gave a talk at Diana's invitation to the DIR (the precursor of Advancement and Alumni Relations) staff before Dexter arrived, when Diana was acting vice president. At that point, I knew I was retiring. Those were the two times I have spoken publicly.
ZIERLER: Was the decision to retire and the decision to relocate away from Pasadena part and parcel? Was it sort of one big plan?
WEBSTER: No. In fact, the moving part was not part of the plan. For a couple years, probably starting in 2017, my husband and I spent a considerable amount of money and effort in fixing up our house in Pasadena to be our retirement bungalow. We were busily engaged in that work with the full intention of staying in Pasadena. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to us, and then for about a year, our son—we have one son—was being actively recruited to take a position at Syracuse University in Syracuse, New York. When he made the decision to leave the area, we had no family left in Pasadena or Southern California. There's a very nice community of the Webster clan here in Cincinnati, so that decision was made about a year after I had retired. I had fully intended to stay in Pasadena until circumstances changed. Family matters were the essence of our decision to relocate.
ZIERLER: With the pandemic, have you had the opportunity to stay in touch with people? Have you visited since?
WEBSTER: We have not been back to Pasadena since we moved here. We arrived here a year ago, and I'm still not real comfortable with the idea of getting on an airplane. We drove across country with our dog. I haven't been on an airplane in a very long time. We're hoping this winter to get back to Pasadena. We have lots of friends there, both Caltech friends, church friends, neighbors, that we'd love to see again. We didn't get to escape Cincinnati last winter, but we will plan on getting away from here sometime during this coming winter. In the meantime, our son has already been recruited away, and he's just in the process now of taking a new job in Boston. He's not much closer, but Boston somehow seems to be a more intriguing place to visit than Syracuse, New York.
ZIERLER: What about your old colleagues at Caltech? Have you stayed in touch to some degree?
WEBSTER: Yes. We have regular email communications, phone calls. I have close friends that I worked with for decades. Yes, I've stayed in touch with them. I've also stayed in touch with a small group of trustees who are close friends.
ZIERLER: Now that we've worked right up to the present, for the last part of our talk, it's such a great opportunity to ask some broad retrospective questions that will get a sense of all of your historical perspective around the theme of the uniqueness of Caltech, what makes it tick, what makes it happen sort of against all odds when you look at its size and its outsize influence in the world. Let's start first with the Board of Trustees. What is the magic inherent in the relationship between the Board, administration, and faculty that has allowed it to serve as such a positive force in supporting and promoting Caltech's mission?
WEBSTER: I think the essence of it is the care that is taken with the appointment of new trustees. We haven't been 100% successful but in general the effort to make sure that the people who come on the Board carry a deep commitment to Caltech and its success has reaped good rewards for Caltech. To me, that's the essence of a good governing board, and Caltech has one of the greatest, in higher education. We talked a couple of visits ago about the Visiting Committee structure that David Baltimore and Steve Koonin put in place, and that's one critical way in which trustees can learn one aspect of Caltech's work deeply—particularly if they don't have a previous association with Caltech. They get a deep-dive exposure to at least one of the divisions. Again, it goes to personal relationships. The leadership of the president, the president reaching out to members of the Board, consulting them, taking advantage of their expertise in whatever field. For example, Shirley Hufstedler for decades was an extraordinary resource to many presidents for confidential legal advice. There have been several trustees who have effective relationships in Washington DC. Those kinds of things are key to the success of the Institute.
ZIERLER: Caltech's tenacious decision to remain small, there can almost be an understanding that inertia and looking at Caltech would always suggest growth, and yet Caltech has decided to retain its smallness. How has it done that, and why has it done that?
WEBSTER: In this discussion, there's faculty studies that you can probably access from the past about the size of Caltech. These discussions emerge every decade or so. Obviously, there's growth somewhere, because the buildings have expanded, and we're filling in the geographic space between Del Mar, Wilson, Hill, and California. Caltech manages huge projects—e.g., LIGO, JPL. When you take these into consideration, the question arises about whether Caltech is really small. But in the core essence of Caltech—students and faculty—the Institute is very small. I was just listening this morning to the news here in Cincinnati. Xavier University, not one of the huge universities here, is welcoming their new students to campus today and tomorrow, and there are 1,100 new students. That's just the freshman class.
ZIERLER: That's bigger than the entire student body at Caltech.
WEBSTER: Exactly. And that's one of the smaller schools around here! The core essence of Caltech, the student body and the faculty, does remain small. There's some targeted growth in the size of the faculty, but not giant leaps.
ZIERLER: Because you've worked for so many presidents, what are some commonalities that, despite personalities, despite the times in which they led, despite the unique challenges that the Institute faced during their tenure, what are some commonalities in leadership that have served all of the Caltech presidents so well?
