Charles Young has retired three times, the first in 1997 after he spent 29 years as the chancellor of UCLA. Under Young’s tutelage, the university grew from a largely commuter campus to one of the most respected institutions of higher learning in the world. A year later, he was asked to go to the University of Florida, where he ended up serving as president for four years. And finally, he spent 18 months living in the small Persian Gulf country of Qatar overseeing a non-profit education foundation. The 77-year-old Young thought that was it for his working life – until he was called out of retirement in December when L.A. billionaire and philanthropist Eli Broad asked him to take up the reins of the city’s ailing Museum of Contemporary Art. Broad was putting together a $30 million bailout package to save the downtown institution from going under and wanted Young to be part of the solution. In the eight months since, the former university chancellor has overseen what the New York Times has called “a significant financial turnaround” for the museum. He’s also managed to find time to involve himself in a legal battle to amend California’s landmark Proposition 13, which limits property taxes and has been cited by some as a key contributor to the state’s budget crisis. What makes it all the more impressive is that Young spends up to half his time at a second home near Vancouver Island, Canada, performing much of his job through e-mail and other electronic communication. The Business Journal caught up with the education-turned-arts executive in his office at the Grand Avenue museum where he discussed his latest job, lengthy career and hopes for a return to retirement.
Question: Tell me how you got your latest job.
Answer: Eli Broad called me one day and said, “Chuck, have you been following what’s going on at MOCA? You know that I’m offering the museum $30 million – I think you ought to go down and run it.” I said, “Eli, I think that’s about the craziest thing I’ve ever heard in my life.” He said, “No, it’s not crazy at all, and I want you to come down and meet some people.” So I did, and after meeting with some people and looking the situation over and talking with members of the board, I concluded that maybe it wasn’t quite as crazy as I had initially thought.
Q: How well did you know Broad?
A: I’ve known Eli for 35 years. We’ve had interactions of various kinds over the years; not really a social relationship, more of a professional one. One of the things I did at UCLA was bring about the Hammer Museum, and we brought Eli on to the board. He and I and others sort of put all that together, and we’ve done other things as well.
Q: Are you an art lover?
A: I never would have envisioned myself running a museum. I’m a collector, but it’s not art at a high level. I expanded and vastly enhanced the art museums at UCLA and also created the Geffen Playhouse. So I’ve been involved in the arts, but I’m not an extremely knowledgeable person. I’ve always, of course, appreciated art and artists, and I’ve been learning a lot here.
Q: So what was your first day at MOCA like?
A: I had a pretty good notion of what the situation was by the time I came on board. The problems were deeper and greater than I thought, but not dramatically so. The museum had been overspending by a substantial amount for a number of years. That overspending had been clearly known, but it had always been argued that there would be a way out; exactly what it would be was a little uncertain.
Q: How could that go on so long?
A: The board had, in a way, become dysfunctional and many people were unhappy with the leadership. It was clear that we needed to get expenditures in line and increase operating income from all sources. We needed to get the board functioning again, replace some of the people who had left and, in a way, try to change the culture.
Q: What have you done toward achieving those goals?
A: It’s been difficult. Fairly early, we began to pull back together members of the board who were still here. We have made, and are still making, efforts to bring back some of those who have left. And we’ve gone through two periods of terminations. All told, we’ve lost about 25 percent of the staff. We went from overstaffed to understaffed, which, initially, had a substantially negative impact on morale. I think we’ve pretty much gotten through that now and the thing is resolving itself.
Q: Now, you spend lots of time in Canada. So how do you pull it all off?
A: I’m kind of back and forth between here and there. It’s on an island called Salt Spring just off the coast of Vancouver. When I’m there I’m constantly on the telephone and the computer, much too much for my wife’s satisfaction. When I’m here, it pretty much runs a 12-hour day; I’m usually in the office by 6:45 a.m. and it’s rare that I leave, unless it’s on business, before 5:30 or 6 p.m. Three or four nights a week I’m out doing something, so I spend quite a bit of time staying at the Omni Hotel about 100 yards away right here on the plaza.
Q: Tell us a little about your background.
A: (My parents) were both from Colorado, where they had met and married, and both were nurses, in effect, at Patton State Hospital in San Bernardino near where we lived. After high school, I went to San Bernardino Valley College for a year, and then got married a couple of days before the start of the Korean War. I got called up and was active duty in Japan during most of the war.
Q: Did you see any action?
A: Not at all. I was the noncommissioned officer in charge of personnel services, things like the base theater, service clubs, and schools for dependents – a bit of everything. After coming home, I went to the just-opening Riverside campus, UCR, where I was the first senior class president and first student body president. Then I went to UCLA to do graduate work in political science.
Q: How does one go from being a graduate student to being chancellor?
A: When Franklin Murphy was appointed chancellor in 1960, he asked whether I would be interested in coming and working with him. By then I had already left and was on the faculty at UC Davis as well as working in the president’s office, which was then in Berkeley. So I came back down to UCLA, taught political science and became Franklin Murphy’s assistant and later vice chancellor. When he left, in what was a very unusual move, the regents selected me as the next chancellor after a fairly substantial search.
Q: That was in1968, an extremely tumultuous year on American university campuses nationwide. What was it like for you at UCLA?
