Not Always Diplomatic in Her First Major Post

Times Staff Writer

She helped lead the nation to war and in the process became one of President Bush’s closest friends and most intimate advisors.

But even before she headed the National Security Council, Condoleezza Rice held a job that required grit, skill, political savvy and a sublime degree of self-confidence: running Stanford University.

Her years as provost left a deep divide here on the elite Northern California campus, much as her polarizing performance as war counsel has defined her image nationally.


As the university’s No. 2 administrator, Rice is widely credited with helping the school regain its footing during the 1990s after red ink and a financial scandal threatened to engulf it.

But critics say Rice was harsh, even ruthless, during her administration, the one time in her gilded career she has overseen a large institution. Improbably, the youngest provost in Stanford history and the first black and woman to hold the post helped prompt a Labor Department probe into the treatment of women and minorities.

As she prepares to become the nation’s chief diplomat, even some campus admirers foresee upheaval at the Department of State, a far more unwieldy institution than the Bush White House. Her confirmation hearing as secretary of State is to begin Tuesday on Capitol Hill.

“You can imagine her confronting a State Department culture that will have some similarities to what she presided over here at Stanford. A culture very traditional, very set in its ways, very consensual and consultative in manner,” said David Kennedy, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian.

“She’s tremendously smart and quick on the uptake, analytically very gifted,” said Kennedy, who served as Rice’s first boss when she came to Stanford in 1981 to teach political science. “But I wouldn’t be surprised if, despite that veneer of utter graciousness, in practice she doesn’t cut against the grain of the State Department culture to some degree.”

At Stanford, the provost is in charge of both the budget and curriculum. For Rice, who served nearly six years as provost until stepping down in 1999, that meant overseeing $1.5 billion a year in spending, a faculty of 1,400 members and academic programs serving 14,000 students. (“The toughest job I ever had,” Rice told the New Yorker magazine in a 2002 profile.)


“When you’re a university administrator, people are always upset with you for one reason or another,” said Kiron Skinner, an international studies scholar whom Rice mentored. “You’ve got to make decisions about tenure, about funding issues. So someone is always unhappy.”

Rice’s role at Stanford was made all the more difficult by the climate surrounding her appointment and, many say, the expectations facing a black woman who was just 38 when President Gerhard Casper chose her as his deputy. Rice and Casper both declined to be interviewed for this article.

At first, there was “a certain condescension in some of her meetings with senior deans or senior members of the faculty,” said Coit Blacker, one of Rice’s best friends and the director of the Stanford Institute for International Studies. And so “she took ‘em down a peg, took some very senior people down a peg, and that didn’t sit well with a lot of them.”

Casper had come to Stanford from the University of Chicago, arriving in the fall of 1992 after President Donald Kennedy stepped down following a scandal over Stanford’s use of federal grants. (The school acknowledged billing the government for, among other things, depreciation on a school yacht and the cost of flowers, parties and furniture at Kennedy’s campus home.) Rice, then a member of the faculty, was on the university’s presidential search committee; Casper was so impressed he made her provost within a few months.

It was not the first -- or last -- time Rice dazzled her way to power.

In 1984, Brent Scowcroft came to a Stanford faculty dinner to talk about arms control. Rice, a 29-year-old expert on the Eastern bloc military, challenged his work. Charmed, Scowcroft became a patron; when chosen as national security advisor to the first President Bush in 1989, he hired Rice to be his Soviet expert.

After two years in Washington -- and the collapse of the Soviet Union -- Rice came back to Stanford in 1991, eager to resume her academic career and fearful she had grown “stale” in her White House job. During her first run, Rice had been highly popular with students, winning university awards for distinguished teaching. But returning as an alumna of the Bush administration, she was greeted with suspicion by many on the left-leaning Stanford campus -- sentiment that turned to open animosity when Rice, as provost, began slashing tens of millions of dollars from the school budget.

Facing a structural deficit that was long in building, Rice was determined to close the gap in three years of belt-tightening. “It was all about the bottom line,” Blacker said. “ ‘We need to balance the budget, we need to get our financial house in order, and no one is exempt from the process.’ ”

Rice laid off people, cut services, eliminated programs and consolidated others. To supporters, among them Stanford’s current president, John Hennessey, Rice’s moves were painfully necessary and even courageous. “No one likes layoffs, especially universities, because there are so many interpersonal relationships,” Hennessey said in an interview in his office off Stanford’s Main Quad. But her work on the budget “was enormous,” he said. “We could have had problems lingering for 10 years, easily, if it wasn’t addressed in dramatic fashion.”

