Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Lessons from Gordon C. Rausser on Leadership and Persistence

By David Zilberman


When I was young, I was fascinated by leaders like Churchill, Ben-Gurion, Gandhi, and even the two Roosevelts, who changed history. As I grew up, I realized that leadership occurs in business, academia, sports, and family life. When we started the BEAHRS Environmental Leadership Program, we targeted up-and-coming training leaders and needed to develop a curriculum on leadership. What I realized is that the best way to learn about leadership is from case studies.

Here, I'd like to speak about a homegrown leader, my friend, and colleague Gordon C. Rausser. Gordon grew up on a small dairy farm near Lodi and, from the beginning, was working and partly managing the farm while going to school, during both college and graduate school. Two years after enrolling in the graduate program at UC Davis, Gordon joined the faculty and developed a great reputation as a teacher and mentored seven PhD students. He then spent some time at the University of Chicago and Iowa State before holding a position in Harvard Business School and the Economics department.

I met him as a graduate student in 1975 when I realized that he was a unique academic leader. Many young people have excellent technical papers and publish in top journals, but Gordon, from the beginning, served as a leader in the field of agricultural and resource economics by identifying new areas for research and pursuing them. He was working with my old professor Eitan Hochman on a book that aimed to introduce agricultural and resource economists to decision making under uncertainty over time. The award-winning book contributed to the emergence of a specialized field on the management of production and inventories of natural resources (livestock, water, fish, etc.) over time, taking into account random shocks. Later on, in a beautifully written paper, Gordon contributed to the emergence of a field of political economy in food and agriculture. He realized that special interests drive a lot of policies but distinguished between policies that improve overall welfare (PERT) and those that reduce it (PESTs). The Political Economy of Natural Resources became a significant field that explained investment in research, the evolution of agricultural and natural resource policies, and Gordon co-authored the seminal book presenting the foundations and significant findings of the field.

While Gordon has made various contributions to the emergence of other research areas, I do not have sufficient space to discuss them all, as I want to cover lessons I learned from his behavior as a chair and a dean.

Raussers service as Chair and Dean

While Gordon was at Harvard, he indicated that he would love to return to California and ultimately accepted an offer from our department at Berkeley. I appreciated it because while I admire Harvard, I consider it the school for the elite, while Berkeley is the school that produces elites and allows people to climb the ladder. He joined us and after a year became the chairman of Agricultural and Resource Economics. At the time, the department was dysfunctional. It had several groups that were each pulled in different directions. It had several very talented young faculty, as well as several faculty that were not active. All of the young faculty, including myself, were interested mostly in publishing in top economic journals while enjoying the resources of the agricultural experiment stations. The department ranked as 11th in agricultural economics. Gordon told us that he is not interested in being the chair of the 3rd best department of economics in Berkeley, but rather the best department of agricultural and resource economics in the world. Of course, we should publish in top economic journals, and we did. But Gordon also encouraged us to change the research agenda of agricultural and resource economics, appear in the Association meetings, and produce students that will be the leaders of the profession. He established a pattern that we followed for many years. Eight members of the department became fellows of the American Agricultural Economics Association, and three of the Association of Environmental and Resource Economists. We, working with faculty in Davis and the Giannini Foundation, have had a significant impact on water, agricultural, and environmental policies in California. The ARE department has ranked mostly number one in the field since.

Gordon invested an incredible amount of time in the chairmanship. He invited leaders of other agricultural and resource economics departments to Berkeley to realize our commitment to the field. Gordon emphasized the importance of building a team, having a clear direction with well specified targets, and pursuing excellence in research. Gordon was very inclusive. He prepared for meetings by consulting with faculty members to navigate different perspectives to form apparent alternatives leading to sound choices. These outcomes were not necessarily his preferred choice at the start. He developed a rule that the newest faculty would have the first pick of new research assistants. He insisted that we have faculty meetings and retreats (which was sometimes tricky, given that most of us had to deal with children) but made sure that there was some synergy between people working in agriculture, resources, environment, and development. While his field was agricultural and resource economics, he was fighting very hard to expand our department in the emerging areas of development and environment and natural resources. Gordons leadership and judgment was recognized by the university and he was selected to chair a high-level committee evaluating the state of economics at Berkeley. This committee produced the Rausser Report, providing a foundation for coordinating and expansion of research and instruction in economics across campus.

