Interviewee: Dr. James Bernard Machen
Interviewer: Julian Pleasants
Date: November 7, 2005
P: This is Julian Pleasants. This is November 7, 2005. We are in the University of
Florida Oral History Program office. I'm putting into the record some background
information for my interview with Dr. Bernard Machen. Dr. Machen was born in
Greenwood, Mississippi, March 26, 1944. He went to Vanderbilt University for
his undergraduate degree. He got a DDS, a Doctor of Dental Science from St.
Louis University in 1968. Then in 1972, he got a Master of Science in
Educational Psychology from the University of Iowa. In 1974, he got a Ph.D. in
Educational Psychology from the University of Iowa. From 1973 to 1975 he was
a Major in the United States Army and was at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
In 1983 he was a professor and associate dean at the University of North
Carolina School of Dentistry at Chapel Hill. He held that position until 1989 when
he became dean of the Michigan School of Dentistry from 1989 until 1995. From
1995 to 1997, he was the provost and executive vice president for academic
affairs at the University of Michigan. From January 1, 1998 until January 4,
2003, he was president of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, Utah.
[Break in Tape]
P: This is Julian Pleasants, November 7, 2005. I am with Dr. Bernard Machen in his
office at the University of Florida. You did your undergraduate work at
Vanderbilt. Why did you choose Vanderbilt? What was your major and what
was your degree?
M: I went to high school in St. Louis. Surprisingly, a lot of kids who don't want to go
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to public universities are looking within a 300 to 400 mile range of St. Louis,
Vanderbilt is on the radar. There is a fairly large pipeline between St. Louis and
Vanderbilt. Plus, my parents, historically, grew up in the south. They had an
affection. Vanderbilt was one that was acceptable to them. It was just the
process. I didn't want to go to the University of Missouri. I didn't want to go to
the University of Illinois. I wanted to go to something smaller and Vanderbilt just
stuck out. I was a pre-med student and I never graduated from Vanderbilt. I had
two years and two summers and left because I had somehow achieved early
admission to dental school after two years, which was a big mistake in
retrospect. I missed the last two years of undergraduate school, which is the
most fun two years of college. My parents were enamored with the idea of
getting me out of college and into dental school quickly. I left after two years and
two summers and went to dental school.
P: You went to dental school at St. Louis University?
M: I went to St. Louis University, a Jesuit school. I had known some of the faculty
teaching there when I lived in St. Louis in high school. My uncle, was in fact, an
instructor. I think because I knew people was one of the reasons I probably got
in. I was interested in other dental schools, but they all wanted me to go three or
four years prior to.
P: That would have still been a little unusual to be accepted without the
undergraduate degree, wouldn't it?
M: Not terribly. In those days, three years, if you were a good student, what they did
was the less you demonstrated your proficiency, the longer they wanted you to
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stay out there. Two or three years was a little on the early side even then.
Today, it's unheard of. The professional schools, essentially all require an
undergraduate degree, which is a good thing.
P: Why dental school instead of medical school?
M: If I'd have stayed three years and the medical school option would have been
open, it would have been a tough challenge, to be honest with you. I had an
uncle who was a dentist. I grew up working in his office. I always kind of liked it.
I didn't really have a strong basis for medical dental. I liked this idea of fast
tracking. I think I was in a hurry to nowhere. There I went.
P: St. Louis is an outstanding university, so that was certainly a good choice.
P: When you finished that, what were your career plans?
M: The original plan was to go into practice with my uncle. We discovered some
interesting things during dental school when I was working in his office. We liked
the nephew-uncle thing but we would have been horrible as partners, or in this
case employee/employer. That didn't materialize because I think we both were
smart enough to realize that we had a good thing going on the family side and it
would have just crashed and burned if I had done it. What happened was, one of
my instructors in dental school was leaving to go to South Carolina as a
department chairman, who knew of my southern roots and invited him to go with
me as an instructor. I had no interest in teaching. In fact, I was sort of
floundering in my career at that point. I went with him because I liked him and I
thought it'd be fun.
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P: Where did you go?
M: The Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston.
P: Charleston, that's a nice place to be.
M: [It's a] nice place. I fell in love with it. I didn't know anything about it. I went to
graduate school at night at the Citadel. The Citadel is an undergraduate
institution that's a uniformed military college in South Carolina. They had a
graduate school primarily for secondary school teachers. I took some education
courses. I liked it even more. After two years in South Carolina, I decided I'd
better go back and get some real training. I went to the University of Iowa in
Iowa City in a program that allowed me, it was a unique program, to get a clinical
specialty as well as a Ph.D. in Ed. psych. [It was] a combined program, federally
funded. They don't have them any longer. It was sort of a unique program that
had existed just in that little ribbon of time that I was looking at a place to go.
P: You got both a Master's and Ph.D. at the University of Iowa.
P: At that junction, what were you planning to do with all of these degrees?
