tv The David Rubenstein Show Peer to Peer Conversations Bloomberg February 26, 2023 10:00am-10:31am EST
highest calling of mankind. then i started interviewing. i have learned from doing my interviews have leaders make it to the top. i did not negotiate with him and did note due diligence. how they stay there. one of the most overused phrases i found was a renaissance man. it is not inappropriate for one person i met with recently, walter massey. he has been the leader of morehouse college, the university of california, university of chicago, art institute, the national science foundation, argonne labs and now, he is leading the effort to get the giant magellan telescope funded by the u.s. government and by private institutions. i sat down with him at the university of chicago to talk about what he is most proud of having achieved in the incredible life he has had.
dr. massey, you have been, i would say, a renaissance man, you have been involved in education, the arts, business, science, of all the things you have done in your incredible career, what is it you are most proud of? walter: actually, i am proud of all of those things, but i think the position that has given me more satisfaction, going back to morehouse college, which was my alma mater as president. i went back in 1995. my wife cheryl and i, when we talk about the various things we have done, we agreed that that was a lot of fun and satisfying. in a number of ways. to go back to your alma mater and preside over the graduation of 5000 african american men. david: let's talk about your background for a moment. you grew up in mississippi when it was very segregated. what was it like growing up in mississippi in the 1940's and 1950's? walter: my mother was a schoolteacher, the elementary
school principal. i did not know what i wanted to be, but i did not want to be a schoolteacher. i thought i might want to be an engineer. i had no idea. i think i just heard the word "engineer." i knew i was going to probably go to college, because even in mississippi in those days my family went off to college. mostly in mississippi at mississippi institutions. i did not know i would wind up at morehouse and that was serendipitous. a lot of my life has been. one scholarship allowed me to go from the 10th grade to morehouse. and that really changed my life. david: you grew up in an all-segregated area. i assumed you were not going to lunches and dinners with white people at the time? walter: no, no, the only lunches and dinners we came close to was working in the kitchen.
my grandmother worked as a domestic -- and even my mother who worked as an elementary school teacher and principal in the summers sometimes worked as a domestic. we were totally segregated. segregated sounds too mild. it was apartheid life. david: did you worry for your safety and life at times? walter: not constantly. one had to be careful and there were things that you knew you were not to do. from a very young age. white women were very dangerous. white men also, but in particular, white girls and white women. you had places you did not go. so, there were modes of behavior which you expected, or you learned to adapt to, but i did not wake up every morning thinking i would be lynched. we lived in a community that was fairly warm. i had a big family, cousins, they lived all around me. and i would say in spite of the harsh segregation around us,
within our little bubble, you might say, i had a good childhood. david: you got a scholarship to go to morehouse when it was -- you had only completed the 10th grade. walter: yes. david: so, what happened to the 11th and 12th grade? you didn't need that? weren't you kind of young to go to college? walter: i was 16 and i was part of a program. i was not the only one. it had been going on for three years. i was in the third year of this experiment and there were about 15 of us in my group. and there had been some before, so the college had sort of adjusted to these young kids coming in who didn't have courses. we had good counselors, good teachers and evidentially, we were smart. i did not know it, we were able to not just survive, but we were some of the most accomplished students in the college. david: you go to morehouse and decide you want to major in physics.
was that a very popular major at morehouse at the time? walter: i was the only physics major in the four years in my class. [laughter] there was one before me and one before him. david: what did you tell your parents? a physics major, what did they say? walter: my parents were very good. my mother would've wanted me to be a doctor with a phd or something. but they were comfortable with whatever i chose. i came to physics through mathematics. i was not a tinkerer. i was not a person who did experiments. in fact, i was not that attracted to laboratory science. but i liked mathematics and i was pretty good at it. and when i took my first physics course, i saw that here was a
way that mathematics could be used to try to understand the world around us. david: you majored in physics, graduated from morehouse, and then you decided to get a phd in physics at washington university at st. louis. why did you pick washington university? a very good school but why did you pick that school? walter: my physics teacher at morehouse. his name was hans christiansen, he was danish, a white gentleman with a phd from harvard. and he became my mentor. and grew into a friend. but in my advanced physics class at morehouse, i was the only one in the class, so it was like the oxford tutorial system. just chris and myself. and chris recommended that i go to washington. this was 1960 now. and because i worked at morehouse one year, it was not clear that everyplace was going to be welcoming and nurturing and supportive of a young black person. who wanted to be a physicist. and chris thought once you had that environment, and it turns out it did. david: all of a sudden, you're handing out money on behalf of
david: when you got your phd, what did you decide to do? walter: i was associated with the university of chicago. i was working at a group. david: eventually he got a teaching position at the university of illinois. you did that for a while we were teaching physics. walter: i went there for two reasons. i loved -- i love my research
but that was what i was doing good. i lived in highland park, four blocks from here. drexel avenue, you can see it. 1968, martin luther king jr. was assassinated. from where we are now, you can see the city burning and i could see it from my apartment. and it really became clear to me that i had this feeling that i was not contributing to the civil rights movement to the degree that i felt i ought to. i was going to argonne, during my research, coming home. i tutor kids around the community -- tutored kids around the community. but i wanted to be more engaged. i thought if i went to a college campus where there were students, i would be more engaged in activities. i went to urbana, and it turned out to be the very best place in the world for the kind of physics that i did. david: you did that and then you got recruited to go to brown university?
