David Gardner: Schooled in Mind and Spirit


When David Gardner can’t sleep at night, he doesn’t count sheep—he counts the campuses over which he presides as president of the University of California. All nine of them. And if that doesn’t work, he starts counting faculty members—6500. If he’s still awake, he counts the 100,000 employees, then the 145,000 students. And as a last resort, he starts counting each dollar of the $5 billion budget. That usually does the trick.

David Pierpont Gardner is an articulate, soft-spoken man who measures his words with the precision of a diamond cutter. He is also the first University of California president chosen from outside the university system since 1899. On this point, as on others, he is characteristically modest.

“I try to see what it was that caused the regents of the University of California to make that decision, inconsistent with their own custom. What, in their opinion, could I bring to the position that they could not find within the University of California, and what should I do to fulfill their expectations?” he says.

Those expectations are clearly based on the stellar performance David Gardner has brought to whatever he’s touched—academic, family, or church service. His daily dealings revolve on principle. He listens to people. And his life is solidly built on the rock of the gospel.

Born and raised in Berkeley, David Gardner is no stranger to the University of California scene. Not only did he receive his doctorate in higher education from UC-Berkeley; he taught and eventually became a vice-president in the University of California system before becoming president of the University of Utah in 1973. His ten years at the University of Utah helped him hone those talents which serve him now.

“David Gardner gave the University of Utah hard work and a crisp mind which quickly studied issues, analyzed them, and came to clear decisions,” says his colleague Chase Peterson, now president of the University of Utah. President Gardner, he adds, deals with people and issues in such a way that differences are discussed objectively, and decisions are made without anyone’s “incurring scars from the process.”

Brother Gardner explains that he goes out of the way to reconcile differences, rather than to foster them. “In this position, I am asked to make decisions because other people can’t agree on what to do,” he says. “The principal reason decisions come to my desk to be made is that others are in disagreement about what to do. Thus, there’s no way of making a decision without offending someone. But I try to soften the impact in such a fashion that people at least know their views have been taken seriously.”

His ability to bring opposing opinions into one unified voice was brought into the national spotlight in 1983 when United States Secretary of Education T. H. Bell asked Brother Gardner to chair the National Commission on Excellence in Education. Secretary Bell said later that he had not had high expectations for the commission, since the members’ opinions about the state of education in the United States were so diverse. But David Gardner was able to blend those distinct opinions into one harmonious statement that rocked education nationwide.

“It was not easy,” he says. “I worked at it very hard—patiently, personally, and with persistence. The first draft of the report was about two hundred pages, and I had a hard time going through it myself. So we abandoned the conventional approach and substituted instead an open letter to the American people, written in everyday English, because we had the naive idea that democracy works. We thought that if the people were concerned with this issue, things would happen.

“The report, entitled ‘A Nation at Risk,’ was only thirty-six pages. The president of the United States was willing to receive it personally, which meant that the press was obliged to report it. We prepared no press release, which meant if the press wanted to report it, they had to read it, which they did,” Brother Gardner recalls.

The report helped bring about a reform movement in education such as the country had not seen for decades, Brother Gardner says. The call to achieve excellence was taken up by governors, senators, state legislators, superintendents of public instruction, school board members, university presidents, and many others who are working to improve the educational system in the United States.

How did David Gardner function as a central figure in bringing about this reform? His response is simple—he listens to the opinions of informed people. In fact, he manages the entire UC system the same way.

“To the extent that I can, I ask other people who are better prepared and more informed than I am to make decisions, I delegate quite heavily, which means I focus on a narrower band of decisions than do most executives. I seek the best advice I can get. I share the alternatives and options with people whose opinions I respect, calculate the implications of the options I have, then make the decision that seems in the long term to best serve the organization’s interests.

“Much of my job at the University of California revolves around explaining the basis of decisions to others. I try not to surprise people. The job is a public trust, and I have to be careful not to use that office in ways that are merely reflective of my own jumble of biases and values,” Brother Gardner says

When he was named the new UC president, there was some speculation in the media that since he was a Latter-day Saint, he would project into his decisions what some assumed would be religious biases.

“There was some concern that I would be unsympathetic to women’s fights and opportunities, and to the educational programs intended to be of particular help to minority youth.” These fears were without foundation. During his first two or three weeks in office, his actions laid them to rest. “Since then, there has been no lingering concern of which I’m aware.”

