Profile: Ernest Calderón (AZ ’77)

“If
you want to stick your nose under the tent, don’t be surprised
if somebody
grabs both of your ears and drags you in.”

 

For
the third piece in this series, Ernest Calderón (AZ ’77), a prominent Arizona
lawyer and current president of the Arizona Board of Regents, was interviewed
by Christopher Sopher (VA ’10), undergraduate student at the University of
North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

calderon

Calderón
has worked as a lawyer for more than 25 years in both private and public
practice. He served as President of the State Bar of Arizona and in 2002 was
named “National Latino Lawyer of the Year” by the National Hispanic Bar
Association. He has been appointed to public service roles by seven Arizona
governors from both political parties and worked on issues from juvenile
justice to early childhood education. He was appointed by former Arizona
Governor Janet Napolitano (NM ’77) to the Arizona Board of Regents, which
oversees the state’s public university system. Since July 2009 he has served as
the board’s president, leading its work on college access and affordability. Calderón
graduated from Northern Arizona University and the University of Arizona law school.

Sopher
is an undergraduate and Morehead-Cain Scholar at the University of North Carolina
at Chapel Hill, where he studies public policy. He helped start the national
college mentoring organization Strive for College, and founded and ran its
chapter at UNC. He spent the 2008 year working for the Obama for America
campaign. He blogs about youth issues at www.youngerthinking.com.

How do you navigate political party?
You’re a Democrat, so if a Republican asks you to serve in a public role, how
do you decide whether you want to do that?

For
me, the thought process is: the greater good is neither Republican nor
Democrat. The greater good is whatever the right thing to do is. If I have a
Republican governor that comes to me and says that they have a particular task
force they want me to lead, or a particular job they’d like me to help them
with, I ask myself: “Who’s this going to benefit?” If it’s going to benefit the
public, then I’m willing to do it, even over the objection of people in my own
party. I really believe my duty as a citizen and certainly as a Truman Scholar
is to try to make life better for the citizenry, so if I can contribute to a
solution, then it’s my duty.

Applying that idea to your current
role as president of the Arizona Board of Regents, what were your starting
goals?

We
focused on accessibility and affordability issues. And we’ve made a pretty good
cut at it.

So access and cost are the key
issues right now?

Greater
access was my theme. Cost is a component of that. Geographic location is
another; cyberspace accessibility was another. We strove every possible way to
ensure that, for example, people in the military who had taken courses in the
military would now receive credit in our university systems for those courses.
We put together “3 + 1” programs where we jointly admit students their freshman
year along with a community college. 
They complete the first two years at the community college. The third
year they complete at the community college but we control the curriculum. The
fourth year they go to the four-year university at the full rate but they are
guaranteed matriculation at the end of that year. So essentially they spend
three years of community college tuition and one year of university tuition and
they get a bachelor’s degree. That reduces the cost of higher education by
about 60 percent.

That’s been successful?

So
far, yes. We started on my watch this year and so far it’s been very
successful.

We
were also talking about more online outreach. Our universities now are probably
at the forefront of the country, probably in the top 25 universities in online
courses. So if you live on the reservation someplace and you can’t afford to
travel to Flagstaff or Tucson or Phoenix, many courses are online now. All you
need is Internet access. We’ve even helped with that, trying to provide more
Internet access to those places on the reservations that don’t have Internet
access.

And
we’re doing a comprehensive effort to ensure that we have more branch campuses
located geographically around the state. As it is now, we have Arizona State
University, which has 68,000 students in Tempe. We have the University of
Arizona, which has about 35,000 students in Tucson, and we have Northern
Arizona University which has about 22,000 students in Flagstaff. But there’s a
whole lot of Arizona in between those places. So we’re going to try to ensure
that we set up branch campuses, either in conjunction with an existing
community college or just freestanding. In the case of NAU, we went ahead and
created a campus in a city library in Prescott Valley, Arizona. We got the
community college to join as well, so if you live in that rural area, all you
have to do is go to the city library and you can take community college
courses, a university course. You can even apply for some limited Bachelor’s
degree programs and complete your entire education there, which would make it
very affordable.

