In a sense, the esteemed legal career of newly appointed UC Regent George Kieffer ’69 began in the mid-1960s, when he was just a shy, dewy-faced freshman at UC Santa Barbara. Upon arriving, he was appalled to discover that the private developer had failed to finish construction of his off-campus dormitory; the stairs didn’t even reach the top floor. He and a group of other students sued. Thus began a year that Kieffer refers to as a “wild ride,” which grew even wilder during the course of his undergraduate career. It started with his joining the student government, carried him through the raucous Vietnam protests, racial tensions and all-around baby-boomer angst of the era, and concluded with his graduation in 1969, whereupon he was named UC Santa Barbara’s Outstanding Man of the Year. Law school at UCLA and a successful career followed. In May, Kieffer, 61, was beckoned back to the UC system that helped shape him, appointed by Gov. Schwarzenegger to serve a 12-year term on the UC Board of Regents.
As an attorney, Kieffer has chaired the commission that re-wrote the Los Angeles City Charter, which was adopted in 1999. The next year the San Francisco Daily Journal and the Los Angeles Daily Journal named him as one of the 100 most influential attorneys in California. A partner of the national law firm of Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, Kieffer represented his friend Maria Shriver for a time, though he terminated the arrangement as soon as her husband, Arnold Schwarzenegger, became governor. In a Q and A with Coastlines, Kieffer — one of just two UC Santa Barbara undergraduate alums on the 26-member board Bruce Varner ’58 being the other — speaks with fondness of his alma mater, his career, his friendship with Shriver, his love of piano and more.
Question: Why did you choose UC Santa Barbara?
Answer: I was just lucky. I did not know much about college and only thought about UC schools. Berkeley was too close to home; UCLA seemed too far away and in the Bay area we grew up suspicious of Los Angeles. So, with a friend, I took a ride to Santa Barbara and it just seemed the place to be. And it turned better than I could have ever imagined.
Q. How did you come to serve as UC Santa Barbara’s student body vice president?What was the most interesting project you worked on in that capacity?
A. Through a series of circumstances, and unlike high school, I became involved in student activities from the first year on, starting with a group of us suing the private developer who had failed to finish our off-campus dorm by the time we moved in. Showers didn’t work; stairs didn’t go to the top floor. It was quite a mess. I didn’t arrive with the intention of being involved. Circumstances just developed. By my senior year there were so many controversial issues it’s hard to pick one particular project as most interesting. There were continual protests and controversies surrounding race, free speech, teach-ins, the Vietnam War, curriculum, student fees, the national elections, assassinations. Black students occupied the Computer Center. The University Center was physically taken over (“occupied”) by a mix of different groups for the better part of a month. One of the leading Chicano (as self-identified then) students took over my office. There is some irony there because today he’s a client and CEO of one of the largest nonprofit community health care clinics in the state. As student body officers, we were engaged in some way in all these issues — sometimes protesting ourselves, sometimes mediating. The whole year was “interesting” because the issues were the nation’s issues and very serious, because of the excitement and seeming precariousness of it all, and ultimately because of what all of it taught us. We began the year focusing on Isla Vista, drawing attention to our own community, planting trees, conducting what we called a “trash-in” — that is, cleaning up the streets and addressing issues with property owners; I created what then passed as a music video about Isla Vista. But soon events took over and the year became quite a wild ride.
Q. In 2000 you were named by the San Francisco Daily Journal and the Los Angeles Daily Journal as one of the 100most influential attorneys in California. What projects or cases did they give you kudos for?
A. I think it was largely for my involvement in writing a new city charter (like a constitution) for the city of Los Angeles. I chaired one of two commissions charged with drafting a new city charter. No one thought it could get done, and in fact efforts had failed some nine times over some 70 years. There were concurrent moves to break up the city. In the end we negotiated a “Unified Charter,” which was put on the ballot and approved by the voters.
Q. You used to be Maria Shriver’s attorney, and have long been friends. For how long did you serve as her attorney, and when did you stop working with her in this capacity?
A. I was introduced to Maria a number of years ago. I stopped working as her attorney when the Arnold was elected governor. Since my law firm had clients who might be affected by what the governor did we thought it better from an appearance standpoint that I not continue in that role, even though there was no substantive connection. We just agreed it was the right thing to do.
