After 18 years as head of the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, Edward Schneider is leaving for a job at the University of Minnesota, where he will become a fully tenured professor and take over as director of the arboretum. Calling the offer too good to ignore in a statement issued by the Garden on Monday morning, Schneider explained, “The University of Minnesota allows me to combine my two passions: teaching and directing a world respected garden.”
The press release heaps on the praise from the Garden’s board chairman Fife Symington, who explained, “Ed has been a tremendous leader for us; he elevated our stature to the highest level among peer institutions in the nation. While this is a great loss to the Botanic Garden and our community, it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity for Ed. With a full tenured professorship and the salary, it’s an offer we could never equal.”
But while Schneider’s leadership achieved numerous triumphs, his decision to leave comes amidst the Garden’s most controversial era ever, as the institution continues to pursue a “Vital Mission Plan” that seeks to further develop parts of the property. The plan has been attacked on all fronts by neighbors, former board members, volunteers, and even some staff members. On top of that, financial difficulties — in part related to costs of the decade-long pursuit of the Vital Mission Plan — led to the laying off of popular staff members last year, which in turn triggered a strike from more than 60 volunteers that continues today.
So the news initially made such Schneider critics as Marc Chytilo, who’s fighting against the plan as the attorney for Friends of Mission Canyon, very happy. “We’re delighted,” said Chytilo. “Dr. Schneider’s vision for the Garden and style of working with the community made it very challenging.”
But while Schneider critics were quick to rejoice his decision to leave, the announcement also promised that Schneider won’t be leaving until this summer, which will presumably give him enough time to see the Vital Mission Plan through the county approval process. That would seem to put to rest the initial speculation that Schneider was forced out or that his decision to leave was motivated by the rancor over the Vital Mission Plan, which was approved last fall by the Santa Barbara County Planning Commission and will be heard by the county Board of Supervisors as soon as next month. Although, as Chytilo explained, “Well, we’ll see if it gets approved this summer or not.”
In the meantime, the Garden is already commencing a nationwide search for a replacement; interim director duties will fall on the assistant director Andrew Wyatt, who is the vice president in charge of programs and collections.
UPDATE, 1:45 p.m.: In between airplane flights on Monday, Fife Symington III, who is the chair of the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden’s board of trustees, called The Independent to briefly discuss Schneider’s departure.
“It wasn’t a surprise,” said Symington, the former governor of Arizona. “Ed’s had fairly significant offers as long as I’ve been on the board. Institutions are always making a run at him.” Symington said that University of Minnesota has been particularly persistent, but that this time they made him an “unbelievably wonderful offer” that essentially will more than double his income and include the fully tenured professorship position. Said Symington, “He would be nuts not to accept it, and I told him that.”
Symington also thinks that the Jesusita Fire, which burned Schneider’s home and possessions, may have put Schneider and his wife into an introspective mode. “Everything just went up in smoke,” said Symington, “and I just think that the fire really had a huge impact on him.”
Symington did not have good news for those critics of the Vital Mission Plan who are smelling blood and thinking that Schneider’s departure is a sign that the Garden will reconsider that development. “The people who are opposed will always be opposed, but we’re moving forward,” said Symington. “We’re definitely fired up and ready to go on with the Vital Mission Plan.”
Symington also divulged that the board of trustees had enlisted Carolyn Kincaid as one of the members in January. As one of those leading the ongoing volunteer strike, Kincaid’s appointment may eventually lead to a melting of the ice between the trustees and the still-striking volunteers. But as of now, said Symington, “We haven’t heard anything from [the volunteers]. We’ll just have to see how things unfold here, because we’ve been busy strengthening and diversifying the board, which is a good thing.”
Symington also tried to diffuse any speculation that Schneider’s departure was anything other than a great opportunity, and denied that the board tried to force him out or that the rancor around the Vital Mission Plan contributed to the move. “The board has been absolutely unified behind Ed and the Vital Mission Plan,” said Symington, who confirmed that Schneider agreed to stay on through the plan’s approval, so long as it comes by this summer.
When asked about the timing of the departure, and whether it would have been better for Schneider to leave at this time next year, Symington admitted that “there would never have been a perfect time.” But if the Vital Mission Plan is approved by this summer, then the Garden would move into serious fundraising mode for the next five to 10 years, a process that requires a familiar face for the donors. So, explained Symington, “You could make the argument that this timing is actually excellent for himself and the Garden because if we were to be in the middle of a widespread capital campaign and then he left us, that would be very difficult.”
Overall, Symington seemed sad to be losing a friend he’d come to know over the past few years. “It hurts. He’s a great guy, and I really enjoyed working with him,” said Symington. “But the Garden will carry on and find somebody new. Turning a new chapter is a positive thing, not a negative thing.”
UPDATE, 3:45 p.m.: On Monday afternoon, Schneider responded to questions via email. “It will be difficult to leave Santa Barbara, but the Minnesota offer was truly just too good to let pass,” wrote Schneider. “Sandy and I will keep our residence here, return frequently, and eventually return in our retirement years. The needs of the Garden are so urgent, especially after the devastation of the Jesusita fire, that regardless of whether I am the director or it is a future director, the facilities will need to be built.”
UPDATE, TUESDAY, 3 p.m.: The news of Ed Schneider’s departure from the Botanic Garden continues to reverberate in the Santa Barbara community. On Tuesday, Christine Riesenfeld, who is one of the leaders of the striking volunteers, said, “We’re very pleased. It seems like a great opportunity for Ed, and we’re pleased that we’ll have a change in leadership. But we still have a lot of questions that we need answered before we can say that the moratorium has ended.”
Specifically, Riesenfeld and the volunteers are concerned that last year’s bylaw changes remain intact, worried that Schneider might still be leaving with a golden parachute-type pay-out, and hoping that some of the laid-off staffmembers could be reinstated. (Board chair Symington explained that there was no such golden parachute whatsoever.) Riesenfeld is also anxious about who will be part of the search committee for the new director. “We don’t know if we’re going from the frying pan into the fire,” said Riesenfeld. “While Fife is still there, I’m going to remain very skeptical.”
She hopes that whoever leads the search “will look in their own backyard,” believing that such former and current employees as Robert Muller, Carol Bornstein, and Dieter Wilkins “have the required knowledge, the background, and the respect of their peers” to do the job.
Riesenfeld said she looks forward to an open meeting between the striking volunteers, concerned community members, and the trustees, and said that her group is meeting later this week to discuss such a possibility. “The most important thing right now is to get trust back in the community,” she said.
Riesenfeld asked that anyone concerned about the future direction of the Garden can stay in contact with the striking volunteers by emailing Botcohorts@gmail.com.