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10 Questions for Sheila Kuehl

Photo courtesy of Sheila Kuehl.
Photo courtesy of Sheila Kuehl.
Sheila Kuehl, a former California state senator and state assemblywoman, joins UCLA’s faculty in Spring 2012 as a Regents’ Professor after receiving the appointment May 17. The UC regents approve one such position systemwide per quarter, creating a visiting professor position for leaders outside of academia who offer real-world expertise students crave. Regents’ Professors teach for one quarter and generally deliver one public lecture.
Kuehl, who has been a UCLA student, staffer and faculty member, has a wide-ranging background: She was a primetime TV hit as the smart, scrunch-nosed Zelda Gilroy on "The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis" before she earned her bachelor’s in English from UCLA in 1962. She co-founded the campus’ Center for Women and Men and became the associate dean of students before going to Harvard School of Law. When she graduated in ’78, she returned to Los Angeles and became an adjunct law prof at UCLA, USC and Loyola, then became the first openly gay person in the California State Legislature in 1994. She served on the Assembly from 1994-2000 and became the first female Speaker pro Tempore, representing Santa Monica and West Los Angeles County. Kuehl served on the State Senate from 2000-08, representing regions from West Los Angeles to Oxnard, and chaired the Senate Health Committee and the Senate Natural Resources and Water Committee. Now, she will bring all those experiences to students in the Luskin School of Public Affairs.
"Kuehl’s background, education and civic leadership make her tremendously qualified to enrich the Department of Public Policy," wrote Chancellor Gene Block in a nomination letter sent to the regents. "There is no doubt that Kuehl will enhance our School and lead our students in lively discussions with her contributions."
UCLA Today writer Alison Hewitt talked with Kuehl about the class she’ll teach. Below is an edited Q-and-A.
Welcome back to UCLA. You’ve already taught law classes on campus, and last year you were a
distinguished policy fellow at the Luskin School. How will it be different coming back as a Regents’ Professor?
I taught as an adjunct at the law school, but that was a really long time ago, and, as a fellow, generally all I was called upon to do is give one or two presentations – no teaching. So I’m extremely excited to return to teaching at UCLA.
So you’ll be teaching students, in part, about how to make and implement public policy?
Yes. My class will focus on the state level, which is unusual, because most classes across the country in schools of public policy are focused on the federal level.
Why will you focus on the state level?
It’s a gap, an omission, in many of the public policy schools across the country. They don’t employ practitioners, and they don’t look at the state level much.
Will this class aim to help students become leaders specifically in California?
Yes, and that’s important because California is about 1/13thof the country. In many ways, it’s a laboratory for the rest of the country — for better or for worse, as we’ve seen.
What will the students learn?
I want the students to study how to gather information in a way that also helps you understand the consequences of action or inaction. We’ll probably deal with California from 1950 to now, but it won’t be about history — it will be very present. I want to instill more of a sense of how you look at what’s been done and how to look at history, which is sorely lacking in public policy now.
Sounds like the old adage, "Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it." Do you think California is repeating old mistakes?
I don’t think California is repeating old mistakes; I think they’re inventing new mistakes. But I do sense a lack of reflection. Think about California’s three-strikes law, for example: what was envisioned, what was proposed, what was passed, what was expected to ensue. I believe there are no unintended consequences. My students need to be more analytical than those people were — but after all, that’s what school is for.
What will a day in class be like?
I’ll incorporate case studies where I’ll put the students in the middle of a policy situation so they can decide what to do. They’ll have to decide what additional information they need, how to find it, and how they would vote or pursue an action. Of course, I also have access to a whole rogues’ gallery of decision-makers whom I would bring in to challenge them with a hypothetical, or with an evolving problem they’re dealing with at the moment. I know pretty much everyone in California policy, but I haven’t talked to anyone yet about coming in.
What sort of student do you think would be interested in taking your class?
Anyone thinking that they’d like to affect state policy, whether from the nonprofit realm, the NGO realm, or as an attorney in advocacy, or anyone thinking about running for elected office themselves. There’s more to it than just elective office. Many school boards are unelected, as are boards in public transportation and other appointed areas as well. Likewise, Gene Block is a policy maker. The UC regents are policy makers. Every day, they make decisions that affect people’s lives, and those decisions become policy.
What do you think is important to understand about making policy?
The reason UCLA wants to bring in someone with 14 years of policy experience is that there’s really an extra step beyond just proposing a policy. Suppose you’re a member of Congress. You’ll want to have the best information presented to you on every issue, and you’ll hear from staff, members of the public, lobbyists … but you have to decide, given all this conflicting information, what do you want to vote "aye" for or "no" against. Making policy is different from just proposing a policy to someone else. When you’re the decision maker, it’s a different set of skills.
How will teaching fit into your other work as founder of Kuehl Consulting?
My policy organization is not a full-time gig. When I was termed out of office in 2008, I began looking at things I could do while still speaking in my own voice. Santa Monica Community College asked if I would design their new Public Policy Institute, which we incidentally designed for students who want to transfer to UCLA. I’ve also done projects for Planned Parenthood, West Hollywood and more. There are a lot of different projects under the umbrella of Kuehl Consulting, which should be called "Kuehl Herself." I went to [Luskin School] Dean [Frank] Gilliam to ask if there was a place for me. Then the school sent in this nomination, which is what I really, really wanted, so I’m thrilled.
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