SACRAMENTO — A strange thing happened to Ellis E. McCune as he was being forced to retire as president of Cal State Hayward 15 months ago.
McCune wound up as acting chancellor of the 20-campus, 375,000-student California State University System, a position he will relinquish at the end of this month after bringing a period of relative peace to the troubled campuses.
McCune, a tall, lean man with a dry sense of humor and a penchant for bow ties, was pressed into service as acting chancellor in May, 1990, after a series of squabbles among the Cal State Board of Trustees, the Legislature and former Chancellor W. Ann Reynolds led to her abrupt departure.
One of the actions that most annoyed the trustees was Reynolds' determined effort to force McCune, who was then 68, and other senior campus presidents and statewide administrators to retire. Instead, he got her job.
"There is some irony in that," McCune acknowledged during a recent interview in his large, pleasant office in the Cal State Hayward library.
When McCune took over, the chancellor's staff, based in Long Beach, was battling with several campus presidents over a variety of issues; there were major problems with the many unions representing Cal State employees, especially the faculty union, and relations with the Legislature were at an all-time low.
"We badly needed a period of healing" after the turbulent Reynolds years "and Ellis provided it," said a top Cal State official who asked not to be identified.
"It's been a very positive year," said William D. Campbell, chairman of the Cal State Board of Trustees. "Our relations with the faculty and the Legislature are much better. Ellis allowed the presidents and the board and the statewide administration to relate to each other without barriers--I didn't feel the tension I felt before."
Trustee Claudia H. Hampton said McCune "was able to do a very delicate thing. He changed his relationships with the presidents from being one of their peers to being in a supervisory role and I think most of them accepted that."
One reason the presidents liked McCune was that he did not issue many statewide edicts, preferring instead to give maximum autonomy to each campus.
"My concept of the central administration is that it should be a service agency that tries to garner financial resources and political support for the campuses," McCune said. "Ann Reynolds had a quite different idea--she saw this as a big company, with Long Beach as the main office and the campuses as branches."
As acting chancellor, McCune encouraged each campus to make many of its own budget decisions and tried in other ways to decentralize the system.
But he would be the first to say that he made only a small dent in what he sees as a large "structural problem" in the Cal State system--tension between the Long Beach headquarters and the campuses.
"I see this whole thing--the role of the central office and that of the campuses--as a major problem and I don't think the Board of Trustees has thought this through yet," McCune said.
The continuing friction between Cal State and its nine collective bargaining units also is partly due to the tension between the central office and the 20 campuses, McCune said.
"How much should the presidents and the chancellor be involved" in collective bargaining? he asked. "What should the trustees' role be? A lot of this hasn't been worked out yet."
But Bob Gurian of the California Faculty Assn., which represents about 8,500 of Cal State's 20,000 professors and instructors, said McCune has done much to improve labor relations.
"Her highness had the regal approach to management," Gurian said, referring to Reynolds. "Relations were miserable. We'd just as soon fight as talk. But with McCune in there, the atmosphere has been much better. He has made the process work well enough so problems could be resolved internally and we weren't forced to fight it out in legislative hearings."
Perhaps the most fundamental problem facing Cal State is financial, McCune said.
"Are we going to continue to provide higher education for every qualified student?" McCune asked. "I don't see that kind of commitment anymore. That commitment has to be translated into a willingness to (raise) taxes and I don't see much evidence of that."
Although McCune, now 70, has been a college professor and administrator for 40 years, he might not have gone to college had it not been for public higher education and government assistance programs.
He graduated from a Houston, Tex., high school during the Depression and his father, a home builder, could not afford to send him to college.
After working in a grocery store for two years, McCune went to Sam Houston State Teachers College, where he supplemented his grocery store savings with a $15-a-week job provided through the National Youth Authority, a New Deal agency.
He continued his education at UCLA, where he earned a bachelor's degree and a doctorate in political science.