Dave Kliger stepping down as CP/EVC on Sept. 16

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Dave Kliger is heading back to the lab after more than five years as campus provost/executive vice chancellor. He's carrying the oversized slide rule that decorated his Kerr Hall office. (Photo by Carolyn Lagattuta)

For years, Dave Kliger has risen before dawn and pedaled his bike up to campus to swim for 30 minutes before arriving at the office by 7:30 a.m.

When he steps down Sept. 16 as campus provost/executive vice chancellor (CP/EVC), Kliger will modify his schedule--but just a bit.

"The thought of riding my bike up when it’s not dark sounds really nice," said Kliger, who plans to return full-time to the lab he has maintained throughout his years as a campus administrator.

Kliger is wrapping up more than 20 years in UCSC's administration, including a five-year stint as CP/EVC and more than 15 years as dean of the Natural Sciences Division (now Physical and Biological Sciences).

When Kliger, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry, quips that he has always maintained a lab in part because he never wanted to worry about being ousted from an administrative job, there's an underlying seriousness to his remarks.

"As soon as you start to worry about your job, that's when you make bad decisions," he said. "I always wanted to be able to say, 'Fire me? Go ahead, make my day.'"

Kliger is a consummate multi-tasker who has always enjoyed doing many different things. In addition to teaching, research, and administration, he has played classical piano for more than 30 years. As CP/EVC, the challenge is handling whatever comes up each day.

"It's hard to explain how many problems come up every day. It’s not like there’s a normal day," he said. "Each day brings interesting challenges, because the easy problems are generally solved before they get to you. It can be nerve-wracking and frustrating."

It is also tremendously satisfying to work with great people and to make decisions that are in the long-term best interests of the campus. "That’s the part I’ll miss," he conceded.

What will life will be like without adrenaline-filled days? "I don't know," said Kliger, who is widely respected for his deliberative and calm manner, even in the midst of crisis. "Will I be bored?" he mused during a recent conversation in his Kerr Hall office.

Kliger was tapped by Chancellor Denice Denton to serve as CP/EVC after an extraordinarily successful tenure as dean: His was the second-longest term in campus history, behind only Ed Houghton of the Arts Division.

Kliger, who will return to campus as a research professor, said he is most proud of two accomplishments: his work in the division, where he helped attract the resources that enhanced the size and quality of almost every program, and the campus’s recently adopted Academic Plan. "Seeing how much we’ve advanced even in light of budget cuts" has been gratifying, he said.

Kliger is known for his commitment to teaching and research. Guiding the campus through three consecutive years of major budget cuts has been taxing, but Kliger said he learned a long time ago that "if you try to find solutions that will please everybody, you end up pleasing nobody."

He credits his wife, Rachel, with an insight that helped him make peace years ago with the fluctuating cycles of university budgets. "As dean, I was complaining all the time about the lack of resources, and she finally said to me, 'Either stop complaining and do the best with what you have or get out of the business,'" recalled Kliger. "That’s when I started to focus on what we could do instead of what we couldn’t do."

"I think being an academic is a great job. You get to do what you want," he said. "Faculty have incredible freedom. For all the complaints, I think faculty are among the most privileged people on earth."

Kliger and his two sisters were the first in their family to go to college. He remembers writing a paper for a high school assignment, in which he announced his intention to become a chemist, to study at Rutgers and then Cornell, and to become a professor.

"I'm still not sure if it was conscious or coincidence," he said, reflecting on his youthful ambitions and the uncanny accuracy of his predictions. "The only part I left out was my postdoc at Harvard--but I didn't even know about postdocs at that point."

Joining the UCSC faculty in 1971 was a pivotal decision. "I'd been frustrated by the structure of universities I knew, and when I interviewed here, everyone was clearly engaged in a new way of thinking about things," said Kliger, a man who prefers jeans to jackets and ties. A native of New Jersey, he took the job despite having vowed not to work in California because of the earthquake risk. "It was so beautiful that I said, 'Well, maybe it'll fall into the ocean, but in the meantime, it'll be a great place to be!'"

Although UCSC is "more traditional today than we were then," the faculty retain a strong commitment to working with undergraduates and to teaching students well, said Kliger. There is also a culture among faculty of friendliness and collaboration that suits him; for the most part, UCSC lacks the arrogance that characterizes many other schools.

"For me, research is a real team sport," said Kliger, whose own work focuses on how molecules interact with light. "Faculty, postdocs, graduate students, and undergraduates work together. Everybody is contributing in different ways. Everybody should be stretched and learn something from the experience."

Which reminds Kliger that returning to the lab is only part of his retirement plan. "If the division needs me, I might like to volunteer to do some teaching," he said. "I've always enjoyed that."