Gordon became Dean during a moment of crisis for the college of Natural Resources, the former Vice President of Agriculture and Natural Resources at the time, proposed to move many of the activities of the colleges to Davis, and the integrity of the college was at risk. This proposal was bad for both Berkeley and California agriculture. If implemented, it would have put our campus at risk of losing engagement with the real-world problems of agriculture and the environment, especially in the era where life science-based technologies are getting prominent, and we transition to more intensive use of renewable resources. The loss of direct access to the rich intellectual resource base of the flagship campus of the UC system would have been a grave loss to the agricultural and natural resources sectors in the state. Gordon was able to negotiate a deal that prevented the proposed forced relocation and assured the college of a fixed number of faculty positions. He then implemented a reform in the college, decentralizing resources away from the Deans office, to individual faculty where allocation is based on research productivity by a research committee. Gordon also emphasized excellence in hiring, encouraged the department to pursue leaders in their fields and strived to increase the resource base of the college.

Most importantly and controversially, he spearheaded the controversial 1998 Berkeley Novartis Deal, where the chemical company provided 25 million dollars in research support for a collaboration between the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology and the Novartis Corporation. According to the agreement, university researchers continued to control the research agenda, and the company had the first right to acquire the intellectual property resulting from the research. The research allowed the department access to state-of-the-art equipment and support of researchers that established it as a leading department in its field. An external review found that the fear of the "sell-out" of the university to the corporate sector never materialized. This deal was an act of leadership. It faced opposition from multiple directions, required negotiation skills and persistence, and it has historical importance. Over the last 30 years, government support for research has unfortunately declined, and the Novartis Deal was a de-facto model for much larger agreements between universities and companies that enable many valuable programs in the sciences. The Novartis deal allowed Berkeley to maintain excellence in plant biology and to produce breakthrough discoveries and innovations.

The Gift

Recently, Gordon donated $50 million to the College of Natural Resources. The college will be renamed the Berkeley Rausser College of Natural Resources. Some of the funds will establish an agricultural and resource economics chair in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics and the Rausser/Zilberman endowment for the Masters of Development Practice. Rausser was a hugely successful businessman and entrepreneur. He was one of the leaders of the new sector of new economic consultants, especially in legal disputes, being one of the founders of the Law and Economics Consulting Group. He has been leading several other companies. He has been a very successful investor. Despite these activities, he continued to teach a huge introductory class, conduct various lines of research, and serve the campus in many venues. It may not come as a surprise that he does not sleep much.

I can also testify that Gordon has been a loving parent who is most proud and dedicated to his children and grandchildren. One secret to Gordon's success as an investor, as well in other areas of life, is that he has always been honest with himself and operated based on his convictions, "he walks the walk." Gordon is no angel, he has a temper and has rubbed some people the wrong way. Yet, Gordon admits and has always owned up to his mistakes. He has a good heart. He is a loyal and supportive friend and was by my side when I needed him. While he is very energetic and seems impulsive, he is actually very disciplined and is a good listener. I noticed that in faculty meetings, Gordon wouldn't be the first one to speak (I may be the one, being impatient and often regret it). Another ingredient for his success and leadership is that Gordon thinks very carefully before making choices, but when he makes them, he is very decisive and clear. Above all, Gordon loves what he doeseconomics, his businesses, the university, and his life. All these ingredients are apparent in his gift; he secured his family's future for generations. This gift is a beautiful act of trust and leadership, showing that serving in Berkeley is not merely a job, it is a calling. We are fortunate to have Gordon in our corner, and I am proud to work at the Berkeley Rausser College of Natural Resources.