Chapter 3: Pivotal Point: To Be or Not to Be

When Rickborn stepped up to the plate, the climate on campus pressed him to act promptly regarding the fate of Geography. Enrollment had decreased 11% from 1970 to 1972,41 perhaps due to parents not wanting to send their children to a school that spawned mass protests and threatened violence.1140 With fewer students, departments scrambled for FTEs. At the time Rickborn became Dean, Geography had six FTE, one of which was unoccupied. Some members of the Academic Senate not only vied for the vacant faculty slot, but advocated scrapping Geography, dividing the spoils. Rickborn had to decide whether Geography would exist on campus.11

To consider the program’s status, he assembled a committee of three extramural geographers: James Parsons (UC Berkeley), Charles Bennett (UC Los Angeles), and Julian Wolpert (Princeton).42 They spent six to eight months researching the study of Geography, reading articles and listening to geographers. Rickborn concluded, “Eighty-five percent of Geography departments were moribund, as exemplified by UC Berkeley. ‘This tribe occupies this area, and this is what they grow and eat.'” Geography as an extension of grammar school curriculum was not going to fly. However, Rickborn respected the kind of Geography Estes was doing. The Dean reassured Estes, “We could build something based on remote sensing.”11

The Vice-Chancellor, Alec Alexander, had been prepared to do away with Geography, so Rickborn had to convince Alexander of the viability of a modern, technologic department. He also had to address the opposition in the Academic Senate. To assure greater likelihood of the future Chair being able to create the Department Rickborn envisioned, he thought it best to demolish the current program. “I had the unfortunate job of telling all except Estes that they had to leave.”11 Thus, Geography died, the spark of life carried only by Estes’ aerial photography and remote sensing.

Selecting a Chair

To find a Chair, Rickborn assembled a search committee. It consisted of himself, Robert Norris, John Crowell, Jack Estes, and Perry Shapiro.1112 Norris and Crowell were solidly established geologists. Estes was the one “keeper” in geography.111240 Shapiro was an Assistant Professor in Economics who had been on campus only a couple years. The economist felt honored to be included in this important process, but hesitant to speak out with the more senior faculty. He was, however, one of the seeming minority of UCSB faculty who was convinced Geography had merit.12

The Committee sought a professor who already had stature and who would be committed to a remote sensing emphasis. The short list of candidates had three men: David Simonett, Reginald Golledge, and Harm deBlij, all highly respected geographers.391112

DeBlij was eliminated fairly quickly. One committee member remembers deciding, while listening to deBlij’s requisite talk, that this was definitely not the man to choose. Another committee member remembered thinking to himself, “This [talk] is #%&t!” Later, this second man heard a rumor about deBlij’s meeting with the Chancellor. Supposedly, after ten minutes together in his office, the Chancellor burst out his door to the waiting committee member, saying, “Get this !?!X! out of my office!” Another committee member said this rude dismissal never happened.91112

Whether or not there was a strong, negative reaction to deBlij, he was not selected as Chair. It should be noted, though, that the man went on to great success elsewhere. For instance, he was geography editor on ABC’s Good Morning America for seven years; he published more than 30 books and is founding editor of the National Geographic Society’s scholarly journal, National Geographic Research; and he was honored with the title of distinguished professor at Michigan State University.43 Apparently, he just didn’t seem the best match for the technologic department the Committee was aiming to foster.

The decision between Simonett and Golledge was more difficult. Rickborn was impressed with both men. Golledge had opened his eyes: “Originally, I thought zero of social Geography – until I met Reg.”11 Shapiro, as an economist, had read quite a bit written by economic geographers. Some of Golledge’s work dovetailed with Shapiro’s. And he really liked the man.12

Estes was lobbying for Simonett. On the day the committee met to select the Chair, Estes was worried Shapiro would vote for Golledge, since it was obvious the Economics professor really liked him. Before Shapiro got to the door, Estes, with his explosive temper, intercepted him and blew up scathingly. If Estes had bothered to ask, he would have discovered Perry had decided, as much as he liked Golledge, for the benefit of the Geography Department, Simonett was the better choice for founding Chair.12

Simonett had long wanted to build a modern, progressive Geography Department while establishing a well-funded remote sensing research center. The seeds of this interest were evident early in his studies. In the 1940s, while a student at the University of Sydney (Australia), he was introduced to land use mapping. Upon getting his PhD – he was the first person graduated from any Australian university with a PhD in Geography – he focused his research on applying scientific methods to land use mapping. Sequentially, he worked at the University of Sydney, the University of Maryland, and the University of Nottingham before finally joining the Department of Geography at the University of Kansas, where he remained for fifteen years. All the while, he was developing expertise in remote sensing. In 1966, he was appointed Associate Director of the University of Kansas’ Remote Sensing Laboratory. In 1970 he returned to the University of Sydney, hoping to contribute to his alma mater. However, compared to the sponsorship he’d come to expect in the United States, Australia’s funding seemed parsimonious – which prevented him from creating the world-class remote sensing research facility he wanted.21

Thus, in 1972, Simonett became Director of the Washington-based Earth Satellite Corporation. This is where he was working when he learned of the opening for a founding Chair of Geography at UCSB. “Although at last a senior scientist in a large remote sensing establishment, David retained his dream of one day developing his own research institution with a University environment,” wrote Trevor Langford-Smith, a senior Geography professor from Australia who was a close friend of Simonett.21

Chapter 4: Simonett Pours the Foundation »