On affordability, I feel safe saying
a sizable number of Truman Scholars are concerned about this issue in one way
or another: as current or former students, as parents, as people with loans, as
parents of kids who will be taking loans. In your experience, what are the
obstacles and some of the possible solutions to bringing down the cost of
higher education?

The
things I just mentioned are tremendously important. The geographic location
changes allow you to go to school without moving away and having to pay room
and board and that sort of thing. Online courses do the same thing. And the “3
+ 1” program knocks about 60 percent off [a student’s] education costs. So
those are significant by themselves.

And
they were not easy to do. There’s a variety of people who like to hang on to
past traditions. And anything other than “desk time” in one of our established
physical locations is seen by them as being “less,” when in this new world it
really means “more.” We’ve got to see more state and federal aid to higher
education. Arizona is 48th in the country for state student financial aid.
State student financial aid is very, very important. If you look at Georgia and
you look at Arkansas, they both have stellar programs of student financial aid.
Those are the sort of models we need to move toward.

Another
thing we need to do to make school more affordable is to eliminate the remedial
work that our universities are doing. We have a lot of students that come to
the universities unprepared for university studies. They might have sailed
through high school, but somebody did them a disservice by not adequately
preparing them for college. So one thing we can do is bolster our K-12 system
so that students are taught more rigorously, they have higher standards.

So what would you ask people reading
this interview—the average or the interested person—to do to address some of
these needs?

The
average person should get involved politically Whether they run for office,
help a neighbor run for office, or just get involved in candidate debates, they
need to support legislative candidates that are willing to place education,
particularly higher education, on the front burner. I think we’ve seen a trend
in the country where you’ve seen a greater amount of support over the last two
decades go to corrections than to higher education. It was probably needed in
the corrections area, but now I think it’s time for the pendulum to swing the
other way and invest in education.

The
only way legislators will invest in education is if they find you and your
neighbor calling and saying, “Hey, I’d like you to support our universities and
our education. Why are you cutting taxes when my seventh grader’s middle school
doesn’t have adequate supplies?”

Let’s shift gears. You’ve had a very
long career in law in many capacities: private, public, government. What advice
would you offer other Truman Scholars interested in law, about where the
leverage points are in the legal profession, about how they can make the
greatest public service contribution?

If
the person is already a law student, the advice I’d give them is something I
wish had been given to me. That is: when you come out of law school, get a job,
even if it’s for a brief period—one year—where you actually have to try a case.
Where you actually have to present a set of facts to a jury, you have to
persuade a jury, you have to get a judge to rule on things. The reason I say
that is you learn a lot about human nature when you try a case. You learn about
what motivates people, you learn a lot about what turns people off. You learn
to distill down a complex set of facts into something that the jury can absorb
and determine what to do. Along with that, once you’ve tried a case, if you
become an advocate of any sort, you have no fear anymore of something going to
trial.

You’d
be amazed at the liberation you have when somebody says to you, “Well, we’re
going to try to block your homeless shelter and take you to court over it.”
When they told me that when I was working on trying to get a homeless shelter
built in Phoenix, I said, “That’s great. Let’s go to a jury.” And they said,
“What are you talking about?” And I said, “Well, if you want to file a lawsuit
to try and stop us, go ahead. But my first words to a jury are going to be,
‘What you do to the least of my brethren you do to me.’ And we’re trying to
take care of the least of our brethren.” As soon as they heard that, they
relented. Now I wouldn’t have been able to do that had I not faced a jury
before.

So
spend a year in the public defender’s office or the county attorney’s office.
Or find a law firm that’ll teach you how to try a case, and do that. Then after
that you’ve got the fundamentals down. You have seen Armageddon.

Now
let’s say you’re not a law student. I would ask myself, what is my passion?
Some people go to law school because they want a job that pays well. There’s
nothing wrong with that, but you can be very miserable in life and be
well-paid. Try to find something in law that really gets you passionate about
life. If you find that, the law will be very interesting for you, very vibrant,
and less tedious.

