When Kathleen Micham left her student services job in UCLA Summer Sessions to take a staff position in an academic department two years ago, the change required much more than a move across campus from one office to another.
Stepping into the position of chief administrative officer of the Department of Earth and Space Sciences (ESS) in the College of Letters and Science, Micham found, was akin to entering an alien world where, to survive, you needed a mastery of UCLA accounting and budgeting with its layers of complexity, superior multi-tasking and agile problem-solving skills in an environment where every dollar — and staff member — was doing the work of two.
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Kathleen Micham, a winner of one of this year's top campuswide staff awards for service, exhibits an infectious optimism that has lifted morale in the Department of Earth and Space Sciences. But she's also helped the department cope with budget realities. 
In fact, the person who hired her for the job, professor Craig Manning, department chair at the time, had his doubts about how this was going to work out, since Micham had no experience with managing the inner workings of an academic department. "This was a new job title for her, so there was some uncertainty about the hire," he admitted.
"We needn’t have worried," Manning added. "Kathleen quickly proved to be the best CAO in memory."
Manning, along with the current ESS chair, Kevin McKeegan, and David Jewitt, a professor in astrophysics, recently provided effusive evidence of this in letters they wrote to UCLA Staff Assembly, attesting to her extraordinary dedication to the department and infectious optimism. Their accolades clinched Micham’s selection to receive the Chancellor’s Excellence in Service Award. She shared the award with Shola Richards from the UCLA Health Systems.
McKeegan summed up Micham’s fundamental contribution concisely: "Since she assumed the duties of CAO two years ago, productivity and morale in the department have soared."
When Staff Assembly informed her a few weeks ago via email that she had won one of UCLA’s highest staff awards, Micham said, "I never would have thought this would happen in a million years. I had heard of the award, but I didn’t know anything about how these things happen."
Learning that her colleagues had written letters filled with glowing examples of how her incredible energy and deep commitment to service "fundamentally improved every aspect of life in our department," said Manning, came as a complete surprise to the single mom of two, Max, 16, and Raffaella, 14. That’s not an unexpected reaction, her colleague McKeegan pointed out, since Micham is "more than a bit hesitant to accept praise for her work."
Micham’s positive influence started to take hold shortly after she arrived at ESS.
In the search for new revenue streams, for example, she immediately sought to build on the department’s summer course offerings. Manning credits her with being "the main force behind doubling our summer enrollments in 2012." Her work to promote summer session registration and resolve liability questions about the department’s summer field program also smoothed the way, and summer revenue increased by a factor of 10.
Jewitt credited Micham with improving the department’s IT services by quickly identifying longstanding problems and helping the IT staff become more effective, efficient and responsive by hosting weekly meetings, among other strategies.
When budget constraints kept the department from filling a vacant position in development and alumni outreach, Micham willingly stepped into the void, strengthening communications with alumni, emeriti and donors through the Web, an annual newsletter and campus publications. As a result, the department’s development efforts are in better shape than ever, noted Manning. "Last year we were able to make our most systematic and robust effort to stay in touch with our alumni." In 2011-12, the department reached an all-time high in donations.
As budget pressures mounted and staff vacancies lingered, Micham "simply negated any morale problems by her inspirational attitude of hard work and selfless dedication and by using her brilliant management and interpersonal skills," Jewitt explained. "Her team meetings are accompanied by doughnuts and laughter, building a sense of involvement, community and responsibility that works beautifully for the benefit of us all."
Even a serious invasion by rats was dealt with efficiently, but with good humor by staff and faculty. Soon after Micham sent out an email advising people to take precautions, little plastic rats started showing up all over the Geology Building. A poster announcing a science "conference" focused on the relationship between rats and humans found its way onto a bulletin board.
Micham bids farewell to Jillian Daniels and other students as they leave on a four-week field trip to Owens Valley, led by professor An Yin (second from the right). In his 26 years on campus, Yin said Micham stands way above the average CAO. "She's here," he said, lifing his hand way above his head.
For Micham, the feelings of appreciation go both ways. "I really believe academic brilliance is correlated to decency," she said, smiling. "I realize how lucky I am to have come here to work with these incredibly bright, hard-working people … I love working for an academic department. You feel like you’re in the trenches. This is where teaching, research and public service come together."
Fluent in Italian and French, Micham, a native of Toledo, Ohio, could have chosen a different path to higher education after earning her Ph.D. in French literature from Indiana University Bloomington. She worked on her thesis on Proust in Paris, Rome and eventually L.A., cities to which her ex-husband was posted as a journalist. But when she finally finished her research in the Young Research Library at UCLA, she decided that if getting an academic job meant moving to North Dakota or another distant state, that wasn’t for her. "I loved living in L.A.," she said.
Along the way to a job at UCLA, she has taught English to French college students at the University of Paris; worked on a French-English dictionary as well as a French-English cooking dictionary; and organized language classes and public events for the Italian Consulate in L.A.
But she relishes being a CAO of Earth and Space Science the most because the learning curve is always steep.
"That’s what I love about this job. I learn at least one new rule (in UCLA accounting) every day," Micham said. "And I love learning about science; I haven’t had a science class since I was in college. So I’m picking up bits and pieces … I can now use words I’d never heard of before, and I can even put them in a sentence," she said, laughing.