This summer, longtime campus leader and sociology professor Darnell Hunt was appointed to the role of executive vice chancellor and provost, or EVCP. As UCLA’s second-highest ranking officer, Hunt serves as deputy to Chancellor Gene Block and oversees the campus’s day-to-day operations and academic enterprise.
We spoke with Hunt to learn about his scholarship at the intersection of race and media, the leadership philosophies he has brought to past administrative positions, and how he is approaching his new role on campus.
Let’s start by talking about the executive vice chancellor and provost position. It’s an important job, but one that some members of the campus may not be abundantly familiar with. How would you describe it?
Within the university, I think of the EVCP as the person who attempts to align the operational side and the academic side of the house.
UCLA is a large, complex organization, and there are all kinds of day-to-day operational issues we need to manage to be effective — balancing the budget, managing construction of new facilities, determining how to pivot operations during a pandemic, you name it. And then there is the academic side, which looks at whether our students are being educated appropriately for the times, whether faculty members have the resources they need to do their work and otherwise how we can best serve our mission as a public research university.
If either of those things are being managed in isolation, we’re not operating optimally. So, the EVCP is there to ensure there’s an integrated approach.
Thank you for that. Let’s go back to your background and academic work in sociology, where your scholarship focuses on race and media. What drew you to that discipline and that subject?
I grew up in the Washington, D.C. area and — after a stint at USC for college — lived in the city while getting my M.B.A. at Georgetown University and afterwards while working at the local NBC television news affiliate. This was the late 1980s, and demographically, D.C. was overwhelmingly African American. The local NBC newsroom, though, was almost entirely white. I remember going to news planning meetings in the morning, where we’d look at the day’s stories and assign the news crews … and the news editors would talk about areas of the city that I knew to be African American communities full of hardworking professionals as if they were rough, inner-city areas. That framing didn’t align with my understanding, and I knew it would affect the way NBC’s viewers thought about the city. It opened my eyes to how perspective and race can shape the way you think about the news.
I started reading about this phenomenon in my spare time, and noticed that the most interesting things written about it were written by sociologists. Pretty soon I was applying to sociology Ph.D. programs myself.
Where did your interest in race and media take you from there?
I came to Los Angeles to do my doctoral work at UCLA because of its proximity to the media and entertainment industries — and that was fortuitous, because almost all of my work since then has touched the city in some fashion. I wrote my dissertation and my first book about the way the media portrayed the L.A. uprisings in 1992 and how audiences interpreted what they saw in the news. My second book was about the O.J. Simpson case, how it was covered and how audience readings of the case related to racial politics. Then in the late 1990s and early 2000s I pivoted to thinking about Hollywood, about the ways in which racial, gender and ethnic politics shape who has access in Hollywood and how this impacts what kinds of shows and movies are produced. That led to the UCLA Hollywood Diversity Report, which I’ve co-authored since 2014.
While you’ve maintained a robust research presence throughout your career, you’ve also risen through UCLA’s ranks as an academic administrator. Could you talk about your trajectory on that front and about what interested you in the EVCP job?
Those two things are actually related, because the EVCP position is really a culmination of all of the experiences I’ve had at UCLA. In 2001, I was recruited from USC to direct UCLA’s Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies, which allowed me to continue conducting my media and race research as well as to apply my business degree and administrative skills. From there I became chair of sociology, which helped me to see the intrinsic rewards associated with facilitating my colleagues’ good work and to better recognize the importance of recruiting, supporting and retaining excellent faculty members. As dean of social sciences, I took what I experienced as a center director and a department chair to another level, because now I was dealing with 18 different academic units, almost 10,000 students and 300 faculty members across a range of disciplines.
The EVCP role will allow me to take what I’ve learned in these positions and apply it at the campus level. I’ll be working with the vice chancellors, vice provosts and deans to help shape the direction of the institution as a whole. That is an incredibly exciting opportunity.
One of your governing philosophies as dean of the division of social sciences was “inclusive excellence.” What is inclusive excellence and, now that you’re EVCP, do you see it applying at the campus level?