walter: i did. david: and you became the dean of students at brown? walter: i did. david: were there a lot of african american professors? that brown? -- at brown? walter: at that point, there were quite a few. interesting that you'd ask about that because i was reminiscing with my old friends about what we call a golden age at brown. brown when i was there in 1969 and 1970, we had professors in engineering, physics, chemistry, political science, history, english, the general counsel was black. the associate human resources, we had a wonderful black community. it did not grow linearly, and it did not even last, but the time i was there in the early 1970's. a vibrant period. david: you were at brown for a
number of years and then you got recruited to be the head of argonne? walter: i did. david: what does argonne actually do? walter: argonne is what is called a general science, national laboratory, one of the laboratories that the department of energy owns but they are operated by contractors. the university operates argonne. so, for much of this history it was involved in nuclear reactors. now it does basic science. a lot of materials science and a -- low temperature science. that is why i was there in the 1960's. it also has a very large facility called advanced photon source, which is like a giant high energy x-ray machine. that can penetrate through materials and examine them. it also has some of the world's fastest computers. it has a big program in energy storage, advanced research on batteries. so, it is a broad-based energy research laboratory now. david: so, you are running argonne.
is that a place that was filled with a lot of black physicists and mathematicians or it was fairly white? walter: [laughs] "fairly" is an understatement. it was overwhelmingly white. overwhelmingly white. david: you're doing that and then you get the chance to be the head of the national science foundation? and all of a sudden, you're handing out money on behalf of the federal government, the national science foundation. do you find that you're more popular then you have been before? walter: you won't believe it. it is always best to be on the side of being asked for money than to ask for it. david: you are doing that for a few years and then you get the chance to be the provost of the university of california system. is that right? walter: that is correct. david: why did you take that position? it's a good job. did you want to be the head of a major university? walter: i did by that time. through my transition from doing
physics to administering science at argonne, and then as i began to see that i had a knack for -- how should i say, running organizations. and people liked working for me. and i liked working with people and i saw that i could get things done in the areas that i cared about. science, education, science for underrepresented groups. these kinds of things that i could not do as an individual scientist. david: all right, so you took the position, you are the number two position in all of the university of california system, may be the leading public education system in the united states, higher education. and so, you have a chance to be the chancellor or over all head of the university of california system if usa there for another year or two. and all of a sudden, your alma mater comes calling, morehouse, they say, come back and be the president of this small college in atlanta, not the head of the university of california system. why didn't you say, look, i'm going to be the head of the university of california system? it's a better job.
then being the head of morehouse. why did you not do that? walter: i did say that. i said that for several months. i went to my alma mater, my alumni and friends and trustees. i said, you are crazy. i have been here a little while and my whole career has been in big science institutions. that is what i know. but i thought about it. it really was a family decision. one day surely -- shirley surprised me by flying in my two sons. i came home from work and there they were. we talked a lot about it and reached a decision that i could probably do more in areas that i cared about. some of which i just mentioned. secondly, that i really owed practically everything that i had achieved to my beginnings at morehouse. that i ought to do this. my younger son, the one who lives in amsterdam, eric, says being the head of university of california would be great, dad, but you can do a lot more and accomplish more by being at morehouse.