Q. How and when did you meet?
A. I was recommended to interview with her by a mutual friend a number of years ago. We met at a restaurant in Santa Monica and, of course, I was immediately taken by her. I think she is perhaps the most extraordinary person I’ve ever had the opportunity to know. I was fortunate that she asked me to work with her. She and the governor are obviously an extraordinary couple.
Q. It seems like your relationship with the Schwarzenegger family might be something people would notice, given how the regent seat is a governor-appointed position. Can you address this?
A. Well I suppose it’s better if the governor knows a good deal about the person he or she considers for appointment — for better or worse. In this case I was probably helped by my previous involvement with the University and higher education and other civic activities, and I think others probably recommended me. But you do have to apply for any appointed position in the government, and there is a very healthy vetting process conducted by the appointments staff in the governor’s office. It does not get to the governor until you get through that vetting process. And then, once appointed, one has to be confirmed by the California Senate, including hearings before the Rules Committee of the Senate.
Q. As a prominent Democrat, were you surprised to be nominated by a Republican?
A. No. The governor has appointed a number of Democrats as well as Republicans to various positions. He’s known for that, so that aspect was not a surprise.
Q. You served as an UC alumni regent during 1978-80, after serving as president of the UC Santa Barbara Alumni Association. This type of ex-officio regent is allowed to serve for two years, but can only vote during one year. Can you describe the most interesting or difficult issue you voted on in this capacity?
A. It was in the late ’70s and I was fairly young. All the issues were interesting and many were difficult. I think the most interesting aspect was watching and learning from the conduct of other board members and developing an appreciation for the culture, the governance structure and the breadth of the University.
Q. What difficult issues do you anticipate having to grapple with in the near future?
A. Clearly funding is going to be a serious issue: maintaining quality and access under such financing pressure, retaining and attracting faculty. We’re going to have to do a good deal of thinking and re-thinking. This will bring into play a reexamination of the higher education Master Plan. I believe the next few years are going to be among the most difficult and critical in the University’s history. But the University remains the top public research university system in the country and I’m confident we can retain that reputation.
Q. What are your thoughts on Prop 209, the ballot-initiative that banned affirmative action in 1996? Are you in favor or opposed?
A. I think the question is both too broad and too narrow. The real question is how is the state going to meet its educational needs over the next 25 years and what role must the University play. Current projections suggest we will be substantially short of the college-educated Californians we will require for our work force. This is an issue that runs from K-12 through higher education. If we do not solve it, we will all suffer.
Q. Where did you grow up, and what high school did you attend?
A. I was born in New York City. However, my family moved to the San Francisco Bay Area when I was about 8. I grew up there and attended Serra High School in San Mateo, California.
Q. Can you describe what kind of a high school student you were?
A. I was a good student, though not a great student. But my high school placed students into different “tracks” and I was fortunate enough to be placed in the faster-track group. So, pulled along by others and the demands of the teachers, we all got a very sound education and it prepared us well for college. I was a little shy and a little young for my class. I was not that much involved in student activities. I played a little high school basketball but was not good enough to really compete.
Q. I’m told you play the piano. When did you learn? And what kind of music do you play?
A. Like so many kids, I took piano lessons as a child. While I hated the formal lessons, they really did help me in the end. More importantly, I was lucky enough to be able to play by ear. I used to play for others in the residence halls and apartments that had pianos and at the music building — mostly playing popular music of the day. But I remember one day in my senior year I walked into the UCen and heard this fellow playing something very different and wonderful. I listened for a while and asked if he could play some particularly contemporary song I liked. I don’t recall which one — maybe something from The Beatles. He replied, and I thought quite arrogantly at the time, that he only played his own music. I was dumbstruck. But by the time I was in law school, I was playing only my own music. I’ll never forget that exchange in the UCen.
Q. You have one son at Georgetown University and another son in high school. Is it true the younger son may attend UC Santa Barbara?
A. Well, he will be beginning his senior year this fall, so he’s just beginning the process. He visited the campus a few months ago and thought it was great. Of course I’d be delighted if he were to go to UC Santa Barbara. But there is no question he will be making up his own mind.