In fact, Brother Gardner and his wife Libby have always considered Church membership an asset, and have never found it a professional liability. “It’s not as though people did not know us in Berkeley,” he comments. “We’d lived here before, and were coming back, refreshed in a way. The standards that we had before, our customs and values, were reasonably well known, and people assumed we hadn’t changed. They were correct.

“I’ve found that in my work, the gospel helps me meet pressures in subtle ways, sometimes in ways that are hard to articulate. Because of our priorities, which come from our gospel value system, we do not regard our job as the only important thing in life. This is not to say we don’t try very hard to do a good job, and spend time at it. But the sun doesn’t rise and set on it. A number of things are important, and a job is one of them. Therefore, the stress of the job affects only part of our lives. There’s a reserve that the gospel provides, a balance that permits one to tolerate the stress more than would be possible if there were nothing else.”

Brother Gardner taught the Gospel Doctrine class in his Salt Lake City ward for eight years, and now has the same assignment in the Orinda Ward (Oakland California Stake), which he and his family attend. Naturally, teaching is one of his first loves.

“I prefer to teach a class on the assumption that I don’t teach anyone anything. I try to teach so that people are obligated to think about what we’re discussing. That’s how they learn.

“I’ve learned more from the people in my Gospel Doctrine class than I have ever taught them,” he adds. “They really know the gospel. I’ve benefited in attempting to adequately prepare for a lesson, and have learned a lot about the gospel, basic doctrines, teachings, and scriptures. In that sense, I’m sure I gain more than anybody in the class.”

Libby Gardner is the Social Relations teacher in the Relief Society in her ward. It takes effort to make time for her Church work, since, as the official hostess for the University of California, she is deeply involved in her husband’s work. Libby is responsible for overseeing functions that she and her husband host, and they’ve entertained several thousand people a year. She reviews the guest lists, decides on menus, and is responsible for the events they host. A university employee assists her.

“We’re involved with several campuses here, so the entertaining is more statewide in character than it was for the University of Utah,” Sister Gardner says. “We’ll probably entertain not only in Berkeley, but in Los Angeles and San Francisco, too. Our whole lives revolve around the university, so it’s not just a job. There are many constituencies—regents, legislators, alumni, donors, community residents, faculty, students—and we’re trying to maintain relationships with all these groups.

“David’s job is hard and challenging. I feel that I need to be a sounding board for him, so he can talk about ideas from work, and I try to create an environment at home where things go smoothly, so he’s not too concerned with big problems at home. I spend probably two-thirds of my time with university work. The job really involves the whole family,” she explains.

In fact, the whole family was involved in the decision to accept the job. When the possibility arose that Brother Gardner might be asked to serve as president of the University of California, he and Libby discussed it but thought the probability was not too high that he would be asked. When the job was offered, they held a family council, and the offer was discussed at some length.

“My wife and the four children were there, and we talked about the implications the move would have for each one. We discussed what it would mean to pick up and move, to start again, both professionally and personally.

“Then we made a decision, which was very difficult because we were happy at the University of Utah. We decided that the University of California provided a much broader arena. UC is indisputably the most distinguished public university in the world. One does not lightly turn that opportunity away. We felt that it would afford my wife and myself a range of experience that we could not have were we to stay in Utah.”

The “broad arena” of the new job places David and Libby Gardner in the public spotlight even more than they were in Utah. To better deal with that, they have specific guidelines that help them preserve the importance of family in their lives. They work to control their time and activities, rather than letting the job dictate priorities to them.

“We have a couple of rules,” Brother Gardner explains. “We will not both go out more than two consecutive nights in a row, unless I’m traveling, which means I say no to a number of invitations to which I should probably say yes. But to say yes to them would make life quite unlivable in terms of our value system. And we never accept any university work-related obligations on Sunday. This is a family day for us. That hasn’t created any difficulties for us yet. When people know, they allow for that.

“This is a job to which one could devote twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, and never complete it. What one must do, therefore, is decide what balance is acceptable between the demands of family, job, church, and personal health and interests. A balance is needed that permits you to feel as though you’re meeting your obligations, but that you’re not a slave to any one of them, thus allowing you to keep control of your life.

“I have observed people in both the business and academic worlds for whom work is everything. Anything else is secondary. Whatever gets in the way of their professional advancement or business opportunities gets pushed out of the way. We are not that way. Because of the basic values that the Church imparts in terms of what’s important, we have never been of the view that to be Successful you have to submerge family or church. You can discover a proper balance, and have enough personal security and sense of self to establish those priorities and simply live by them,” Brother Gardner comments.