But detractors say Rice’s moves were made more brutal by the imperious way she carried them out. “She was extremely autocratic in her style,” said Albert H. Hastorf, a psychology professor and former Stanford provost. “She didn’t brook anyone disagreeing with her.”

Ron Rebholz, a Shakespearean scholar, agreed. While suggesting Stanford “had to get our budget down,” Rice showed “no respect for the faculty” in making her decisions, he said.

Rice made little secret of her impatience with sclerotic bureaucracy, or the academic expectation of a spirited give-and-take. Members of the Faculty Senate remember her declaring over and over, “I don’t do committees.” She told the Financial Times in a 1995 interview, “I am direct.... Sometimes someone has to draw a line between informing, consulting and deciding.”

Many assert Rice was more than just decisive, however, saying she actively stifled dissent.

Marsh McCall, a professor of classics who served as dean of adult education and Stanford’s summer session, recalled being summoned to Rice’s office after criticizing a university ad campaign. She told him, McCall said, “Either you’re a member of the team, or you’re not a member of the team.”

“To me,” he went on, “that was the quintessential ... message of the kind of open faculty, intellectual debate that wasn’t in favor under Condi’s provostship.”

The biggest controversy of Rice’s tenure involved the treatment of women and minorities.

Stanford had a history of complaints regarding alleged bias. Many considered Rice’s appointment an effort to address those concerns in dramatic fashion. “It would be disingenuous for me to say that the fact that she was a woman, the fact that she was black and the fact that she was young weren’t in my mind,” Casper told the New Yorker in 2002. “They were.”

Some who believed that Rice would emerge as a champion of blacks and women were disappointed.

Skinner, though, was not surprised that Rice ran a colorblind administration. “Initially, there was an expectation, maybe, that she would behave a certain way because she’s black and a woman,” said Skinner, who is African American and teaches at Carnegie Mellon University. “But those who knew her all along knew that she wouldn’t use any kind of indicators about her race or background as an excuse for how she handled her work.”

Rice drew protests and prompted a student hunger strike when she fired the university’s highest-ranking Latina administrator, acting when the campus was cleared for spring break. (A “drive-by firing,” the Stanford Daily stated at the time.) She further alienated minority students by unsuccessfully seeking to consolidate the university’s ethnic community centers in a single building.

The most serious complaints alleged that Rice and other Stanford administrators thwarted the advancement of women and minorities.

As provost, Rice took a nuanced position on affirmative action, saying she supported special treatment at the time of hiring but not when it came to granting tenure, with its promise of prestige, higher pay and guaranteed job security. Race was a factor to weigh in creating campus diversity, she suggested, but not evaluating job performance.

“I am myself a beneficiary of a Stanford strategy that took affirmative action seriously, that took a risk in taking a young PhD from the University of Denver,” Rice said during a contentious May 1998 meeting of the Faculty Senate, referring to her initial hiring.

Asked at that time why she was departing from the practice of applying affirmative action to tenure decisions, Rice responded, “I’m the chief academic officer now” and firmly restated her position.

Rice’s straddling failed to appease critics. In 1988, 15 professors and Stanford researchers filed a 400-page complaint against the university with the U.S. Labor Department, alleging unfair treatment of women and minorities. Some have settled their claims for cash payments from the university, but the case is still open, according to the Labor Department.

After the complaint was filed, Stanford released data showing the number of tenured female faculty members had doubled in the previous decade and noted certain departments were making special efforts to recruit and hire top female scholars.

Critics called the figures misleading. But since then, they say, conditions on campus have gotten better.

“It was a very difficult time at Stanford for those of us concerned about equity in faculty appointments and promotions,” said Estelle Friedman, a history professor who contributed to a 1998 report that faulted the university’s treatment of female faculty. “You can’t pin that entirely on the provost. But the provost does set a mood and an agenda, and in my opinion the atmosphere has improved enormously since then.”

Throughout her tenure, Rice consistently defended her efforts to diversify Stanford’s faculty. “It’s just a slow, tough slog and you just have [to] keep working at it, especially if you’re going to continue to maintain both your focus on excellence and standards,” Rice told the Stanford Report, a campus publication, as she prepared to end her provostship. The criticism, she said, “comes with the territory.”

Her close friend Blacker suggests that the attacks are unfair.

“I know people on this campus who felt that she was arbitrary, she was arrogant,” he said over lunch at the rustic Faculty Club.

“The people who said that about her were never close to her, they never worked for her.... They had no idea how hard it was to run a place like this and get it back on an even keel financially and maintain standards.”