Punished for Ambition

By many accounts, Desdemona Cardoza was the hands-down favorite to lead California State University's Los Angeles campus when James M. Rosser -- the president since 1979 -- eventually stepped aside. Cardoza had spent 22 years as a faculty member and administrator there, and had worked closely with Rosser since he appointed her provost in 2007.

June 15, 2010

By many accounts, Desdemona Cardoza was the hands-down favorite to lead California State University's Los Angeles campus when James M. Rosser -- the president since 1979 -- eventually stepped aside. Cardoza had spent 22 years as a faculty member and administrator there, and had worked closely with Rosser since he appointed her provost in 2007.

The prospect of becoming president there appealed to Cardoza, but something nagged at her. "I had this sense that if I was going to move up to a presidency, I really needed to have some experience on another campus, and with a different president," she says. So when she was nominated for the open provostship at Cal State's campus in nearby Long Beach this spring, Cardoza decided to pursue it.

The decision cost her her post at Cal State-LA. In March, days after telling Rosser that she would visit Long Beach as one of four finalists for the provost's job there, Cardoza learned that Rosser had told the head of the university's senate that he planned to begin searching for a new provost. Through a spokesman, the president declined to talk to Inside Higher Ed about the situation, saying it would "inappropriate" to talk about what he called a "personnel matter."

But according to Cardoza and others familiar with Rosser's thinking, the president viewed Cardoza's decision to make what he considered a "lateral move" as evidence of her disloyalty to Cal State-L.A. "Obviously you don't want to be here," Cardoza recalls Rosser telling her.

His stance took her aback. "I was doing what everybody says you ought to to advance yourself. I didn't feel like I was ready to be a president, and that I needed to work under a different president with a different style," Cardoza says. "People ought to have the right to look for other positions."

22 Years of ... Disloyalty?

Apart from a brief stint as an instructor at the University of California at Riverside, her alma mater, Cardoza has spent virtually her entire career in the Cal State system, and worn many hats at the Los Angeles campus. In addition to being a tenured professor of psychology, she has also served as director of analytical studies, associate vice president for academic technology, vice president for information resources management, dean of the College of Natural and Social Sciences and, finally, provost.

Throughout that time, she says, she often envisioned herself as a possible candidate to be the institution's president one day. She had previously passed up the chance to leave for other positions -- Rosser had once talked her out of applying for the provostship at the University of La Verne, she says -- but as the years ticked by, and Rosser became the longest-serving president in the Cal State system, Cardoza increasingly felt that she needed to expand her horizons to be a successful president, there or elsewhere.

When someone nominated her as provost at Long Beach, she agreed to be a candidate, but opted not to raise it with Rosser at that time. "I had seen his reaction before when I considered other jobs, and when other people here thought about leaving," she says. Given Rosser's tendency to take departures personally, Cardoza says, she decided to wait until she was sure Long Beach's interest in her was real.

Photo: California State U. at Los Angeles

James M. Rosser

Long Beach's president, F. King Alexander, called her on February 18 to say that she was one of four finalists for the job there, and that he planned to call Rosser as a courtesy. Cardoza asked him to hold off, she says, so she could tell the president herself (Rosser was off campus that day, Cardoza says). "I knew it would not be pretty," she says.

As Cardoza recalls the February 19 meeting (reminder: Rosser declined to offer his side of the story), Rosser was not pleased. "He did exactly what I thought he would -- told me everything that was wrong with the Long Beach campus, and kept saying, 'This is a lateral move, why would you go there?' " Cardoza says she argued that to help run a university nearly twice the Los Angeles campus's size made the Long Beach position not a lateral move, and that she was motivated in part by the opportunity to work under a different president.

Rosser was heading out of town for a few days, and when he returned to campus the following Wednesday, Cardoza says, he sent for her. At that meeting, she says, the president told her that pursuing the Long Beach provostship would be a clear sign that she "don't want to be here." Despite her protestations to the contrary, Cardoza says, the president gave her an ultimatum: "If you go on that campus interview, you will have to step down from your position as provost."

"I really feel I need to go on this interview," Cardoza said before the meeting ended.

Two days later, on February 26, she got word that Rosser had called the chair of Cal State-L.A.'s Academic Senate to say that the university would begin a search for a new provost. Word circulated quickly on the campus, generating articles in the campus newspaper and three discussions in the Academic Senate, which debated but then stopped short of sending a letter urging the president to reconsider his decision to "remove the provost."

Kevin Baaske, a professor of communication study and former chair of the Academic Senate, says the president made clear in his discussions with senators that "he was hurt and offended" by Cardoza's potential departure, because he considered himself to be her mentor. "The way he looked at it, if she continued to be finalist, that meant she was leaving to step down, and that she made it clear she wanted to leave.... He sees that as being disloyal."

The Aftermath, and Reactions

Cardoza went on that campus interview at Long Beach, and did not get the job (which went to the internal candidate who'd served as interim provost for a year). Since then, she was also approached about the presidency at Pasadena City College, a two-year institution outside Los Angeles, and she was runner-up to the eventual choice there, a long-time community college president.

As Cardoza prepares to take a six-month leave of absence before returning to the Cal State-L.A. faculty, professors like Baaske are dismayed about her departure and the fact that it is coming at a time when the university is in the midst of re-accreditation and a review of its general education requirements. "It's a bad time for the university for her to be leaving her position," he says.

Experts on campus leadership, meanwhile, when told the broad outlines of events at Cal State-L.A., expressed dismay of their own at how the situation unfolded (and unraveled). R. William Funk, whose search firm bears his name, says most campus leaders see themselves as advocates for employees who wish to advance their careers.

"Presidents who are looking at other positions are often viewed as disloyal and fall out of favor with their current boards, but generally speaking, institutions and their leaders are proud of their people who are recruited away for dean and even provost positions," says Funk. "I would think that every president, provost and dean has as part of their responsibility to groom their people for the next step."

Funk says he was also surprised by what appeared to be an apparent lack of clear communication between the campus's top leaders. "I would like to think that a president and a provost would have such a relationship that they would talk about this particular person’s career plan, that you would have a president who would be very supportive in having that person move ahead, and would accept as part of his or her role the development of the provost to be a president some day."

"And I'm surprised that [the provost] didn’t have the kind of relationship with the president, so that before she even became involved in the search, he knew what she was thinking about her future," Funk says.

Funk suggests that college officials interested in moving up the academic or administrative food chain should "try to develop a relationship with the person you report to such that you can talk openly about your career development and, when an opportunity surfaces, be able to talk to that person to be able to get that person’s ideas and support."

People in that position should be "somewhat discriminating about the opportunities that you do pursue," because "if you’re going to that person continually, it can work to your disadvantage."

And "if you don’t have that kind of relationship" with a superior, "common sense would dictate to me that as a search process proceeds, you probably wouldn’t share the information [about being a candidate] until and unless you knew you were in the final group."

Of course, even taking that precaution didn't work out for Cardoza.


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