M: The only thing you could possibly do would be to go to a dental school and teach.
I'd had hanging over my head a military commitment that I'd been deferred while
I took all this training. The military decided they were going to pull me. I thought
I'd would have been educated out of the military, but they pulled me in. Before I
could go pursue my vocation as a dental teacher, I had to do two years in the
U.S. Army in Washington D.C.
P: At Walter Reed.
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M: Walter Reed.
P: That was 1973 to 1975?
P: What was that experience like? What were your responsibilities? You would
have been by then, probably a Major?
M: I was. It was one of the life's ironies. I was sworn in as Major in the U.S. Army
Dental Corp. I felt like a fool. I didn't think of myself in the military. What was
happening in that time was the military was having trouble attracting specialists
of medical or dental type. Their solution was to train their own. They developed
accredited training programs at Walter Reed, primarily. I instructed medical
residents and dental residents during my two years in the Army.
P: Would these have been full-time military men?
M: Correct. What they found was they wanted career military so they trained their
own and then kept them in the military.
P: This is pretty different from the buried plan.
M: Yeah, where they would send them out. They were on active duty. They were
actually stationed at Walter Reed and we conducted our program in uniform, as it
were, with me instructing them.
P: After Walter Reed and your term in the service was over, what did you do?
M: For some reason we headed back south. We went to UNC Chapel Hill in 1975. I
never had been to Chapel Hill. I was hired in a national search by the dental
school there. I got a joint appointment in the School of Education in Chapel Hill.
I taught kind of a weird combination. My specialty was classroom testing. I
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taught a measurement course in the College of Education while I was a full-time
faculty member in the College of Dentistry at UNC Chapel Hill.
P: You've really had a dual career most of the time.
M: I actually tried to. For the time I was in Chapel Hill it worked pretty well. I taught
some education courses in the medical school at Chapel Hill as well as in the
School of Dentistry. I went to Michigan as dean in 1989. It was too much. I
knew then I was going to do one thing, and one thing only.
P: When you worked with testing, have you kept up with any of that since then?
M: I like to not tell people I know about it, but when people start talking about
standardized testing and Norm referenced, they're surprised that the old dentist
knows what he's talking about.
P: I was interested in your view of the FCAT.
M: I don't know the mechanics of it. I think in the year that we're in with
accountability, something of that order is fine. I think it's big enough that it's
referenced in a pretty good fashion. It's very expensive. Only a state as big as
Florida could afford to do that. A lot of the smaller states are using standardized
tests that come out of commercial companies. I think Florida can afford, and it
appears to be using well, the FCAT. It's giving a benchmark out there for the
public to see what's happening with their public schools.
P: I had an intern who did a series of oral history interviews about the FCAT. One
of the guys who designed it, there were three teachers and one principal. The
answers were very interesting. Other than the guy who designed it, most of them
thought that they spent far too much time studying for the test and they lost time
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that they could have better spent in so called "educational pursuits."
M: I'm sure from the classroom teacher's perspective that's the case. What's
happened in my lifetime is the public has lost their willingness, I don't care if it's
kindergarten, elementary, secondary, or college, to accept on faith, that
educators know what they're doing and are wisely spending the public's money.
Accountability, I think, is the result of that loss of faith. I don't see any movement
back in the other direction, to be honest with you.
P: I think a good point was a benchmark so you could see if there's been
M: Absolutely, and I think in some ways the public has a right to that.
P: At the UNC School of Dentistry you were both professor and later associate
P: Why did you initially want to get into administration?
M: [Laughter] Why would anybody want to get into administration? When I went
there it was a unique position. With the Ph.D. in education, which I was the only
one in the School of Dentistry, my role was to manage the curriculum, like a
system deflect. I kind of went into an administrative role, but it was mainly a
hands-on role, not a policy making [role]. The curriculum committee set policy. I
managed the curriculum and tried to set it up in ways that would enhance the
learning. I started out sort of in administration, but in sort of a service role. Then,
what happens, whether it's colleges of liberal arts and science, they look around
at some unsuspecting person and say, we need an administrator, why not you?
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You sort of, if you're not careful, you get sucked into it, to be honest with you.
That was my fate. It wasn't irretrievable at that point. I was still practicing one
day a week within the school, still doing research. It was okay. When I went to
Michigan I was lost. I was a full-time administrator from then on.
P: Did you ever want to do research in dentistry or did you mainly want to teach?
M: The thing that appealed to me about academic dentistry was that I could do it all.
I could practice, I had a specialty practice in children's dentistry, working with
handicapped kids, primarily. I could teach kids. I loved teaching bright young
people. And I could do research. I did behavior modification research, using
child behavior therapy, using the dental setting as my environment. For a while, I
was doing basic psychological research, I was teaching, and I was treating
patients. I thought I had probably the ideal world at that point before I took a
wrong turn into administration.