A: It was very challenging, very interesting and very stressful. Though the movement had begun with the Berkeley Free Speech Movement in 1964, by 1968 it had really begun to build and for about the next six years things were really wild. At UCLA, by and large, it went pretty well, but there were some incidents that were very disruptive.
Q: Did they include sit-ins in your office?
A: Yes, on a number of occasions there were demonstrations during which we would sit up all night talking to students with staff in the office. The worst thing that happened was the 1969 shootout on campus in which two Black Panthers were killed in a fight over who should be leading the new African American Studies Center. That was a traumatic experience, obviously, and we were sort of an armed camp for a while. We hid a lot of the leaders away in places where we had them guarded.
Q: Were you sympathetic to the radical students?
A: I felt sympathy for what they wanted done, though quite often not much sympathy for their tactics. When it gets violent, you’ve stepped over the bounds. One could fault some of the things that were done in the 1960s, but one can’t fault their purpose and our society has changed dramatically, in part, because of it.
Q: How do you think society has changed?
A: The 1960s exposed some of the foibles in American politics and led to a much more open political and social system, which, by and large, has been very positive. It represented a dramatic change from the period of the 1950s, which, in many respects, represented the postwar. The period of growth and diversity, perhaps greater at UCLA than anywhere else in the country, built up to a point where it couldn’t be destroyed even though people tried.
Q: How old you were you when you finally retired?
A: 65. About a year later I was asked to go to the University of Florida as interim president, which turned out to be regular president. I stayed there a little over four years. Then I went to Qatar, quit that and did a little consulting, and one thing led to another when I was asked to come and take this job.
Q: What was it like living in Qatar?
A: Very hot. Qatar is clearly one of the most forward-looking of the Arab countries, and this was an opportunity to experience that culture. It’s a small country of great wealth and only 800,000 people, but with lots of expatriates around to liven things up. Most people, if they can, try not to be there during the summer and that was a condition of my employment; that I did not have to be there in July or August. The Amir’s wife, who started the foundation I worked for, was one of the most amazing women I have ever met.
Q: Please tell us a little more about your family, if you would. I understand that there’s been some tragedy
A: Yes, my first wife died of cancer in 2001 and my daughter died three years ago of a massive brain hemorrhage while walking on the beach. I also have a 53-year-old son; his wife is a vice president of East West Bank and he is in the environmental analysis business. I have seven grandchildren.
Q: How did you recover from such a series of tragedies?
A: My wife had been ill for many years and we both knew that, at some point, the battle against cancer would be lost. In many respects, the pain and mourning had been suffered over those years. Fortunately, I was able to fall in love with another wonderful woman who has obviously made the process easier. With my daughter, it’s a difficult thing to describe. It’s painful, it’s a loss and it’s just something one has to live with.
Q: When you took on this MOCA job you said you’d stay for a year, which is up in December. Will you be leaving then?
A: I hope so. We will be having a gala the weekend of Nov. 14 to celebrate the 30th anniversary of MOCA, and I hope by then that we will have done most of the things that I think need to be done. I think the board will be ready to begin searching for a new director by then and I suppose I will probably be asked to stay until that person arrives. So it could be the end of December, maybe January, maybe February.
Q: Why aren’t you interested in the permanent directorship?
A: MOCA’s director should be someone from the art world, not someone who just knows a little about it and can kind of pull things together.
Q: What do you feel still needs to be accomplished?
A: I think we’ve brought the museum through the crisis and gotten to the point where it can now reach a new level. MOCA has been in downtown Los Angeles, but it hasn’t really been of downtown Los Angeles. The museum’s primary support comes from the Westside – that’s where you’d expect it to come from – but there are tens of thousands of people living down here now, and there are more than tens of thousands of people working down here now. I am working to try and find ways to become more a part of downtown; working with employers, for instance, to say how can we serve your community better and what can we do?
Q: One other thing, you are the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit that would partially revise Proposition 13, the landmark 1978 initiative that held down property taxes in California. Why would you want to do that?
A: Well, the state Supreme Court turned down our petition (on Aug. 26). But what we were asking it to do was declare as unconstitutional a provision of Proposition 13 that requires a two-thirds majority in both houses of the Legislature to approve any legislation to raise money for the state – whether it’s sales tax, auto tax or anything else. That’s proved to be a horrible stumbling block; the reason we can’t get a budget passed is because a third of the Legislature can block anything.
Q: So, are you looking forward to your fourth retirement?
A: I’m beginning to think about how nice it would be not to have to work so many hours. But all my friends say that, six months after I leave here, I’ll be doing something else.
Q: So what exactly is it you do for fun?
A: Work. No, just kidding. I also try to play golf and do lots of reading. Lately, though, I haven’t had much time to play golf.
Charles E. Young
TITLE: Chief Executive
ORGANIZATION: Museum of Contemporary Art
BORN: 1931; San Bernardino
EDUCATION: Bachelor’s in political science, University of California, Riverside; master’s and Ph.D. in political science, UCLA
CAREER TURNING POINT: Going to work for Franklin Murphy, the former chancellor of UCLA
MOST INFLUENTIAL PEOPLE: Franklin Murphy, Eli Broad and former colleague Bill Gerberding
PERSONAL: Lives in Thousand Oaks with his wife, Judy; has a 53-year-old son
HOBBIES: Golf, reading
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