WEBSTER: Leadership skill is one of them, and devotion, commitment to Caltech and its mission, its goals. Striving for excellence. There's not one of them who didn't want Caltech to be the best in the world in everything it was doing. One of the challenges that Jean-Lou placed before the Institute was that its administrative functions should be of the same quality of excellence as the academic and research enterprises. That was a little bit of a new concept for us. It's just this commitment to this extraordinary institution of what Caltech is.
ZIERLER: I would never ask you to rank the presidents, but I wonder if you would even reject the idea that such a thing is possible, given how unique all of their circumstances are.
WEBSTER: You essentially said it. No, I wouldn't dare to rank them. Yes, every one of them was unique, brought a unique set of skills to Caltech. Some of them were better at certain aspects than others, but overall, because of the unique nature of each president and each individual—well, I certainly wouldn't dare to rank them!
ZIERLER: Do you have a sense if any or all of the Caltech presidents are students of history in terms of their predecessors, learning what previous Caltech presidents did, what worked and what didn't work?
WEBSTER: Some were more interested in that than others. Tom Everhart was extraordinary in that aspect of the historic continuity of presidents. Tom Rosenbaum is, to a certain extent, as well. Every one of them realized that they were a spot in history and continuing the legacy that was laid out before them.
ZIERLER: As you've emphasized, you've been proud to have a close working relationship with all of the presidents that you've served. If you'll indulge me, if you could not be so humble just for a second, what does that say about you, about your work style, that you were so successful in your interactions with such different people in such different circumstances?
WEBSTER: I'm not sure I know. That would probably be a good question for somebody else to answer than me. But I always wanted to do what was good for Caltech and to help Caltech. I always tell everybody that I'm not a scientist, I'm not an engineer, I don't have a scientific background whatsoever, so I can't help on that front. It's just not my strength. My goal was to help people do their jobs well, from the president, the trustees, the vice presidents, and whoever else I encountered in my daily walk at Caltech. I just help them do their job, give them the advice and the information that they need to perform their function and to do it well. My ultimate goal was to do what's right for Caltech.
ZIERLER: On that basis, providing advice, did you ever feel constrained in holding back when you saw a president about to make a mistake?
WEBSTER: No. This goes back to the open relationship I have had with all of them. I could tell them anything. As I said, we had a very open and frank relationship and discussions.
ZIERLER: It might be a long list to reflect on, but what stands out in your memory that you're most proud of, either in a project you oversaw or a problem that needed a unique solution? Things like that that might not be so apparent but that are really important to you as you reflect on your legacy.
WEBSTER: One of the things—and this is a promise I made to Ben Rosen when he was Board chair—that when I became Board secretary, there was no logical way to have access to any decisions that the Board of Trustees had made. There was no index of the Board records or the Board's actions that existed anywhere. So, I undertook this effort to index the Board of Trustees minutes from 1891 to 2019. I carried a lot of institutional records in my memory, and I tried to leave behind the tools that other people could access without my brain being there.
ZIERLER: This is the historian in me thinking, the archival treasures that you've created with these Board minutes, for historians decades into the future who might gain access to them, what are some of the breadcrumbs that you might leave to show them the really important stuff? Not just the day to day, but getting a sense of the most important things that happened at Caltech over the course of your tenure?
WEBSTER: The surprising thing is that for historians it's often small actions that lead to big, important decision. For example, Judy Goodstein, Caltech's archivist—I think twice removed—and I had a good relationship. She would call me from time to time to ask if I had any information on a decision or a person. For example, when she was writing an article about Olga Todd, she called to find out whether or when she had been appointed a faculty member. I could go back to the Board records and tell her what information was there. Just having access to that information is useful and helpful to other people.
ZIERLER: What were some of the things that stand out in your memory in terms of tensions that were resolved in the Board meetings?
WEBSTER: Our Board is really a collegial group. Board of Trustees meetings are not contentious. I don't know what has happened since 2020, but during my tenure, it would be unusual for there to be a heated discussion in a full Board meeting. If there were issues to be addressed or contentions that need to be addressed, typically that would happen in a committee setting and would be resolved before it came to the full Board. Historically, the idea of a split vote on a matter that came to the Board of Trustees for action was essentially unheard of. A lot of that is the historic leadership shown by the Board chair, the committee chairs, the Executive Committee, and the president, of course.
ZIERLER: For the last part of our talk, looking to the future, if you could use your powers of extrapolation, what are some of the strengths that Caltech can build on wherever the future may take it?
WEBSTER: The care that I know happens and I hope continues to happen in every one of those valuable faculty appointments. We've talked several times about my belief that real progress, the future of what Caltech does, bubbles up from the faculty through the division chairs to the president and provost and eventually to the Board of Trustees. In my mind the essence of Caltech is the care that it takes in identifying and recruiting faculty members. Now, with the key element overlaying it of diversity and equity, making sure that those valuable appointments reflect not only the level of excellence and creativity that is the engine behind Caltech, but that it also reflects the composition of the world around us.