And what was that thing for you?

I
grew up in segregated housing. I’m Hispanic—they called us the “Mexicans”—and
where I grew up we had to live in a certain place. The company owned all the
housing—it was a copper mining company—and so the Mexicans had to live in a
certain place, and the two black families had to live next door to each other,
and the Native Americans—Apaches, Navajo— had to live in a certain place. And I
grew up thinking, “this isn’t fair. We’re being judged by the color of our
skin.”

So
I gravitated to those parts of the law where I can help, particularly in
education. I see myself as an equal opportunity person to—either through the
law or civic activities—inject myself when I see somebody’s not being treated
fairly.

So I’ll ask the obligatory Arizona
question about fairness: SB 1070 [the Arizona immigration enforcement law of
recent attention]. What is going on, where do you think that is headed?

SB
1070 is incredibly popular here in Arizona. I think that shows there’s a great
deal of frustration with the Obama administration for not doing something about
it. The Obama administration promised that in year one, they would pursue
immigration reform. It never happened. It still hasn’t happened. So what you’ve
seen is an overreaction in Arizona to the fact that we have an immigration
problem. We have immigrants who are here, hardworking, good people, but they
are putting a strain on our infrastructure—health care, city services,
whatever. There’s also a very small percentage of immigrants who are here in
the criminal element. They victimize everybody, particularly fellow Hispanics.
And then you have a segment of our community in Arizona—a small, vocal
community—who just don’t like these people because they look different. And
when you add all those things together, you have the perfect storm.

That’s
what prompted Senate Bill 1070. Twenty-five percent of Hispanics in Arizona
support SB 1070. Twenty-five percent. So that tells you that even the Hispanic
community thinks that the system is broken. The federal government’s going to
try to enjoin the application of the statute, and we’ll see if they’re successful.
But ultimately the President of the United States and the Congress have to come
up with some immigration reform. We’ve got to allow those hardworking
immigrations who are here to become legal. They’re paying taxes already, so
let’s get them to pay more taxes, just like everyone else. And then we need to
have real stern punishment for the criminal element that comes over. None of
that is happening. That’s why 1070 was passed.

You’ve spent your entire career in
Arizona. I know many younger Truman Scholars feel conflicted about that. They
want to stay in their home states and do public service work, but they also
feel this draw to Washington or other major cities. What advice would you give
Scholars making those decisions?

Go
with your heart. As you get older, it’s more difficult to get to Washington.
You’ll have a mortgage, you’ll have family commitments. So if there is somebody
that really loves Washington, then consider trying to get a job there early in
your career. You have to remember that Washington draws the best and the
brightest, and you might be the head of a government agency or a county
attorney in Iowa, but when you get to Washington you’re probably three or four
steps below that, because there are other people who got there before you. So
if you’re willing to work your way up slowly, Washington is a great incubator.
Sooner or later, though, you don’t become effective in Washington unless you
have left Washington at some point, and gone to your home community and served.

What advice would you give Truman
Scholars who are interested in education: policy, administration, higher
education?

Now’s
the time. If you’re interested in education policy, our country is at a
crossroads. We have declining financial resources for it. I would have people
get involved, if they like K-12 education, by attending school board meetings.
Find the parent groups who are organizing about school sites and management and
that sort of thing. If there is a local department of education, contact them
and find out what task forces are going on. Attend the meetings. If you know a
politician who can appoint you, get appointed to a task force or committee to
attack a problem.

If
you’re interested in higher education, contact the Board of Trustees or Board
of Regents and say you’d like to be involved. I’ve received many people and
plugged them in wherever I could. It’s an open door. Higher education policy is
an open door for two reasons. Right now we’re at a crossroads, and things are
ripe for change. Second, education is a very open system in this country. If
you want to stick your nose under the tent, don’t be surprised if somebody
grabs both of your ears and drags you in.

If you would like to conduct an
interview or write a feature for the Truman Scholars Blog, please contact news@trumanscholars.org

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