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Graduate Alumnus in the Spotlight: Museum Curator Michael Darling Is a ‘Rock Star’ in Chicago

Dr. Michael Darling at the "David Bowie Is" exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago in 2014.Michael Darling believes that graduate students should take control of their destinies and “make things happen rather than waiting for an opportunity to fall into their lap.” Throughout his life, this Art and Architectural History M.A. (1992) and Ph.D. (1997) alumnus of UC Santa Barbara has adhered to this philosophy, doing what he could to make himself stand out.

And stand out he has. Dr. Darling, 47, is the James W. Alsdorf Chief Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) in Chicago, a role he has held since July 2010. The Chicago Tribune listed him among “Chicagoans of the Year 2014,” calling Darling a “rock star” for taking a gamble and securing the highly successful “David Bowie Is” exhibition for its only U.S. stop. Chicago magazine followed up in 2015, placing Darling at No. 93 on “The Power 100,” its list of Chicagoans who have the most clout. “Snagging the blockbuster” Bowie retrospective, the magazine said, is “a testament to this curator’s international reputation.” Darling shared the Power 100 list with luminaries such as Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and filmmaker/philanthropist George Lucas.

Far from the Windy City and his future rock star persona, Darling grew up in the Los Angeles County coastal city of Long Beach. Michael was artistically inclined but “never very talented from a technical standpoint,” he said, and his “true epiphany” came in middle school when he came across Picasso and Kandinsky in a textbook. He and his parents and two younger brothers enjoyed water-based activities of all kinds, including boating, surfing, and water skiing; and Michael competed on his high school’s water polo and swim teams. With relatives living in Santa Barbara and Santa Ynez, Michael and his family spent a lot of time in the Santa Barbara area even before he came to grad school at UCSB.

Michael Darling, right, and friend Joe Scott took to the waves in San Onofre in the early 1990s. “Checking out the waves at Rincon on the way up was always a milestone on those road trips!” he recalled.

Stanford University, taking notice of his water polo talents, recruited him to play there. So Darling and three other close friends who were water polo and swimming standouts headed to Palo Alto for their undergraduate studies.

Darling earned his bachelor’s degree in Art History from Stanford in 1990. He wanted to pursue a graduate degree, but didn’t know exactly what area of art history to study.

“My interests were quite wide and varied,” Darling recalled. “UCSB had one of the most diverse and large art history faculties around at that time, with professors teaching in many different disciplines, so that was attractive to me and even suggested by one of my art history advisors at Stanford. It was also the era of multiculturalism, so I was exploring and getting to understand that at the time as well, which made UCSB a good fit.”

Darling’s doctoral dissertation at UCSB was on the furniture of 20th century American designer George Nelson.

“I was going around to a lot of rummage sales and garage sales in Santa Barbara during those days, and discovering mid-century furniture (Montecito was a fabulous hunting ground for this material). ... At the time there was very little on George Nelson, who was a contemporary of Charles and Ray Eames. I felt I could fill a void in that area by writing on Nelson, and luckily I had two advisors, David Gebhard and C. Edson Armi, who did not feel that furniture design was an inferior art and that it was worthy of scholarly study.”

Narrowing his research, Darling decided to “focus on the work that George Nelson did with domestic spaces, which coincided with a modernizing of the American home after World War II and was a pretty fascinating sociological period as well.”

During the time of his graduate studies and shortly thereafter, Darling worked in many art-related roles: security guard at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art; researcher at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Los Angeles; and even an art critic, first for small art magazines, then for Santa Barbara publications, and eventually gaining his own columns in the L.A. Reader and L.A. Weekly.

Darling said he loved critiquing art, one of his extracurricular activities while a grad student at UCSB. “As a critic with a byline, I felt like a full contributor to culture. I saw an ad in this little West Coast magazine called ArtWeek and I sent in a few of my grad school essays. After writing several columns there, I sent my tear sheets to the Santa Barbara Independent and magazines like Flash Art and Art Issues, and then things started taking off. It wasn’t a lot of extra work. I was interested in exhibitions happening in Santa Barbara and L.A., and it was a way to engage with them. It was weird being a critic, and sometimes uncomfortable, and I even got hate mail, once getting mean posters put up all over Santa Barbara about me!”

Darling ended up working for eight years at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), where he was Associate Curator. From that job, he moved to Seattle, where he served as the Jon and Mary Shirley Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Seattle Art Museum (SAM) from 2006 to 2010, before heading to Chicago’s MCA. He and his sons Max, 16, and Theo, 11, live in Evanston, Illinois.

