Priscilla Grew

Education is Cumulative

Recorded: September 17, 2013

Priscilla Grew's work has always been a combination of academics and administration. Early on, she found her niche of bringing together people to synthesize complex information and present it to others with less technical expertise in the topic at hand. Priscilla has served as the director for the California Department of Conservation, was a commissioner of the California Public Utility Commission, and later, the director of the Minnesota Geological Survey. She is presently the director of the University of Nebraska State Museum. Priscilla shares the wisdom of what she has learned in her various positions and how this knowledge enhances what she is able to accomplish in her next role.

In the 1980s, Priscilla Grew, an academic and California state employee was selected by California Governor Jerry Brown to direct the Department of Conservation because of her work in applying geosciences to public policy, including earthquake and landslide information. She was also a commissioner of the California Public Utility Commission and director of the Minnesota Geological Survey. She presently is the Director of the University of Nebraska State Museum.

While Priscilla was working for the Department of Conservation, Huey Johnson (Secretary of Resources) turned to Priscilla for endless information and research. Dr. Grew has learned a lot through her various positions. She tells her students, “try to do things that will build on what you have done before.” Although she is severely shy, she believes the key to her skill in administrative affairs is that she enjoys working with others to bring information together from various disciplines. Synthesizing information is a skill that is essential to evaluating any large issue, but especially environmental information.


Huey:    Priscilla Grew, wonderful to see you again.

Priscilla Grew:  Thank you for having me.

Huey Johnson:  We had the wonderful experience of working together in politics and being a part of a former California Governor’s administration and you did a remarkable job.  You ended up having not only a very successful record as academician before coming to that political setting, you ran a department and then later were in a position of a tremendous responsibility, being on the Public Utility Commission as I remember.  I remember we used to turn to you for endless information.  You were very well informed on almost anything.  You’re a classic example of education is accumulative experience.

Priscilla Grew:   Yeah, I think so and I’ve always – I tell my students you know when they’re worried about, you know  making career choices, I say that “You know just try to do things so that you build on what you’ve done before and you’ll find in almost every job what you’ve done before, you know you can call on.”

Huey Johnson:    I can’t think of a likely position that would be more fraught with pressure than the one you had in the Public Utility Commission.

Priscilla Grew:   The thing about the Public Utilities Commission job is that in that kind of a setting, you know nobody is the expert on everything.  So it’s a matter of working together and that’s probably my, you know sort of the theme of my career as more of a facilitator in working with people from all sorts of disciplines on common problems.  So typically in a rate case, I mean we’d have – I’d have both a technical advisor, a legal advisor and then also I’d be communicating with the staff. I don’t have a legal background and I don’t have an engineering background, so it’s a matter of trying to assemble all the people that do have that information and having them be able to work together so that you bring the information together.  And that’s the same way with, you know, environmental projects, I mean that’s where I really – that’s why I went into more environmental type of area because I wasn’t as comfortable just working one particular specialty and I really like working with people from different areas.  And so my first, my first environmental project was called the Lake Powell Research Project and that was a big National Science Foundation, regional environmental project on [cold?] water development in the Colorado River Basin and it was half social sciences and half natural sciences.  And this was back – started in 1971, which was you know really before – you know today we’re still trying [unintelligible] global climate change research was still trying to have, you know human dimensions to climate change and trying to pull social sciences and natural sciences together and its still very difficult.  But that’s what’s necessary in these big environmental issues.  You know I learned a lot from the way you worked with – you had the foresters, you had the water people, the air people and all the different entities and its, you can do a lot I think if you can somehow integrate science in that kind of a setting where science doesn’t come in as having all the answers, but it has a component of the answers.

Huey Johnson:    Maybe.

Priscilla Grew:    Well you would just rank the input of science lower than the other people in the group.

Huey Johnson:    That’s right.  The importance of being an administrator and a scientist is what I see you as having achieved a tremendous skill at as you’re describing working together with people.  Well, there’s a lot more to that than would appear.  It’s a gift I suppose, I’m not sure. When one learns it but you have been extremely successful at that.  Have you felt fear in your career when you – in your career diversity since you were all the sudden head of the Mines and Geology Board?

Priscilla Grew:    Yeah, well yeah, often – yeah, I actually talk to students about that too because I felt fear every time I changed jobs or you know I’m basically kind of a nervous Nelly or fearful person and I had to overcome very severe shyness.  I was so shy in school that I’d probably get sick if I had to give a book report in front of the class.  Many students are, you know sort of afraid of things like that and its just that, just realize that many of the people that you don’t think are afraid, are also afraid or have had to deal with it because they’re usually surprised, you know, when I tell them that I’m nervous or I get stage fright and that I have, that I always get that feeling and it’s a matter of living with it.

And then in my career, be able to, you know sort of jump fields, jump ship or jump fields I guess, really switch from one thing to another, the main thing to remember is that not everybody –  a single person doesn’t have all the answers.  And so if you just kind of get over that and you realize that you have something to contribute, it becomes a matter of you trying to do your best, trying to do, you know trying to improve yourself and to try to listen to what other people have to offer and try to give them opportunities to contribute.

Huey Johnson:    Priscilla Grew, wonderful to see you again.

Priscilla Grew:    Thank you for having me.