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Spotlight: Q&A With EVP Nathan Brostrom

Nathan Brostrom, appointed by the Board of Regents last week as UC’s executive vice president for business operations, has big goals for the coming year.

Developing long-term funding solutions for UC tops the list, but he also plans to tackle the thorny question of sustainable, competitive employee benefits, and – closer to home – ways to enhance the culture here at UCOP.

Brostrom, who spent the last four months juggling duties as the interim EVP for business operations while still serving as vice chancellor for administration at UC Berkeley, is also busy planning a family trip to Africa, where he spent several years of his childhood.

We recently sat down to talk with him about his new role, his excitement about building community here at UCOP, and the years he spent as a boy in Ethiopia and Ghana.

Given the challenges UC faces, why were you interested in taking this position?

I am drawn to UC’s mission and our dual commitment to excellence and access. It’s remarkable to have these twin pillars, but they are threatened right now. Over the last few years there has been a substantial disinvestment from the state in UC. This position presents an opportunity to help build a sustainable, solid funding model for UC, making world-class education and research accessible to all Californians.

What are your upcoming priorities?

I have several priorities, but I would highlight three for the near future. The first is developing the long-term sustainable funding model. The recent release of Governor Schwarzenegger’s budget is promising for UC, but it’s just the start and we need to continue to build a solid and stable base through research funding, private gifts and other revenues.  This includes taking a comprehensive look at all of our expenses, but particularly at our benefits, both for current employees and retirees.  Second, I want to spend some time with campus leadership and look at the ways we serve them and ways we may be able to expand our services to them; there may be significant economies of scale from collective systems that I’d like to explore and advance. Finally, I want to take some time to look at all elements of working at OP to ensure what we’re doing is meaningful and productive, and that employees enjoy being here.

EVP Katie Lapp, your predecessor, launched an OP Values Initiative shortly before she left. Do you have plans to carry that initiative on?

Definitely. Our values revolve around a larger vision of being a service provider, and we need to weave them into our mission. I plan to embed the values identified by OP staff with a broader look at how we work and interact with each other. We’ll incorporate them into performance evaluations, training and goal-setting. The most important thing is that all UCOP staff, from the ground up, including senior leadership, understands the values and incorporates them in all aspects of their work. Over the course of the next few months, staff can expect to hear about our values a lot more.

What are your plans for getting to know UCOP employees?

I would like to see more social events where colleagues can get to know each other better, such as the upcoming staff outings to the Cal Men’s and Women’s basketball games. It would also be great to have a pancake breakfast or social hour on the fifth floor patio. While I was at Cal we brought speakers, especially professors, in to talk about their research or timely events. I would like to bring that to OP as a way for colleagues to interact with the campuses.

I really am a people person and would like to get to know as many colleagues as I can. I encourage people to say hi when they see me on the elevator or walking in the halls. I’m open to any ideas others might have, too. I encourage staff to email me with their suggestions.

When protesters entered the Franklin Building lobby in December to complain about student fee increases, you came down and spoke with them. Can you tell us about that?

Engaging people in dialogue is important. And as a public university, it’s our obligation to listen to their voices and be transparent in the decisions we make. We were able to share information with them about the fee increases and help diffuse the tension.  I’m not sure we changed any minds through the engagement, but we certainly increased their understanding and hopefully they left with the feeling that their concerns were heard.

You mention you’re planning a trip to Africa with your family. Tell us more.

My father was a minister and I spent five years growing up in Africa, from 1974 through 1978. I was in Ethiopia for four years and Ghana for one year. Although Ethiopia was a poor country, it was a wonderful place to live. We had horses, cows and goats.  When I look back now, it’s amazing to know that I was living there at a time with such historical significance, as Haile Selassie was overthrown six days after we arrived, so we were there during the whole revolution and all of the subsequent coups.  My family will be traveling there this summer so they can learn a little bit more about other parts of the world. My sister and her family live in Rwanda now, so we will spend some time with them as well.

And you have a family band?

My family is very musical. All of the kids play instruments and we enjoy playing the piano and singing in the evenings.  As the son of a minister, I grew up singing and, while my kids let me know that I wouldn’t stand a chance on “American Idol,” I did sing in choirs at Stanford and at other times in my life.

Speaking of Stanford, who do you usually cheer for, Stanford or Cal?

This has been an evolving trend.  I really loved my time at Stanford, met my wife there, and met some of my closest friends during my college years.  However, in my position at Cal, I got to know many of the student-athletes fairly well, so I found myself cheering for them, as much as for the team.  Over the course of four years, it’s been a pretty solid transformation.  Besides, as a Swede, I always liked blue and gold more than red and white (Norway’s colors).

We know you enjoy sports. The last time we interviewed you, you asked employees to join you on your noontime runs around Lake Merrit. Any takers?

I’ve only had one taker, Kobie Crowder. Unfortunately, I’m sidelined with a knee injury right now, but hope to get back out there soon, and I’d love it if more people wanted to join me.

Anything else you’d like to share?

I am very excited and optimistic to be here at UCOP. I know it’s a tough environment right now because we’re all trying to do more with less.  I have a strong relationship with campus leaders, and I share a deep commitment to efficiency and transparency.  I’m also looking forward to getting to know more people and strengthening the culture of UCOP. I encourage staff to send me an email or chat with me in the hallway or elevator if they have ideas, concerns or suggestions that could help me achieve this.

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