In an interview, we learned more about this multifaceted man. He talked about his appreciation for libraries; the importance of internships; what he likes most and least about his job; the value of a Ph.D.; and more.

What was graduate student life like for you at UCSB? What kind of a student were you here, and how did you manage a work-life balance while in grad school?

I was able to primarily concentrate on my studies during my time at UCSB, so I remember spending a lot of time in the library, which has really served me well in my subsequent career. It was a true luxury to work in a good art library where I could just pull books off the shelf at random and explore. That broadened my knowledge base a lot and I find that I have a wider frame of view on art than many of my peers because of this freedom. I have always been good, however, at maintaining a balance between work (or school) and my personal life and was able to find plenty of time to be with friends or be in nature or see movies during that period, which I did a lot. I also met my wife during my first few days of school at UCSB (she was also an art history grad student) so it was an important time for me personally too. I like to think I was a serious student, but I must say that I also always had one eye on life beyond school, so I was doing extracurricular things when I was in Santa Barbara such as writing art criticism. I was also curating independently at places like the Santa Barbara Contemporary Arts Forum [today the Museum of Contemporary Art Santa Barbara] and a little independent space in Santa Barbara called Spanish Box. I think I knew at the time that my degree was just one aspect of my professional development and I needed to work on other things at the same time if I wanted to find my way into a museum job.

What was your first job out of graduate school?

I got a job working as a security guard at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art after I finished my master’s and before I started on my Ph.D. I wanted to make sure I knew what I wanted to concentrate on before I started so I could be focused. It was an important job for realizing the various layers to a museum, both from an organizational standpoint and from a visitor standpoint. Most guards in museums are very interesting and accomplished people but perhaps are working in creative fields where it is a way of putting food on the table and allowing them to pursue other less lucrative passions but still working in an artistic environment. But when I was really done with school, post-Ph.D., I got a job as a researcher at the Museum of Contemporary Art in L.A. I had wanted to work there since I was an undergrad and it was like the holy grail. I went against my personality type (at the time) and went up to a MOCA curator at an art opening and introduced myself and told her I admired her work. I think I asked if I could take her for coffee some time and learn more about how she was able to do what she did. That led to her offering me a part-time position, which grew and grew into an eight-year run at MOCA. That experience has led me to offer similar advice to other aspiring curators to approach the people they admire and ask for help or advice.

Before you graduated from Stanford, you did summer museum internships in Long Beach. It was there that you discovered the job of “curator,” a job you hadn’t known existed. What did you do in those internships, and would you recommend that grad students do them as a way to explore career options?

Yes, I think internships are important windows onto potential future job options. I did research and worked with artists and thought it was the best job in the world to think about art all day. I see internships here at the MCA leading to real jobs all the time, and in a way my research position at MOCA was just the same, a foot in the door and an opportunity to prove yourself.

Curator Michael Darling at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago.Describe your current job.

I am in charge of all programming at the museum, which ranges from exhibitions to talks and performances. Of course, I have amazing people working for me who help create these things and I don’t do it all myself, but it is fun to have a hand in shaping the overall tenor of the program. I also oversee the growth of the museum’s collection and personally curate exhibitions too. It involves a lot of coordination between departments and keeping on top of projects happening simultaneously, from logistics to visionary things and also fundraising to support the programs. It is an extremely busy job, but very rewarding too. I also travel a lot to see art all over the world, as I feel I am expected to be on top of all kinds of developments occurring all over. I try to keep a normal day to 9-5, but it is a pretty social position and there are often dinners and lectures and events I need to go to in a given week.

What exactly does a “museum curator” do?

The basic job is organizing exhibitions. But that also includes writing the books that go with them, writing grants that support them, asking for money from patrons to fund them, writing the interpretive materials that explain them, and doing interviews and tours that help to bring them to life.

What do you like most about your job and what do you like least?

I like the travel the most because I learn so much and find time to think more expansively, but I also like travel the least because I fall behind on email and miss my family and it can be quite lonely at times.

You grew up in California, moved to Seattle, and now live in the Chicago area. How important is it for students to be open and willing to move away for their career?

I think it is important to get different experiences and perspectives, both in an academic and a work environment. I know it has been really beneficial for me to consider how art works in such different contexts and also how different each of the museums I have worked in are. On the other hand, I do worry about the loss of depth of connections that results from moving around. I don’t feel I got to know Seattle and its community as much as I did L.A. from only being there four years, and as a result, I don’t think I was able to contribute as much as I would have liked.