P: Those of us who have lived in Chapel Hill will wonder why you would ever leave
M: We spent fourteen wonderful years there, loved the town, loved the people. I
went to one of the great cities of America, which people don't understand if you
haven't been there, but that's Ann Arbor, Michigan. That's Ann Arbor, Michigan.
It's more diverse, more intellectually stimulating even than Chapel Hill. So while
we lost on the weather, we won on the intellectual diversity side.
P: You went there initially to be dean of the dental school.
M: [I went to be] Dean of Dentistry in fall, 1989.
P: Until 1995?
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M: Until 1995. This is when the story gets funny. The president was looking for a
new provost. Most provosts come from the dean's ranks. Half the deans at
Michigan wanted to be the provost. He wanted an interim provost. The criteria
primarily was that you don't want to be the provost. I surely didn't. I happened to
enjoy the president and he had hired me when he was provost. So I thought,
okay, I'll come over and be the interim provost for three to six months while you
do a search for a provost and then I'll go back to being the dean. During that
time he got relieved of duty by the Board of Regents, who then came to me and
said, guess what, we can't search for a provost permanently until we get a
president. You're the provost, no interim. Forget about dentistry. To have not
stayed at that point would have been disloyal to the university. I call myself the
accidental provost in the true sense of the word. I had no interest in it. To be
honest, Julian, as a dentist, it would have been difficult if I had applied for the job,
to get the job, because dentists and a lot of professionals get trapped in terms of
their career options. Had I tried to become the provost I would never have done
P: Would you have been happy to go back as dean of the dental school?
M: Absolutely. I loved it. I'd been there almost six years. Most of the bodies had
been buried. Most of the people there I had hired. This was a pretty nice job.
Most people said, what in the world are you doing?
P: Much less stress as the dean than as the provost.
M: That's right. It was a wonderful job.
P: I understand from everybody I've talked to that in many ways the provost is
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probably the most difficult job on campus.
M: There's no question about it. It is the worst job on campus. The sense that you
have everybody coming at you, and if you do it right, the way we do it here at
Florida and the way we did it in Michigan, the provost also has to be the chief
budget officer. Without that, the provost has no authority to implement academic
policies that he or she wants. Like it or not, you've got to have this impossible
job. Business people look at it and say it's ridiculous. It is ridiculous, but the only
way you can run a university the way we want to run it, the way academics want
to run it is to invest all that power in that position. Believe me, the arrows that
come at you as provost are much worse than as president.
P: You have to deal with so many different issues. Most of the time, the tough
decisions have to be made by the provost.
M: Correct. The rubber meets the road in the provost's office.
P: You can't have this money for your new lamp.
P: What did you learn most about education administration, being the provost, that
would help you later as president?
M: The first thing I learned was a surprise to me; how much I had been missing in
the academic life of the university. As the dean of a professional school, my
intellectual landscape was relatively narrow. At a great university like Michigan,
there's so much going on that I had been not aware of. I realize that I had sort of
been out of touch that were really exciting and were fun to be around. That was
one thing. Number two, I learned how to be an administrator. If you try to
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manage the provost's office the way you would as a professor, you'd die. This
idea of keeping your own appointments, filing your own files, forget it. You've got
to almost cut loose. Which means, you've got you trust your staff or you're dead.
You cannot get anything done. There was a funny story. I had started out
controlling my calendar. I'd made a few appointments and I'd made them wrong.
Within two months, I had read-only access to my calendar and the staff was the
only one, and it's a great idea, I do it to this day, the only one who can change
my calendar is my administrative assistant. If you and I are across campus and
you say, Bernie, when can we get together? I'd have to say, Julian, I don't know.
You'll have to call my secretary and ask when we can get together.
P: In the broad sense, not to demean her job, but that's somewhat more mundane.
You need to be concentrating on some of the larger issues and be able to make
decisions other than what time you make appointments.
M: That's the key. I think that's what separates good high-level administrators from
not-so-good. If you can't get above the noise that's inevitable in complex jobs
like the provost or president, you'll never be able to do the things that only you
can do, which is strategic thinking, visioning, problem solving. You get totally
consumed by the noise that you don't get to the stuff that you're really being paid
to do. A provost or a president who doesn't build his staff and then let them do
their job, is going to have a bad result at the end of the day.
P: There are too many issues to deal with.
M: You've got to pick your issues. You'd better pick the right ones. If you pick some
minutia, that means you're not spending it on something that's important. History
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may not be so kind to you.
P: It's easy to get caught up in some of these issues.
M: If you let personalities or ego or just interest. For example, I was away from
dentistry for six years in Utah. I enjoyed coming back to Florida where there's a
dentist school. I've been to the dental school twice in twenty-two months. It
doesn't happen. It shouldn't happen. That's not my sphere of influence.
P: Although you would be interested in going over there.
M: I have had several times offers to go back over and do something that I thought
would be nice.