i was there 12 years. david: 12 years. ok. so, while you were at morehouse you get an opportunity to get on the board of bank of america? walter: no, i did that in california. then i went on the board of the old bank before we merged. we were located in san francisco. david: at one point, they said you should be the chairman of the board of bank of america, is that right? walter: that's right. it was not that simple, but that's right. david: did you want to be chairman of the board of bank of america? walter: i had no time to think about it. it came about so quickly as a result of a shareholders meeting in april of 2009. after the shareholders had put on the proxy agenda a proposition to separate the chair from the ceo. as you know in most corporations, that is a combined position. the shareholder vote, it got the
majority of the votes. the board did not have to accept that recommendation, but the board did. and just after the board meeting, then chairman ken lewis, said the executive committee was going to recommend to the board that i would be the chairman. this is ongoing into the meeting. and i said how long do i have to think about this. they said about a minute. david: so, after you get that position a couple of days later the federal government calls you up and says what? we've got to talk to you. you've got some problems. they told you that you had to do some serious things to fix the bank of america. is that right? walter: that is correct. i thought when i accepted the position, i thought this is prestigious. it is an honor. and i thought well, i can do it. i have been on the board 15 years, so i was not a novice on the boardroom or financial
institutions. i had been on the board of mcdonald's where we had a non-executive chair at one point, motorola had a non-executive chair. so, i had seen what they did. it's about a two day a week job, you preside over meetings. you help with the agenda. you keep in touch with the ceo. i was thinking i can do that until the fed called. i was summoned to richmond, which is the office of the federal reserve branch that oversees bank of america, which is located in charlotte. and they asked me to bring some other directors with me, because i did not want to take the message back to my colleagues by myself. and the message they gave me turned it into a full-time job. david: they basically said you had some financial problems at bank of america and needed to make some changes. walter: correct. david: and ultimately, you had to spend a lot of time fixing the bank of america, is that
right? walter: that is correct. david: you led an effort to pick brian moynihan, who is still the ceo of bank of america. is that right? walter: that's right. david: so that worked out ok. walter: that worked out fantastic. brian has done a wonderful -- it's not just my opinion, he has been chosen ceo of the year a couple of times, not just in the financial industry. but throughout corporate america and banking. a♪ and it's easier than ever to■ get your projects done right. inside, outside, big or small, angi helps you find the right so for whatever you need done. with angi, you can connect with and see ratings and reviews. just search or scroll to see upf on hundreds of projects. and when you book and pay throug you're covered by our happiness
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david: let me ask you right now about something you are involved in right now, which is the giant magellan telescope. you are leading the effort to get people to fund the giant magellan telescope. why do we need the giant magellan telescope, since we have the webb telescope, that seems to be sending back nice pictures. how much better is the giant magellan going to be? walter: four times better. david: four times better. walter: four times better resolution, which means the pictures will be sharper. but the science, the way it will work, you are seeing these pictures is very sharp. but they are identifying parts of galaxies in space almost back here to the beginning of the universe that people have not seen. it cannot focus more sharply as we would like to be able to identify objects. so, the webb will identify a portion of space. the gmt, the giant magellan telescope, can in effect zoom in on that space, have a finer resolution, look at it more clearly. in addition to that, we will have a set of instruments which
can collect that light, analyze it, and the sea, for example, -- and see, for example, does it contain signs of oxygen or water? so they will be complementary. david: how much does it cost before we get the giant magellan telescope? walter: we are estimating a little over $2 billion. david: where is that money coming from? walter: half is coming from private sources, university of chicago being one of 11 partners who put up about half. and the federal government is now negotiating with the national science foundation to come up with the other half.
david: i've often thought the way you could raise money for the giant magellan telescope is to take away the name magellan because he did not put up any money for it and let somebody very wealthy, like elon musk or bill gates or somebody say, we will name it after them and put up a billion dollars. you ever thought of that? walter: we think of that every day. [laughs] i do, yes. you have a billionaire that you would like? david: maybe not a multibillionaire but there might be someone out there. if you name somebody. it's a big naming opportunity. walter: i am laughing, but we do. we have naming opportunities all the way from a mirror, an instrument that will look for exoplanets for $10 million. the mirror is going to be named. we have one mirror named, a -- mitchell, a generous donor. $20 million. -- the telescope dome itself is $100 million and you can name -- we can negotiate the price for the whole telescope. david: are they gonna name anything the walter massey anything? walter: i think they have some porta potty is now. -- porta potty's now. [laughter] david: while for people of earth -- david: the life for people on earth would be better when it's funded because we're going to discover there is life somewhere else in the universe? how is that going to make our life better?
walter: i don't think it'll make life better in the sense of material comfort, material advantages. i think it is going to make human life more interesting and probably inspire people to think about their life differently. the artist jeff coombs, who is a friend of mine, says that when he looks at those images from the james webb telescope or the others that show almost the beginning of the universe, you see these galaxies. it just makes you realize how special it is to be living in these times, when you can discover these things and how special it is to be a human being. i mean, how improbable it is that there is something like us that has been generated over all of these years and now we still exist. david: do you believe there is life in the universe somewhere else other than earth? walter: i do. now why do i say this, just probability. enrico fermi is reported to have -- purported to have said where
is everybody? why haven't we heard from them? because just given the number of stars -- with what they are calling exoplanets -- planets that look like they would be situated close enough to a position with a star to have life, they have already discovered 5000. 5000 in our galaxy. and given the number of galaxies, billions in the universe, there just seems to be unlikely from a mathematical and statistical point of view that you would not have conditions like we have on earth. david: as you look back on your life and incredible career, what would you say is the legacy that you would like to have people think about you? what would you be most proud of having done? is it the position at morehouse or the scientific leadership?
what would you say is your legacy? to your children, grandchildren and fellow americans. walter: well, there would not be any particular accomplishment. i would hope it would be that people would realize that you can accomplish a great deal in life, no matter where you start. if you first -- i do think luck is involved. but if you have the right mentors, the right support, and if you yourself are willing to work hard and be curious enough and bold enough to take advantage of opportunities when they arise. a♪ 92% still active? seems high. seriously? it's just a bike. wait. they make a treadmill with an intuitive speed knob? yeah. want to try? 92% stick with it, so can you. rent a peloton bike or bike+. terms apply.
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