BITCHIN’ KITCHEN: Clearly some cosmic symmetry was at play last week. That’s when the world first heard how UCSB physicists played a pivotal role in replicating the original Big Bang that gave birth to the universe, and how they helped capture what’s colloquially known as the “God particle.” Big stuff. Lost mysteriously in the shuffle was the June 10 death of former UCSB chancellor Robert Huttenback, who lay the foundation for UCSB’s stellar standing in the impenetrably theoretical world of high science. Huttenback, who presided over UCSB from 1978 to 1986, remains most famous — and infamous — for being the first, last, and only UC chancellor to be convicted on criminal charges. In his case, Huttenback was found guilty of embezzling $250,000 from the university and tax evasion. But this scandal — tragically and comically gratuitous — tells only part of Huttenback’s story. To the extent UCSB students can’t cross the street today without crashing their beach cruisers into some Nobel laureate who forgot to look both ways, Huttenback played a primordial role. It may be a slight overstatement to say that the corn that current UCSB Chancellor Henry Yang is now feasting upon was first planted by Huttenback. But Huttenback tilled the soil, installed the irrigation system, and laid down the fertilizer. Because of this, the back alleys of Goleta are now jammed and crammed with high-tech start-up companies, spun out from UCSB by professors afflicted with an entrepreneurial itch.
When Huttenback first showed up, UCSB was still largely an academic lagoon where the low-achieving children of California’s affluent classes could stumble around in inebriated stupors until they found themselves or fell off a cliff. Huttenback set out to reinvent UCSB. It would compete with UCLA and Berkeley. At the time, such ambitions seemed delusional. Huttenback knew what needed to be done. He was impatient and imperious, charming and overbearing. He refused to take “no” for an answer. When Huttenback started, the Institute for Theoretical Physics was a figment of someone else’s imagination. He brought it to life. He hired Walter Kohn, the superstar physicist who’d won a Nobel prize in chemistry. He hired Robert Mehrabian — another academic supernova — to run engineering. All this required money, and Huttenback became a money machine. He got tight with banker-developer Mike Towbes, industrialist Barney Klinger — a Republican insider close to Ronald Reagan — and Johnny Cat empress Betty Stephens, whose Hope Ranch home has always been a must-visit for any Democrat running for president. It paid off. In short order, Huttenback became the King of Ka-Ching, raising $45 million by wining and dining the rich and famous out of his Mission Canyon home.
To this end, the Huttenbacks spent lavishly, remodeling their kitchen at taxpayer expense. Huttenback — who drove a beat-up Ford Galaxy with a ripped front seat and was famous for the food stains adorning his clothes — argued granite countertops and his-and-her Zero Kings were essential to successful fundraising. But a UC audit concluded otherwise, finding that only $43,000 of the $250,000 the Huttenbacks spent could be justified. In 1986, Huttenback agreed to resign as chancellor and pay the UC back $175,000, and UC president David Gardner agreed not to file criminal charges. That was the deal until then Superior judge Patrick McMahon demanded a grand jury investigation. Prosecutors assigned to the case found two memos from Gardner ordering Huttenback to reign in his spending. He didn’t. Instead, the Huttenbacks used employees from UCSB’s Facilities Management as their personal housekeepers. Criminal charges were filed.
As usual, the actual charges filed had little to do with Huttenback’s real offense. A German-born Jew, whose family fled Germany in 1933, Huttenback had always been a solid liberal Democrat, even leading students in a demonstration against Reagan while running the show at CalTech. But Huttenback was a pragmatist. When Reagan took the White House and another Republican — George Deukmejian — was elected governor, Huttenback set out to make Republican friends. He hired Republican campaign strategist Hazel Blankenship as a lobbyist. As a fierce and frighteningly effective party op, she was much reviled by good Democrats. And Huttenback brokered what looked, smelled, and tasted like a $160-million sweetheart deal with Republican industrialist — and campus benefactor — Barney Klinger to build a desalination plant and clean-energy plant on UCSB property. The deal would have supplied the campus electrical needs for free. The remainder would have been sold to an oil platform then proposed in state waters just off the campus. UCSB would make millions. But like Huttenback himself, the deal was brilliant and heedless. Then as now, offshore oil development was strictly verboten; anything threatening to make it seem attractive was doomed. Likewise, the prospect of more water meant — at that time — more development, which back then was an unequivocal deal killer for local enviros and Dems. Ironically, it would be a noted physicist, Ray Sawyer — then a vice chancellor — who triggered Huttenback’s demise. Sawyer quit in protest over the Klinger deal, and he demanded that Huttenback resign. Shortly afterward, the faculty senate joined the chorus. Stories of Huttenback’s famously overpriced “bitchin’ kitchen” began seeping out. By then, Huttenback’s skids were terminally greased. After his conviction, Huttenback complained his attorney took a dive and didn’t attack UC prez Gardner on the witness stand the way he should. He was right. His attorney, it turned out, was working — however indirectly — with Gardner on a major lawsuit over a leukemia treatment the UC wanted patented. But Huttenback should have kept his fingers out of the cookie jar in the first place.
Maybe on his way out, Huttenback got a glimmer of the God particle, a name, it turns out, that was foreshortened from its original — the “Goddamn particle” — because it took so long to capture. Given the operatic dimension of Huttenback’s life, his stellar contributions and ridiculous downfall, one can only hope he did. Goddamn, indeed.