Do you have any advice for graduate students while they are in school? 

One thing I see when I am hiring people, especially for entry-level positions or fellowships, is that the competition is really fierce and a lot of people have the same degrees. I often look to see what self-directed work the candidate has done in their field, where they are showing that they are trying to take control of their destiny and make things happen rather than waiting for an opportunity to fall into their lap. I guess I base that on what I was able to do to make myself stand out but it also bespeaks a desire and commitment that makes me want to hire them.

Do you have any advice for graduate students as they explore career options and/or do job interviews?

I think sensing someone’s passion and curiosity is a very persuasive thing to find in an interview and having a broad world-view that shows you are a well-rounded person. Read the newspaper every day! Or better yet, multiple newspapers!

How do you think your doctoral studies prepared you for your non-academic career? What skills, knowledge, and education gained in graduate school have helped you throughout your career?

When I started at MOCA, I was the only person in the whole building with a Ph.D. It seemed like overkill, but it did help my resume stand out. When I went to the Seattle Art Museum, a few curators had Ph.D.’s, but it was still unusual, and when I came to the MCA I was again the only person in the whole building with a Ph.D., but that has since changed and now there are several people here with them. The field is changing and the competition is such that a Ph.D. helps you to stand out in a sea of M.A.s. We have Ph.D.s here at the MCA who edit books and who devise interpretation strategies and who do archival research, so there are jobs beyond curating where it is applicable. I know that all that time I spent in the stacks, which only a Ph.D. can provide, has given me a breadth and depth of knowledge that can’t be matched by an M.A. in museum studies.

Do you have any suggestions for the UCSB educational system (or universities in general) on how to better prepare our grad students for careers?

Michael Darling with octogenarian Mexican contemporary artist Eduardo Terrazas in Mexico City in February 2015.I haven’t been too close to the university system in a long time, but I do sense that the attitude that Ph.D.s were only to pursue academic work has loosened considerably. I felt I had to keep my museum interests as a dirty little secret. I’m sure a lot of that has to do with the changing nature of tenure and employment in academia and the growing number of grads who want to put their degrees to use. I think being open to the various applications of a grad degree is something that would be good for universities to consider and would ultimately lead to a wider impact for their respective fields.

What do you consider to be your biggest accomplishments and/or something you are the most proud of professionally and personally?

Personally, it is being a father; professionally, it may be the Isa “Genzken Retrospective” I organized for the MCA and with MOMA New York and the Dallas Museum of Art, or the “Target Practice: Painting Under Attack 1949-78” exhibition I did at the Seattle Art Museum.

You were written about a lot when you secured the Bowie exhibition (which ran through January 4, 2015). Can you briefly discuss this and how it came about?

We just hit it at the right time, and picked the right project. I heard about it and contacted the V&A [Victoria and Albert Museum] in London and as it turned out we were the first American museum to approach them and they didn’t have much of a tour at all. I negotiated that we would be the first American venue and it turned out we were the only American venue and then our team here made the most of that. It looked like a big coup but it was a pretty banal transaction. It ended up being the most well-attended show in MCA history, drawing 200,000 people.

Who has been and/or is a hero, mentor, role model, or inspiration to you?

I have had a lot of great female curator role models that have given me big breaks in my career, including Josine Ianco-Starrels for my first internship, Elizabeth Smith for giving me a chance at MOCA, Mimi Gates for hiring me in Seattle, and then Madeleine Grynsztejn for tapping me to come to the MCA. All have been enormously influential on me. Paul Schimmel at MOCA is another one, however, who I learned a lot from and who I think about a lot as an example.

What do you do for fun and relaxation?

Michael Darling enjoyed scuba diving in Kauai, Hawaii, in June 2015.I love the water, and here in the Chicago area love to go to the beach at Lake Michigan. I have been trying to sail on the lake as much as possible. I also like food a lot and exploring new restaurants and cuisines. I do both with my kids, which is a lot of fun.

What is something very few people know about you or that would surprise people about you?

That I have a secret passion and growing knowledge about vintage Italian sports cars, even though I don’t own one myself.

What’s on your bucket list of things to do that you haven’t done?

I’d like to check off more countries in the world to travel to. Travel is one of my favorite things. ... On a quick count, I think I have been to 22 countries. Strangely, I have never been to Portugal, which I would like to see, and I think it is about time I find a way to visit South Korea, India, and Vietnam.