Inclusive excellence can feel a bit like a buzzword, but what it means to me is that inclusion and excellence are two sides of the same coin. There’s no tradeoff between them — in fact, given our public mission and our location in Los Angeles, UCLA’s excellence depends on it being inclusive and diverse. This concept can become a north star in terms of what we should be doing at any given point and how we’re doing in relation to our ideals. As EVCP, I hope to help articulate this vision for the campus and to work with our colleagues to develop the principles and procedures that will bring it to life.
Are there other central leadership philosophies that you bring with you to your new role?
An appreciation for the value of shared governance, for one. I joined UCLA from a private university where shared governance was a phrase but not necessarily a practice, and I am proud that the UC system takes the concept so seriously. Here, I’ve served on a number of Academic Senate committees that have helped me to appreciate why the faculty need to participate in the governance of the university to ensure that its academic mission is protected at all times. This goes to the point I was making earlier about the role of the EVCP. Operations can take over if you spend all your time thinking about budgets, crises, allocation of resources and keeping the lights on. We need to have the checks and balances of the academic side, represented by the faculty. One of the things I hope to do as EVCP is to develop a deep, collaborative relationship with the Academic Senate to move the university forward.
Something else I’ll mention is my support for engaged scholarship, in which the university directs scholarly efforts and academic resources towards pressing issues affecting our communities. While I was dean of social sciences, we worked with the council on academic personnel to explore establishing criteria to give credit for engaged scholarship during the academic review process. At a public institution where we value public engagement, we need to incentivize this kind of service in support of the common good.
Looking at the full campus, I’m not naive enough to think that there is a one-size-fits-all model here, but from medicine to law, public policy, the arts and beyond there are opportunities to enhance the impact of our work.
A thread throughout your career has been bringing data and quantitative approaches to non-science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines. That is evident in your own data-driven Hollywood Diversity Report as well as the work you did as dean to develop the Big Data Social Science Initiative. Why is this an important area of focus for you?
My approach to scholarship has always been multi-method. I tend to be someone who borrows from different traditions, bringing the qualitative and the quantitative together to assess complex issues. Because of that, I feel sensitized to the value of data in various forms. Even in fields that don’t traditionally emphasize quantitative data, like the humanities or some humanistic social science disciplines, there are more and more opportunities to apply those methods. Given the depth and breadth of our academic enterprise, UCLA is very well-situated to make fluency with data a larger part of our teaching and research. The DataX initiative is an important step forward; just this summer we named professor and MacArthur “Genius” Award fellow Safiya Noble to be its first director.
Much of your work both as an academic and an administrator has been tied to the Los Angeles region — building L.A. Social Science to examine challenges confronting our region, for example, or chairing a UCLA task force on civic and community engagement. How is our university’s location an asset, and how can we build an even stronger relationship between our institution and the city?
One of the things that excites me most about UCLA is L.A. Being located here makes us attractive and unique, and it’s such a huge competitive advantage. More than 200 languages are spoken here. We don’t have a racial or ethnic majority. We’re radically diverse and multicultural. And we’re literally a portal to the rest of the world.
It’s not provincial or myopic to focus more of our attention on L.A. In my mind, focusing on L.A. is focusing on the world. And that’s why the motto of L.A. Social Science is “Engaging L.A., Changing the World.” A lot of the things we’re grappling with in L.A., the rest of the world is or will soon be grappling with.
I think to better stitch the relationship between the university and the city together, we need to have a coherent strategy for supporting engaged scholarship and to get outside of Westwood to enact it. We also need to tell our story, to make the case for why L.A. is core to UCLA’s identity and to show Angelenos how much UCLA contributes to the city.
Last question: This academic year is the first to begin with regular, in-person campus activities and without substantial modifications to the UCLA experience. What are some UCLA traditions, events, or happenings that you’re excited about?
It may sound a bit silly, but I’m excited to experience more of the spontaneous and unmediated moments: the water cooler conversions, the brief conversations in the hallway that change the ways in which people relate to one another. I’m a sociologist; I know there’s a profound difference between connecting over Zoom and connecting in person — and I think we’re all ready to appreciate more of the latter.