Barack Obama and Me–Reflections on the First 18 Months By: José A. Cárdenas

It would be presumptuous to compare my first 18 months as General Counsel of ASU with Barack Obama’s presidency to date. But there have been some interesting intersections, not the least among them being the Forrest Gump looking picture of my big head set in between ASU President Michael Crow and President Obama at last year’s commencement ceremonies. And our paths have crossed directly and indirectly in other ways as well.

In November 2008, the Arizona Board of Regents confirmed my appointment as Senior Vice President and General Counsel. On a percentage basis, my vote tally (unanimous) was better than Senator Obama’s margin of victory, but, to be fair, I was unopposed. Those votes behind us, in January 2009 the President and I both began our new jobs.

I had had only one job before that – practicing law at Lewis and Roca with some of the finest lawyers in the Southwest. Some, such as the legendary John Frank, also enjoyed well deserved national reputations. My colleagues not only taught me well, but they also allowed me the privilege of serving as the firm’s managing partner and later its chairman. My years at Lewis and Roca were, to borrow the late John Frank’s highest compliment, “very satisfactory.” But after 30 years as a commercial litigator, I was ready for different challenges and new motivation.

Other lawyers go through this. At least often enough to justify books such as, “Turning Points: New Paths and Second Careers for Lawyers, Volume II.” The promo sums it up quite well:

Are you or someone you know standing at an occupational fork in the road? This book will introduce you to 22 lawyers who successfully left private practice to pursue new opportunities. From a Broadway star to the Commissioner of Baseball, this book is not only an entertaining read, but proof positive that with a law degree and a little perseverance, anything is possible.

The book came out earlier this year. So, in late 2008, when Dr. Crow told me that ASU’s General Counsel, Paul Ward, was leaving and offered me that job, I readily accepted, not knowing that Broadway star and Baseball Commissioner were among my options. Even so, I did have second thoughts about the choice I had made.

It was an audacity of hope that took Barack Obama to the White House. For me, it was an audacity rooted in ignorance that made me think I could fill Paul Ward’s shoes. Paul is admired and respected by his colleagues and widely regarded as one of the top higher education lawyers in the country. He was ASU’s longest serving general counsel and could easily have held that position until retirement. But, his law school alma mater, Southern Methodist University, made him an offer he couldn’t refuse, chance to become an officer of the university as well as its general counsel. My confidence that I could take his spot waned as I learned more about him and the job; an education that really began at Paul’s going away party.

Paul shared his reflections on his 29 years as a university chief legal officer, 17 of them at ASU. He emphasized the breadth and the enormity of the legal issues that are the province of university counsel. Hearing Dr. Crow describe himself as the client from hell did nothing to assuage my growing concern. Dr. Crow was joking, mostly, but I did have some concerns about going from having no boss to working for one of the most dynamic, hard charging, and demanding leaders Arizona has ever known.

I didn’t change my mind, but I do think President Obama had a better January 2009 than I did. I ended my first week on the job at a national conference for university general counsel. Two of the attendees were rushed to the hospital, the first after suffering a seizure, the second after experiencing (while he was leading a panel discussion) symptoms of a stroke. Both turned out ok, but it made me wonder what I had gotten myself into.

I found out the next week when our office began working on the first major project under my tenure – figuring out how to cut my salary and that of twelve thousand other ASU employees through furloughs, which amounted to salary reductions of 9 to 14% for the remainder of the fiscal year. It was one of many steps ASU had to take to manage $63 million dollars in mid-year reductions in state funding (on top of a $24 million reduction from the prior fiscal year). I’ve since joked that my discussions with Dr. Crow about compensation should have extended beyond my “starting” salary in January.

February 2009 was a mixed bag. ASU implemented the furlough at the beginning of the month, but President Obama signed the stimulus bill into law on February 17, which ameliorated at least the immediate need for further, even greater, cut backs. In between those dates, one of my fellow citizens notified President Crow’s office that she would be filing a complaint that Dr. Crow was discriminating against “white Americans” in favor of “Mexicans” because, among other things, Dr. Crow “hired a Mexican as his General Counsel” – so much for the notion of a post-racial society in the age of Obama.