Similarly on the student side, making sure that students are selected who will succeed in the Caltech environment. I assume Caltech is not going to abandon the idea of a core curriculum, which means it is going to remain a science and engineering focused education with a significant requirement for humanities, which is again somewhat unusual for the type of institution it is. Caltech has remained committed to the requirement for the humanities and social sciences, with the goal established in 1921 of ensuring that its students become good citizens and contributing members of society, not just talented and highly trained research scientists that are isolated in an ivory tower.
ZIERLER: To flip the question around, what might be some of the strategic or structural challenges that Caltech faces in its near-term future?
WEBSTER: Whether it can stay small is going to be a challenge. We've talked a couple times about Steve Koonin. I don't know if he's on your list of people to talk to. I know from several people that he is not sure that the Caltech model is a viable structure for the future. He has thought deeply about it, so you'd get the opposite perspective from him.
ZIERLER: Meaning that it needs to grow in order to thrive?
WEBSTER: Yes. There are people that think that. The big question is that if Caltech is going to continue to be a modern engine of science and engineering, can it stay small? Can it diversify and stay small?
ZIERLER: That would suggest, again to extrapolate, because Caltech has thrived so well staying small, what would change in the future that might reorient that balance?
WEBSTER: Exactly. The balance would be if it gets much larger on the faculty side, what happens to the interdisciplinary research? Can faculty members just as easily in a big place find a colleague across campus—if you're in Physics and find somebody in Biology—that you want to pursue this grand idea with? Could Mike Brown run into somebody that would help him find Planet Nine?
WEBSTER: A lot of that happens because they're close together, on the campus, but can we stay in that small campus? One time, Caltech bought St. Luke's Hospital in northeast Pasadena, but it was too far from campus for the faculty to consider setting up laboratories there, because the interaction, the interdisciplinary aspects would be lost. But an interesting challenge is, can Caltech stay small and still survive in this "big science" world that we live in? Science is getting bigger and bigger. Even a social scientist who used to sit in a room now is doing big research projects with all kinds of instrumentation, and the instrumentation is driving some of the growth, because you've got to have people that work the instruments, build the instruments, maintain the instruments, teach people like me how to use them. I do think that's the essence of Caltech, and it will be a challenge maintaining that capability.
ZIERLER: Finally, last question. I want to ask something of a thought experiment. It is one that will blend the timeless idea of the opportunities that you had that were relevant to the time and place, and the opportunities that would have come available simply because of the kind of institution Caltech is and always has been. If you were to imagine starting your career now in the same role that you did when you actually started, would you more or less have played out in a similar way, in terms of your responsibilities, all of the respect that you've garnered, all of the partnerships that you developed, or has Caltech changed where it's really not possible to think like that?
WEBSTER: I've thought about this from time to time, and I don't know. I started out as a clerk steno in the materiel acquisition section at JPL. I received phone calls—I never actually went out and applied for a job that would be the next level up or to the next position. I always got phone calls from someone saying, "Please come see me" or "Please come interview for this position." Frankly, I don't know whether JPL and the campus are structured anymore in a way that a person like me, sitting at a desk down in sort of the bowels of the organization of JPL, whether the head of Personnel at JPL would call me up on the phone and ask me to come for an interview for a position in the Director's Office. I don't know if that would happen anymore. From my perspective, it's a loss for the organization; but it's also a reflection of the modern way business is done. Job descriptions are now posted online, and if you're interested in another job or moving around at JPL or on campus, you review those and put in an application. It's all computerized. That human personal touch, I fear, is lost. To answer your question, I don't know. I really don't think that what happened to me could happen to anybody else in the organization now. I didn't go out to make friends with presidents of Caltech, but it just happened, because of where I was, and who I was, and who they were.
ZIERLER: It seems clear that you feel lucky to have started your career in the analog age before all these online announcements and things like that.
WEBSTER: I do. A key element of my movement around the organization was based on personal associations and had nothing to do with computerized functions. So, I don't know! I can't answer that question, but I've thought about it, and I've sadly concluded that if I were starting as a clerk steno—well, the clerk steno title doesn't even exist anymore; it was that far down in the organization—I just don't think it could happen.
ZIERLER: Although with your talents, maybe it could, just despite everything else. Who knows.
WEBSTER: It could.
ZIERLER: Mary, I want to thank you so much, first for allowing me to convince you to do this. This has been an extraordinary series of interviews. Obviously, your historical perspective is singular and unparalleled. This is such a total treasure for Caltech. Thank you so much.
WEBSTER: You're welcome.