More on Dr. Michael Darling:

Fear No Art Chicago’s video interview with Dr. Michael Darling, 2011

Q&A: Michael Darling talks about curating “David Bowie Is,” TimeOut Chicago

New Curator Is Chosen for MCA, New York Times


Retired NASA Astronaut Jose Hernandez, ’86 Master’s Alum, Is Named UCSB’s 2015 Distinguished Alumnus

Jose Hernandez spoke of reaching for the stars in his Commencement address to UCSB School of Engineering graduates in June 2014. Credit: Mike EliasonCalifornia-born José Hernandez didn’t learn to speak English until he was 12 years old. Young José would travel throughout the state for nine months out of the year to farms, where he would work in the fields alongside his siblings and immigrant parents to pick strawberries, cherries, cucumbers, grapes, and tomatoes. In December 1972, a fascinated 10-year-old José sat in front of his family’s old black-and-white console TV to watch Apollo 17 Commander Eugene Cernan make the last walk on the moon. It was at that moment that José decided: “I want to be an astronaut.” Despite his determination and the excellent graduate engineering education he later received at UC Santa Barbara, NASA rejected him for the astronaut program 11 times. But Hernandez didn’t give up, and the 12th time was a charm. In his 40s, he was finally accepted into the program, and he reached his dream to fly in space as an astronaut.

The Stockton boy who overcame many challenges grew into an adult with numerous achievements to his name. Among them: At Lawrence Livermore Lab, Hernandez co-developed the first full-field digital mammography imaging system to aid in early detection of breast cancer. He founded his own engineering consulting firm, Tierra Luna Engineering. He created a nonprofit foundation that aims to ensure opportunities for children to pursue their educational and professional goals regardless of perceived obstacles. A San Jose middle school was named after him. He has received six honorary doctorate degrees. He was UCSB School of Engineering’s Commencement speaker in June 2014. And he has written a biography (no ghostwriter, he says; “I wrote every single word”) called “Reaching for the Stars,” which will be made into a movie next year directed by Alfonso Arau (“Like Water for Chocolate,” “A Walk in the Clouds”).

It is because of these achievements and others that the UC Santa Barbara Alumni Association has named Hernandez (M.S., Electrical and Computer Engineering, 1986) UCSB’s 2015 Distinguished Alumnus. Hernandez, 53, will be honored on Saturday, Oct. 24, at an awards luncheon in Corwin Pavilion.

The ceremony also will commemorate UCSB’s new designation as a Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI). An HSI is a college or university in which Hispanic enrollment comprises a minimum of 25 percent of the total enrollment of undergraduate and graduate students. UCSB was named a Hispanic-Serving Institution by the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities and is the only HSI that is also a member of the prestigious Association of American Universities.

Jose Hernandez tweets about the successful separation of the Mexican satellite from the rocket.“We are very excited to have José Hernandez return to campus to help us kick off the campaign to raise money for Dreamers’ scholarships,” George Thurlow, UCSB’s assistant vice chancellor for alumni affairs and executive director of UCSB’s alumni association, said an Office of Public Affairs and Communications news release. “José’s story is an inspirational one for all alumni and for all Californians. His work today with Latino youth is even more inspirational.”

Hernandez was at Cape Canaveral in Florida this week to assist his Tierra Luna Engineering client, Mexico, in the launch of its Boeing-made communications satellite aboard a Lockheed-made rocket. He took some time away from his duties (which included tweeting about the launch in both Spanish and English from his account, @Astro_Jose) for a phone interview with the GradPost. He spoke about the Distinguished Alumnus honor; the mammography technology he co-developed; his father’s winning “recipe”; how UC Santa Barbara prepared him for his career; what he thinks of space movies; which actress he would like to portray his wife in the upcoming film about his life; and more.

Jose Hernandez tweeted from Cape Canaveral at the launch of a Mexican communications satellite on Friday, Oct. 2.


Hernandez called the Distinguished Alumnus award “a great honor.” Said the retired NASA astronaut: “I’m very happy, very humbled to be recognized in this fashion.”

The additional celebration of UCSB’s new designation as a Hispanic-Serving Institution will make this occasion extra special for Hernandez.

“To be recognized as a Hispanic-Serving Institution, you have to have a student body that’s 25 percent or more Hispanic,” he said. “And the fact that the school has reached that milestone is a great testament to the commitment that the university makes in its strategy to have a diversified population. The designation is a tangible metric that basically demonstrates the fact that the university is committed to diversity and is a welcoming institution for everybody. And so I’m very happy to be participating in the recognition of that milestone.”

