After making the heart of UCSB student life beat for 25 years, UCSB Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Michael Young will retire on the last day of this month. In charge of 400 staffers in 25 departments, Young has been the ultimate coordinator. But to many students, he was perhaps best considered their Santa Barbara dad.
When Young, who is originally from Chicago, started at UCSB in 1990 after spending 11 years as associate dean and registrar at Wesleyan University, he made the vice chancellor position his own by opening communication and increasing transparency. He held huge meetings twice a year, beefed up IT, and encouraged collaboration between departments. “He told the staff everything they need to know, the bad and the good news,” said Associate Dean of Students Debbie Fleming, who started as a department director around the same time Young joined UCSB. “The bad news is usually the budget. He never held that back.”
Young has similarly not shied away from being frank with students. After Floatopia 2009, Young sent a bold letter to the campus community, calling out the event as dangerous and disastrous. “It was one of the most powerful pieces of communication [I’ve seen on this campus],” Fleming said. In a poignant speech at the start of this school year, Young challenged students if they would tolerate recent violence in Isla Vista.
Young sat down with The Santa Barbara Independent to talk about his time at UCSB and what challenges lie ahead for the school and Isla Vista. Below is an edited version of our conversation.
What did you learn coming from a much smaller, private institution once you got to UCSB? Many of the characteristics that work in the small private settings also work in a large one. It’s how you engage people, how you treat people, developing personal relationships, and connecting with individuals.
How has the position of vice chancellor changed since you started 25 years ago? It’s changed probably 120 degrees; 180 degrees would be a full turnaround. Over time, I tried to bring together a strong team of highly qualified professionals. When you are able to successfully surround yourself with a bunch of really talented individuals, the smart thing to do is to get out of their way and let them do their jobs. They are smarter than I am and closer to the issues.
What do you like about this line of work? Early on [in my career] I liked being able to put my imprint on something and to lead an organization and a division toward the achievement of goals. I also loved working in a college university setting. I love working with students and watching them come in and literally grow in front of your eyes.
It’s really cool to have a job where you get to have an impact on the lives of thousands of young people, the vast majority of whom — some you are actually sure — will be leaders of your society in the future. And to be able to have some imprint on them and provide an environment that is healthy and safe is a great opportunity, so I just love that part of it.
You gave a powerful speech at the memorial event this fall quarter. How would you say you usually engage with students? I have tried to be clear and honest and straightforward but from a framework of values and principles and to talk to them directly and authentically. I am telling them what I think and I am telling them the truth. I have called issues out before. And students have been with us in partnership in promoting a set of values.
It seems as though there has been more attention from UCSB administrators on Isla Vista in the past several months after the May murders and Deltopia riots. What are your thoughts? It would almost be shocking if there wasn’t [more attention] with all that has happened in Isla Vista. The reality is that there are a lot of issues in Isla Vista. Some are in the responsibility of the university and also of the county and maybe some even by the state. There are issues around housing, zoning, behavior — there are all kinds of concerns.
What do you think deserves priority in solving problems in Isla Vista? I think the number one issue is the demographics in Isla Vista. I think the demographics need to be diversified in terms of age and mix. You can’t have that many 17- to 22-year-olds in a concentrated area in an unstructured environment. That needs to be addressed. There need to be older adults out there. While it has improved, there are still low quality facilities out there and the number of people who are allowed to live in those facilities is problematic.
I think there are issues around what kind of responsibility SBCC has of their students just as to the responsibility that UCSB has in responding to the behavioral issues of their students.
How do you diversify the demographics? I think there are creative ways to change communities. It’s done all over the country. Certainly the university could rent facilities for young staff and faculty. Find a way to make it affordable for young families, for young staff and faculty who can’t afford to live in other places in Santa Barbara. It takes will and resources. We also have the issue that the university is required to build housing to keep up with enrollment. Why shouldn’t that housing be built in Isla Vista? The university [could] build its additional housing in Isla Vista and build quality housing.
How has Isla Vista changed in 25 years? It’s different. I know when I arrived it was very normal to see a number of the Del Playa Drive houses with bands on their lawns and crowds of students outside with beer kegs and things. So in some ways, it’s been stabilized by the noise ordinance and limiting access for kegs and other kinds of activities.
The problem is that the world has changed. Social media [allows] people [who are not from here] to congregate in large numbers. That has radically changed in 25 years. But in some ways it is less crazy that it was.
Ultimately someone has to take ownership of Isla Vista, and I think that has to be some government — not the university, not the city college. It needs to be a government that takes ownership. [It’s] probably appropriate for it to be a county, and the powers that be need to figure out what will work for Isla Vista.
Anything else you’d like to share? People say a lot of nice things when you retire if you’re lucky, and I am lucky. People are saying nice things. The truth is the one thing I am pretty good at is knowing how to surround myself with smart and strong and opinionated people and work with them to achieve goals. I’ve ridden the backs of wonderful professionals to make my career, and I know I wouldn’t be here without them.