His wife agrees. “Actually, the ‘no work-related obligations on Sunday’ rule came from Clark Kerr, a former president of the University of California,” she adds. Since the Gardners’ resolve to keep Sundays free was mentioned in the newspaper, she notes, “we’ve received a number of letters from well-known people who felt as though they were on a treadmill they couldn’t get off. They told us, ‘If you can do it, so can we.’”

David Gardner has made his mark with the media not only through his resolve to reserve time for his family, but through his willingness to help with the domestic side of family life, too. He assists with the dishes, vacuuming, shopping, and other household chores, a fact which the media have noted.

“I don’t feel at all threatened by vacuuming the floor or washing the dishes,” Brother Gardner says. “If the floor is dirty and I have some free time, I just vacuum it. I don’t know why that would be so unusual. Libby may be going out, or pressed with something else, or really tired. If I’m not pressed, it seems quite natural for me to help out.”

“I think sharing household responsibilities started when we were first married,” Sister Gardner says. “If something needed to be done, whoever was in the best position would do it.”

“It’s relaxing,” her husband says. “I don’t have to think about my problems at work.”

With all the time demands on the Gardners, personal interests and hobbies rarely get attention these days. “I’ve always enjoyed working in the garden,” Brother Gardner admits. “I don’t have much time for it, but I wander around clipping a bit here and digging there.”

About a third of Brother Gardner’s time is spent traveling in connection with his job. But when he is at home, he measures time carefully.

“I usually get up around 6:00 A.M., struggle with a little exercise, have a light breakfast, then work at home for two hours. That way I have a concentrated, undisturbed period of time. I do my reading and correspondence, and make some of the telephone calls I need to make to the East Coast. I can accomplish more in that undisturbed environment in two hours than I can in a disturbed environment all day. I get into the office about 9:30, avoiding commuter traffic.

“My appointments start at 10:00 A.M. and run through until 5:00 P.M. I then try to collect my thoughts for the day, take care of a few phone calls, and meet with my secretary for about an hour to go over the next day’s schedule, review the day just completed, decide how to handle the business that came to us in the course of the day, assign out work, and so forth. I get home about 6:45. Then occasionally I’ll do an hour’s worth of work in the evening, and try to get to bed by 11:00 P.M.

Through all the comings and goings, the Gardners try to keep their children out of the public spotlight. “We feel that they shouldn’t be in the public eye too much,” Libby Gardner explains.

“They’ve had to contend with it somewhat, though,” her husband says. “It’s not altogether bad for them to learn how to deal with these things.”

The Gardners themselves have had to learn to deal with being showcased. “Sometimes in Salt Lake I’d put on my jeans and dark glasses and go to the store to get something, thinking I was incognito, and the cashier would hand me my change and say ‘Thank you, President Gardner.’ I got used to it.

“The only time the attention is difficult for us is when people make a big fuss over us,” he adds. “That bothers me. I would prefer that people take us for whatever we are. Generally people have been very nice, considerate, warm and friendly, and protective of our privacy,” he says.

“We don’t think of ourselves as any different than we were,” says Libby. “The attention comes from the job, not us, and eventually, when we leave this job, all that will change.”

What advice does the president of the University of California have for parents concerning the education of their children?

“Parents should be at least as interested in their children’s education as they are in themselves, their own work, their own interests,” he counsels. “They should know what their young people are studying, follow the progress of their work, meet with their teachers, take an active role in the school. When a child is not doing as well as he or she might, parents should try to ascertain why and encourage that child to do better. Certainly it’s a mistake to expect more than the child can give, just as it’s a mistake to expect less than the child is capable of doing.

“School was never intended to be easy,” Brother Gardner continues. “It was intended to prepare our children for living, and it’s a tough life. I don’t think we do them a favor by expecting less of them.”

That should not be an unusual comment from one who has so obviously learned not to expect less of himself than he is able to give.

[photos] Photography by Kathleen Lubeck

[photos] Photos courtesy of the University of Utah

[photos] (Top) David Gardner enjoys the change of pace working in his yard allows (photo courtesy of the University of Utah); (bottom) President Gardner, center, converses with two former UC presidents, Clark Kerr, left, and Charles Hitch, right (photo courtesy of the University of California).

Kathleen Lubeck is manager of the Magazine Features Division, Church Public Communications Department. She serves on the Young Women General Board and is a member of the Taylorsville (Utah) Thirty-first Ward.