Hernandez knows a thing or two about milestones. When he shared his dream of becoming an astronaut with his father, Salvador took José to the kitchen table, sat him down, and presented his five-ingredient recipe for success. That recipe was smart and sophisticated for a man with a third-grade education, and it came to serve José well.

The recipe: 1. Decide what you want to be in life. 2. Recognize how far you are from that goal. 3. Draw up a detailed roadmap of where you are and where you want to be. 4. Prepare yourself with the appropriate education, because “there’s no substitute for an education.” And 5. Develop a strong work ethic – the same strong work ethic that went into harvesting crops. “Always deliver more than what people ask of you,” Salvador told his son. 

NASA astronaut Jose HernandezHernandez has followed that recipe throughout his life. He realized that to become an astronaut would require an advanced engineering degree. So upon earning his bachelor’s degree at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, he chose to pursue his graduate studies at UC Santa Barbara after discovering that UCSB was among the Top 5 schools for electrical engineering.

His education at UCSB prepared him for his job afterward at Lawrence Livermore Lab.

“My undergraduate program at the University of the Pacific prepared me to be a good engineer in the sense of giving me the basic tools,” he said. But it was at UC Santa Barbara, he said, that he learned and honed skills in research.

“I got a great opportunity to do research at the graduate level at UCSB and that allowed me to become an even better engineer when I went to work for Lawrence Livermore Lab,” he said.

Hernandez said his acquired research skills “allowed me to flourish as an engineer.” He also attributed those skills “to being able to latch onto a project.” He did just that as one of the two investigators to develop what was then the first full-field digital mammography system for the early detection of breast cancer.

He said when he’s asked what is the proudest moment of his professional career, “a lot of people expect me to say being an astronaut and going into space.” But in reality, Hernandez said, it’s the mammography technology he co-developed. The system, he said, produced images far superior to the film screen technology that was being used then and opened up a new area of study called computer-aided diagnosis.

“So I have no doubt that the technology that we co-developed at Lawrence Livermore Lab has saved hundreds if not thousands of lives,” he added. “And I attribute a lot of that – the skills to be able to develop that – to the research skills that I acquired as a graduate student at UC Santa Barbara.”

Along with learning research skills at UCSB, Hernandez acquired writing skills. He wrote research reports and took technical writing courses. That skill has been put to use at Lawrence Livermore Lab, at NASA, and in his work as the author of his biography, “Reaching for the Stars.” He is proud to say that he had no ghostwriter and that he “wrote every single word.”

“They say engineers can’t write. But I was able to write that book,” he added.

The crew of the 2009 STS-128 mission on the shuttle Discovery. Jose Hernandez is second from left.The book details his life from the age of 6 on and includes, of course, his persistent efforts to get accepted into the astronaut program and his 14-day STS-128 mission into space aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 2009.

Hernandez says director Alfonso Arau picked up the option for his book and plans are to start shooting the film in April 2016.

Hernandez says he’ll be one of the executive producers of the movie and he will have a voice in who will play him and his wife, Adela.

Several actors and actresses are being discussed for those roles, he said. Hernandez said if he had his wish, his 12-year-old son, one of the Hernandezes’ five children, would play the role of José as a young boy. “He’s the spitting image of me at that age,” Hernandez said. Actor Michael Pena, who played the lead role in “Cesar Chavez,” is reportedly being considered for the role of Hernandez as an adult.

Hernandez said he jokingly told the producers that “if they get Eva Longoria to play my wife, I will be more than happy to take acting lessons and play myself. My wife didn’t appreciate that comment.”

We asked Hernandez what he thinks about space movies these days. Are they all entertainment and no reality?

“I think they’re fun entertainment,” he said. “I read the book, ‘The Martian,’ so I’m very excited to see the Matt Damon movie. Although movies are never as good as books. There are a lot of things that are left out. I’m afraid I’m not going to enjoy ‘The Martian’ as much as I enjoyed ‘Interstellar’ or ‘Gravity’ because I didn’t read those books.”

“Gravity,” he said, “was very unrealistic in what happened. The only thing they got right was the scenery. The scenery was exactly how I remembered it.” As for “Interstellar,” “It was even more unrealistic, but it makes you think about time travel, so I really enjoyed it,” Hernandez said.

“Any time we have the opportunity to expose the public to space and to space travel in a popular way, I think it’s very good,” the former astronaut said. “It informs the public about space exploration.”

And it just may inspire other 10-year-olds to dream of “reaching for the stars.”


