William Coblentz: a Tribute

By Christopher Adams
Monday September 20, 2010 - 05:50:00 PM

When the New York Times gives a West Coast person, other than a politician, an obituary that is almost news in itself. So I was happy to see that the death last week of William Coblentz, the San Francisco attorney, made it to the Times, not least because of his long service as a regent of the University of California. As a land use attorney Coblentz, or at least his firm, was not always on the side of the angels, in San Francisco or here in Berkeley, but on the Board of Regents he was a refreshing voice of progressivism.  

Toward the end of Coblentz’s term as a regent I got a job in the UC Office of the President. As part of my job I often went to regents’ meetings, and so it was that I found myself at lunch between sessions sitting next to Coblentz. When he asked what I did, I said I was an architect. “And what are you working on?” he asked. I told him I was trying to draft an affirmative action policy for the appointment of design professionals. (Design professionals was the collective term denoting architects, engineers, landscape architects and planners who receive commissions from the University and whose appointments, above a certain fee level, had to be approved by the regents.)  

Coblentz clearly understood the ramifications of affirmative action and asked some probing questions about how I was doing this. Then he pulled out his wallet, fished inside until he found a business card with his name on it as a San Francisco Airport Commissioner. He wrote down a name on the back of the card and handed to me. “Call this person and tell them I suggested you call. He knows all about affirmative action.”  

The next day I called the Airport Commission and had a long conversation with the person Coblentz knew. Using many of his suggestions I drafted a policy document. San Francisco was much more aggressive on affirmative action than the university, and I knew my draft could not be as strong. Even so it was watered down once it was reviewed by campus administrators and, of course, by UC attorneys. But much of it survived, especially key provisions which required a design professional firm to be 51 percent owned by a qualifying minority or by a woman in order to qualify for affirmative action.  

Despite a lot of grumbling by campus administrators, who were used to giving jobs to the same old firms over and over, the policy was successfully implemented. While I never dropped Coblentz’s name, I am sure that chancellors and other high-ranking UC officials knew that this had caught the attention of a regent and was not just one more bit of bureaucracy from the Office of the President. Of course there were some initial squabbles, but as I processed the agendas for subsequent regents’ meeting I began seeing many more minority and women-owned firms submitted for regents’ approval. While the policy only slightly increased African American participation, this was probably because there were, and still are, few African American design firms. It increased Hispanic participation (which had been nil). It probably increased Asian-American participation, but that was already high, because of the number of Asian-American-owned firms already in the field. Where it had the biggest impact was for women. There were a number women working in high level jobs at large, successful California architecture and planning firms, but most of them were listed as “associates” or maybe junior partners. While I have no statistics, I think it is safe to say that in the next few years there was a significant increase in female partners having a major ownership interest.  

All this is now past history. Another regent, Ward Connerly, led the electoral fight which resulted in passage of Proposition 209 and outlawed affirmative action in any public agency in the state including the university. Certain groups, especially African Americans and Hispanics are still woefully underrepresented in the fields included as design professionals. Women, I think, have achieved a significant level of advancement, not enough certainly, but a big jump from where they were. 

Moral: Regents do matter, especially good ones, like Bill Coblentz, who are too few.  

Christopher Adams worked as an architect and planner at the UC Office of the President and at UC Merced. He lives in Berkeley.