She might have been even more concerned if she had seen me a couple of days earlier when I showed up in the office dressed as an Italian priest. I know Dr. Crow was surprised. I was emceeing a fundraiser later that day and came to the office dressed in my costume, comfortable in the knowledge that I had no scheduled meetings. When Dr. Crow called and asked me to come to his office, I started praying. Perhaps it was the blessing I gave him, José A. Cárdenas Graduation 2009maybe it was Dr. Crow’s sense of humor, in either case, I still had a job when I left his office.

It is a job that is every bit as big as Paul said it was. The office of General Counsel deals with all of the employment and business issues that a major corporation might face, but with a higher education and public institution overlay that is governed by ABOR policy, university policy, and state and federal law. The issues range from promotion and tenure to procurement, from constitutional issues arising out of presidential visits to the contents of emergency plans intended to avoid tragedies such as the killings at Virginia Tech.

The consequences of a misstep were a major emphasis of a three day conference last November that focused on “compliance with the ever-increasing array of federal and state statutes and regulations [that are] a major concern for colleges and universities.” That comforting statement in the promotional materials was accompanied by the equally cheery warning that “Identifying and understanding the enormous number of specific compliance obligations is a daunting if not impossible task.” I went anyway and I stayed for the entire conference even though almost every session included a reference to federal sentencing guidelines. On the positive side, no one went to the hospital.

More importantly, I inherited a very experienced and talented cadre of lawyers who work hard to keep me out of jail and the university out of trouble. Our office of eight attorneys also draws upon the experience and assistance of our colleagues at the University of Arizona and Northern Arizona University. The more than 20 lawyers in these three offices, along with ABOR General Counsel Nancy Tribbensee, the system’s lead lawyer, all have the same client, the Arizona Board of Regents.

The last 18 months haven’t always been fun. But the major disappointment is not unique to me or my job. As are many others, I am concerned about the increasingly coarse and vitriolic tone of public discourse and the intolerance it breeds. The woman who complained about hiring Mexicans is one example. The shouted “you lie” during one of President Obama’s speeches is another. Similar and even uglier outbursts during the March 2010 Gammage Auditorium debate between Karl Rove and Howard Dean, which I moderated, prove that the incivility is bipartisan even if little else is.

More recent events have been a mixed bag, but with familiar themes. In April, the citizens of Arizona showed their support for K-12 and higher education by approving a temporary 1% sales tax increase. Without it, ASU would have taken another $48 million in budget cuts.

AttorneysAt the same time, immigration issues have jumped to the forefront. ASU, which has a sizeable international student contingent, deals with immigration matters on a regular basis. But now, the eyes of the nation, including those of the Obama administration, are on Arizona as we grapple with the consequences of the passage of the immigration bill known as SB 1070. Once again civil discourse is proving rather elusive.

That said, my tenure as general counsel has been very satisfactory indeed. I miss my Lewis and Roca colleagues, but I enjoy the camaraderie of what is in essence a small law firm. And, while the age difference between me and the two freshman Obama Scholars who are my mentees is a bit disconcerting, their energy and enthusiasm actually make me feel younger.

The job does have its stresses and strains, which have been amplified by the state’s budget crisis. But I enjoy the intellectual challenges and the variety. As Forrest Gump would say, “You never know what you’re gonna get,” and while it’s not exactly a box of chocolates, it makes the job quite interesting. There are other rewards as well. President Obama’s visit was a special treat. But the real satisfaction comes from the sense of accomplishment that accompanies every commencement and the sense of mission and purpose that comes from being a part, however small, of Dr. Crow’s vision of the New American University.

In summary, I would not think of trading the last eighteen months to be a Broadway star or the Commissioner of Baseball.

Actually, that’s not true. I would think hard about the baseball gig, but that job’s taken and I am quite happy with the one I have.