The UC Santa Barbara 2015 Distinguished Alumnus award luncheon begins at noon on Oct. 24. The cost is $25 per person, and the public is welcome. For tickets or reservations, call Mary MacRae at 805-893-2957 or go to the Eventbrite page.


Jose Hernandez's Reaching for the Stars foundation helps children pursue their educational and professional goals.


‘We Do Not Walk Alone,’ UCSB Grad Alumna Capps Says In Leading Moment of Silence on House Floor

Rep. Lois Capps led a moment of silence on Wednesday in the U.S. House of Representatives.

On Wednesday, Congresswoman and UCSB alumna Lois Capps (MA, 1990) of the 24th District led a moment of silence on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives in Washington, D.C. “The nation stands with UCSB,” she said on her Facebook page.

“Together we have taken the first steps toward making sense of the senseless,” the congresswoman said on the House floor. “But it will be a long journey. We have many questions. And over the weeks and months ahead, perhaps more will be posed than we can answer. But we will work through it together. And while we all struggle to make sense of this tragedy, I want to thank you, my colleagues, and the communities across the nation for your prayers, your kind words, and your support. This act was fueled by hate. But in the wake of this tragedy, we as a nation have shown that in a dark time, we do not walk alone. We do not grieve alone. So we will not have to heal alone.”

View her speech and the moment of silence in the video below. View the congresswoman's news release here.


UCSB Grad Alum in the Spotlight: Gordon Morrell, Yardi Systems Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer

Gordon Morrell is Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of Goleta-based Yardi Systems. He earned a Ph.D. in Education from UCSB in 1976. Credit: Yardi SystemsGordon Morrell has been juggling roles for decades, going back to his days as an Education Ph.D. student at UCSB in the 1970s. At that time, in the halls outside their tiny graduate student offices in what is now the Hosford Clinic, he and several of his cohorts would take breaks from their studies and do a little three-ball juggling.

"We actually got to the point where we could pass to each other,” Morrell recalled with a laugh, adding: "It was a stress breaker; it was like a little relief." In explaining why this routine was helpful for the grad students, he said, "You have to really focus when you’re juggling. You can’t be thinking about other things. So maybe it’s just a good way to get your mind off what you’re doing."

That focus and work-life balance has served Morrell well. Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., and raised along with his older brother in Goshen, a small farming town north of New York City, he earned his Education Ph.D. (Counseling Psychology emphasis) in three years at UCSB. "I went straight through from kindergarten to Ph.D.," he said. "There were no breaks." He put himself through college by singing and playing guitar in such local venues as The Feed Store restaurant and bar in Santa Barbara (no longer in existence); SOhO; and Cold Spring Tavern.

Morrell’s career path would end up taking a few twists and turns. As a teenager in his hometown, he sold milk at a dairy farm and was a stable boy at the local horse racing track. After college, he was a university professor in Maine; a county director of childcare services in Santa Barbara; and the founder of a Santa Barbara educational software development company. In 1990, he joined asset and property management software solutions provider Yardi Systems in Goleta, where he has worked since, currently as its Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer.

Morrell is on the management team of a company with 3,300 employees and more than 30 offices in North America, Europe, Asia, and Australia. The company website says Morrell “is responsible for protecting Yardi Systems' corporate and fiscal interests and maintaining operations.” But he will tell you that “maintaining operations” sometimes means getting down on hands and knees to tighten a loose foot screw or seeing that a coffee spill is cleaned up. “It’s sort of a humbling experience,” Morrell said. “But I don’t mind it. It’s just fine.”

Morrell emphasizes that as a 23-year employee of Yardi, “this is a fulfilling job for me.” He also finds his nonprofit work, both through the company and outside of it, rewarding. Yardi is actively involved in supporting nonprofit community organizations with projects related to such areas as the arts (including UCSB’s Arts & Lectures); sustainability; education for disadvantaged youths; and social services. Morrell reads proposals and works with others in the company to decide which projects to fund. “We’re very proud of the amount of nonprofit work that we do through the company,” he said. Outside of Yardi, he is proud to chair the advisory board of public radio station KCLU and work on activities for the nonprofit community foundation The Fund for Santa Barbara.

Gordon Morrell, right, served as the auctioneer for The Fund for Santa Barbara's Bread and Roses fundraiser on Oct. 12 at QAD in Summerland. With him are Geoff Green, executive director of The Fund for Santa Barbara, and Fund founder Nancy Alexander. Credit: Rochelle Rose, Noozhawk

After Gordon the graduate student earned his Ph.D. from UCSB in 1976, “I remember really missing being on the East Coast.” So he returned, figuring that his career future would be as a counseling professional or as a university professor. Little did he know then that he would end up back in Santa Barbara, not in the Education field, but as a long-serving top executive at a growing and successful global software company.

