Photo by Peg Skorpinski
Conversations with John Cummins:
Four decades of Administrative Leadership at the University of California, Berkeley
Conducted by Lisa Rubens 2008-2012, Regional Oral History Office, The Bancroft Library, University of
California, Berkeley, 2013.
John Cummins is an institutional treasure. From his days as a student activist in the 1960s through his service as the “go-to guy” for four UC Berkeley chancellors, Cummins’ oral history provides a fascinating insider account of the social ferment and governance challenges at UC Berkeley.
John Cummins came to UC Berkeley in 1972, his University of Wisconsin PhD in hand, as a researcher for the Center for Research and Development in Higher Education. He moved from there to the Institute for Governmental Studies (IGS), from which he was plucked in 1984 by then-Chancellor Michael Heyman to serve as his “special assistant.”
Over the next 36 years, under successive administrations, Cummins’ title and portfolio of responsibilities changed. His responsibilities have included athletics, public affairs, government relations, internal-audit investigations, and the whistleblower program. But throughout all this the consistent thread has been crisis management. He worked at the center of controversies large and small—from protests over apartheid, UC admissions, and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, to town-gown tensions over student drinking and rowdy behavior. He responded to unhappy neighbors, parents, students, staff, faculty, city officials, activists, and almost everyone demanding something from the University.
John Cummins has a unique gift for compromise and consensus—for listening to all sides, for finding common ground, for knowing “when to hold and when to fold” and putting these gifts to use in service of the essential UC teaching and research mission. A self-described “utility infielder” Cummins has worked largely in what he calls “the interstices of the organization” to grapple with crises and conflicts under what have often been pressure-cooker conditions. He is particularly insightful about the personalities and styles of campus leaders.
“My experience across the board,” he says, “has been that people here are willing to pitch in and help, no matter what the issue is—and they’re so smart and so creative, that if you take the time to listen to them and utilize them, it makes a huge difference. I really don’t think there’s any other way around it.”