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Features May 2007: Volume 4, Number 2

Doctor Watson, I Presume?
Interviewed by Raymond Hardie


Joe Watson was born in Harlem, attended City College of New York from 1957 to 1961, and graduated with a Ph.D. in organic chemistry from UCLA in 1966. He joined the faculty of UCSD that same year as a professor of chemistry. In 1970, he was appointed provost of Third College and in 1981 he became vice chancellor, Student Affairs. He will retire July 1, 2007.

@UCSD Magazine: You started your career as an organic chemist. Did you come from a science family?
Vice Chancellor Watson: No. I grew up in Harlem, my father worked in the post office, my brother ended up as a captain on the homicide squad in the New York City Police Department. When I was young, my parents bought me a chemistry set, and I loved it, although my mother would comment on my chemical odors. That was her view of chemistry—that it was smelly.

M: Why did you come out west?
W: I was accepted at two graduate schools, the University of Chicago and UCLA. And UCLA did not have something that Chicago did have—and that was winter.

M: How did you end up at UCSD?
W: I was actually interested in going into industry and I had already scheduled interviews with a number of chemical companies in the South. But when UCSD offered me a teaching position, I obviously talked to my wife. She said, well, you should do what you think is best, but … um … my mother lives in Los Angeles. So I accepted a position at UCSD in 1966, teaching organic chemistry.

M: How did you become involved in campus politics and administration?
W: There was a requirement that student organizations had to have a faculty adviser. So the Black Student Union approached me. I told them I really wasn’t interested, but they said, oh, we won’t take much of your time, we just need your signature. However, it was a very active time and I ended up having to be a liaison between them and the administration. And the more active they were, the more liaison work I had to do.

M: When did you become involved in the setting up of Third College?
W: Around 1968. There was an effort by black and Mexican-American students to have more representation, more students, more faculty. I was engaged as their adviser when they demonstrated publicly, to make sure things didn’t get out of hand. I wouldn’t say they took my advice all the time—but at least I tried to give it.

M: How did you become provost of Third/Marshall?
W: Chancellor McGill essentially bulldozed me into it, by effectively telling me that he had no intention of appointing anybody else provost except me. He said if I didn’t take it, he would essentially blame the collapse of Third College on me, and my lack of commitment to the goals. He was very effective. It was clearly a tough administrative task, and something I had no experience and no real personal interest in.

M: What personalities were important during that political period at UCSD?
W: Lots of people. There was Carlos Blanco, who was the adviser to the Mexican-American student organization, MEChA. Bill Frasier was a faculty member in physics and he truly made the difference in converting the radical rhetoric of Third College into something acceptable for the Academic Senate and the Regents. There was Angela Davis. I remember the day after I had been appointed as an assistant professor in 1966. I was walking on campus and a young lady came up to me and said, “Who are you? And what are you doing here?” So I told her, and I asked her who she was and she said Angela Davis. She was one of the first people I met here.

M: What was the most difficult time during that period?
W: Probably the Academic Senate meeting in which they approved the proposal to have Third College focus on disadvantaged populations. The students had taken over the Registrar’s Office, and there was great concern that the police would have to be called in to remove them. I was deeply concerned for their safety. But I want to add that it would be a mistake to interpret what occurred in 1968-’69 as minorities somehow battering the University into doing something. The faculty had the self-confidence to believe they could take a reasonably good idea and convert it into a successful college. The founders, the initial group of faculty, deserve a great deal of credit for what has been achieved here. I would also say that they deserve credit for their openness in trying to welcome people of color into the University.

M: In the early years at Third, was there a tug of war between colleges and departments about curriculum?
W: That’s an inherent tension. The colleges have a responsibility for general education—departments are more focused on their discipline, and what’s best for their majors. I also think that Third College had a political and educational perspective that was different, and we also had a racial and ethnic perspective. We wanted to focus on the Third World, and on inner-city and urban matters as well as on teaching and education.

M: How successful do you think the UCSD college system is?
W: It’s quite successful and very useful for the campus. Has it achieved all that one hopes for? No. But I think we have colleges that are very strong, and have very extensive general education requirements. I think we offer students more choices, and we offer students the opportunity to focus. We could not have the strong focus on international matters that Roosevelt has for instance, if you didn’t have a college system. The colleges also provide a living and learning environment. It’s a basic neighborhood; it’s your home base. You get to know the people there—the administration—and a group of students who are sharing the same experience as you.

M: What would you say were your most interesting times as provost?
W: The beginning, and I should probably apologize to everyone. I had to learn, on the job, and I made lots of mistakes. People were forgiving and supportive. I think we made some progress on the commitment to education and opportunity for underrepresented students and tried to get a diverse faculty and staff. What was difficult, and what I failed at, was to keep the diverse coalition together and keep the various components of it feeling that they were all making progress.




Watson to Receive Honorary Alumnus Award on June 2


Give to the Mary S. and Joseph W. Watson Endowed Scholarship Fund in honor of Dr. Watson


Vice Chancellor Joseph Watson to Retire


UCSD Headlines MLK Parade


Student Affairs at UCSD



"The initial group of faculty deserve a great deal of credit for...their openness in trying to welcome people of color into the University."