We sat down for an interview with Dr. Morrell, who shares his biggest accomplishments; how he transitioned from the education field to the computer software field; his insights for grad students entering the job market; the special distinction he held when he was a university professor; and more. Read on. …

Education and degrees

Ph.D., Education, Counseling Psychology emphasis, UC Santa Barbara, 1976
M.Ed., Counseling emphasis, University of Hartford (Connecticut), 1973
B.A., Liberal Arts, American Studies, Syracuse University (New York), 1971

How was it that you came to UCSB for graduate school?

In 1972, Ray Hosford and Jules Zimmer [later the Dean of Gevirtz School] came out to the University of Hartford to conduct a three-week summer program. Dr. Hosford asked if I would be interested in studying at UCSB. I took one look at the photo of the UCSB Lagoon and made up my mind quickly.

What was graduate school like for you? What kind of a student were you when you were at UCSB?

My recollection is that grad school was a good combination of fun and hard work. Remember that this was the mid-70s and there were lots of interesting things going on, with California and UCSB in the forefront. I was from the East Coast so all of this was new to me. I’m guessing that most of my professors (besides my committee members) couldn’t answer the question of the type of student I was. I don’t think I was stellar, nor was I going to do anyone any harm. I was in the program for less than three years, so either I was very focused, or they decided to get me out of there to make room for some real students. One thing I learned in school: how to do three-ball juggling.

Please tell us a little bit about your UCSB dissertation and research.

I was looking at correlations between diet and behavior of children. We worked with low-income populations in Santa Barbara schools where we could see what the students were eating for breakfast through the Head Start program. And we developed a measurement test to assess reactions to specific questions, as a supplement to teachers’ records, etc. Much of this is taken for granted today, but we were testing to see if high-sugar intake would have a different effect than high-protein breakfasts. Our research pretty much verified the common-sense thinking that the low-sugar breakfasts helped kids stay a little bit calmer and stay focused and they were generally doing better in school.

"I thought my future would be in the counseling profession, or at least in teaching at the university level. It’s a lesson in understanding that what you study – what you major in – might not necessarily determine your future career arc. That’s a great lesson to understand because once you get that, you become open to a whole new universe."
– Gordon Morrell,
Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of Yardi Systems

What was your first job out of graduate school and how did you get it? Also, how did you make that transition from Education to computer software?

I graduated in August, 1976, and left Santa Barbara shortly afterward, driving east in our ’67 VW Bus with my wife, Sheila, our dog, our cat, three rabbits, and a small ficus plant. The rabbits ate the plant along the way, but we wound up in Connecticut a week later. I took a part-time teaching job at a community college, and a month later was offered a job running the Child Development program for the city of Enfield, Connecticut. A week before that job was to start, I applied for, interviewed, and was offered my dream job: teaching at Nasson College, a small liberal arts college in Sanford, Maine. So off we went, in January, 1977, to start a new life in Maine.

Three months into that job, the professor who hired me told me that Nasson was having financial problems (it has since closed) and I should get out if I could. I applied for, interviewed, and was offered a job at the University of Maine in Gorham, teaching Human Development in the undergrad division, and Counseling in the grad school. At age 27 I was the youngest Assistant Professor at the university, and along with my California degree was also something of a novelty.

But Sheila is a 6th-generation Californian, and after a couple of blizzards, two winters, and one child later, we decided to move back to Santa Barbara. Jules Zimmer had introduced me to some people at the Office of the County Superintendent of Schools, and in July, 1979, I became their Director of Child Development Programs. This was right at the birth of the personal computer scene. I worked on trying to computerize some of our record-keeping systems, and that led to the publication of a book on how to select the right computer called "Computer-Ease" in 1982. I left the County Schools office a year later to start my own company, Santa Barbara Softworks, which developed educational software for elementary and high school students. Two of our programs (Alge-Blaster and Grammar Gremlins) were top 10 best-sellers in the country for educational software.

But the computer industry grew quickly and so did my children. In 1990 I decided to look for work with another company, and more security, and today Santa Barbara Softworks lives on only at the front of one of my old T-shirts.

Briefly describe your current job at Yardi and what it entails. What do you like most about your job and what do you like least?

I began working at Yardi Systems in March, 1990, when we had about 25 people. As the Chief Operating Officer I am responsible for the day-to-day operations of a 3,300-employee company. Here are a few things I like most:

a) I get to work with terrific people every day.

b) We are able to support nonprofit organizations all over the world.

c) My job changes from hour to hour. I might be negotiating a contract for the acquisition of another company, and an hour later might be called on to help fix an overflowing toilet. It’s all quite humbling.

And here’s what I like least: Sometimes people won’t report that overflowing toilet!

What does Yardi look for in the UCSB students it hires?

We’ve got so many different positions that open up here, so that’s a tough question to answer. I know that we have hired from Computer Science, journalism, and the Bren School, among others. We really look more at the individual and not necessarily so much at their background or what discipline they came from. Because there’s so much variety in the different types of jobs that are available here.

In what ways did UCSB, specifically your graduate education, prepare you for your career?

As a graduate student, you have to be disciplined and you have to take responsibility for the work that you do. You need to be able to communicate succinctly and clearly. These traits definitely have helped in my career. More specifically, the counseling skills I learned, being able to listen, respond, and help, are skills I use in my job every day.

Do you have any job search or job interview tips you’d like to share with our grad students? Anything you think will help a grad student stand out as a job seeker with potential employers?

Research and understand the company and the position you are seeking. Listen carefully to questions and answer honestly. Stay present and don’t worry about things far in the future.

In job interview and job application situations, what mistakes or faux pas do grad student applicants make?

Candidates can focus too much on selling themselves and not listening to the interviewer’s questions. It’s a fine line, because of course you want to impress the interviewer. But if you prepare by understanding what the company does, and what the job entails, the rest will take care of itself. Tread lightly with questions like "Is there room for advancement in the company?" This can be seen as a sign that you would not be satisfied with the position being offered, and you will be looking elsewhere.

What strengths do you think a Ph.D./M.A. student would bring to an employer?

People who graduate from Ph.D./M.A. programs have demonstrated their ability to study subjects, and to be focused and disciplined enough to follow through with the program. These are great skills for any position.

Who has been and/or is a hero, mentor, role model, or inspiration to you?

I’ve been very fortunate to be able to be with some wonderful people in and away from school and work. The inspirations can come from watching the smallest struggles to the biggest visions. The former Dean of the Graduate School of Education, Dr. Jules Zimmer, has always been an inspiration. At the University of Maine I was asked to team-teach with D.D. Moore, who continues to be a mentor. And I would not have stayed at Yardi Systems for these years without continued inspiration from Anant Yardi, who started the company in 1982.

What do you consider to be your biggest accomplishment or something you are the most proud of?

Gordon Morrell was a self-described "campus radical" in his early college days. He earned a Master of Education from the University of Hartford in 1973.I was a campus radical at Syracuse in the 1960s. In those days I never saw myself as one who would "settle down" as I got older. But here I am: married to Sheila for 37 years, in the same house in Santa Barbara for 34 years, and in the same job for more than 23 years. Definitely an accomplishment. But I’m most proud of our two fantastic daughters and the fact that all of us, including our two young grandchildren (both born this year) can enjoy hanging out together. On the work front, I am very proud to participate in the nonprofit program at Yardi. We support more than 60 groups worldwide.

What’s on your bucket list of things to do that you haven’t done?

Come on ... I’m not old enough for a bucket list, am I?

What is something that very few people know about you or that would surprise people about you?

Here are a few things:

a) I chair the advisory board of the best radio station around: KCLU public radio.

b) Spent many years playing guitar and singing in bands, up to just a few years ago.

c) Was the auctioneer earlier this month for the Fund for Santa Barbara’s Bread and Roses.

d) Introduced, as Ed Sullivan, a Beatles tribute band at our recent user conference in Anaheim.

e) Have been learning to make old-school cocktails (Old Fashioneds, martinis, Manhattans, Dark 'n' Stormys, Negronis) – lots of fun when people come to visit.

f) I have been riding a Vespa to work for the last 10 years.

What do you do for fun or relaxation?

My guilty pleasure is an evening soak in our redwood hot tub, something I do a few nights a week to relax. Sheila and I have a house in Maine where we now spend a couple of months every summer. We try to get out on our kayaks a few days a week and I love to get out for long walks, listening to NPR podcasts along with the wildlife. In Santa Barbara I try to get out on my bike at least once a week.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

I’m a very lucky guy. UCSB gave me a great launch into the "real" world. I thought my future would be in the counseling profession, or at least in teaching at the university level. It’s a lesson in understanding that what you study – what you major in – might not necessarily determine your future career arc. That’s a great lesson to understand because once you get that, you become open to a whole new universe.