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Bill Maurer
Reflecting on his first ten years as dean, Bill Maurer is extremely proud of how the School of Social Sciences serves its over 7,000 students: “I think one of the things that we've been really trying to do – and succeeding at – is ensuring that they have the kind of education that they deserve and then the job prospects and outcomes that we want them to have.” Steve Zylius / UCI

Bill Maurer is busy. When the professor of anthropology and director of UCI’s Institute for Money, Technology and Financial Inclusion isn’t researching the latest forms of transactions, discussing credit scoring using AI for the national credit union system, teaching people about debt-to-income ratio and why cash transactions offer the most privacy, or collaborating with community organizations in Orange County on how to build a more just consumer financial system, he’s leading UCI’s School of Social Sciences. Dean for the past decade, Maurer recently agreed to five more years at the helm of the school with the largest percentage of undergraduates majoring in their departments.

In this UCI Podcast, Maurer describes how he morphed from reluctant leader to a third term as dean, reflects on his first decade in the role and looks ahead to what’s next as the School of Social Sciences continues its mission to “create positive change and improve the human condition.” Maurer also shares why he was drawn to anthropology and offers a quick Cryptocurrency 101 lesson, including the potential benefits and drawbacks of digital currency.

This episode of the UCI Podcast was recorded in the podcast studio in the ANTrepreneur Center. Music for this episode of the UCI Podcast, titled “Wide Awake,” provided by The 126ers via the Audio Library in YouTube Studio.

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The UCI Podcast/Cara Capuano:
From the University of California Irvine, I’m Cara Capuano. Thank you for listening to the UCI Podcast.

Our guest today is Bill Maurer, Dean of UCI’s School of Social Sciences. On May 10th, Provost Hal Stern announced the reappointment of Dean Maurer to an additional five-year term, which will be his third.

Today we’ll reflect on the first decade of Dean Maurer’s leadership of the school, which teaches the largest percentage of undergraduates on campus. And we’ll look ahead to what’s next. Dean Maurer is also a professor of anthropology and law, and the director of UCI’s Institute for Money, Technology and Financial Inclusion. We’ll ask him about his multiple research interests, which revolve around value and transactions, including how new payment technologies like cryptocurrency impact people’s well-being. We appreciate you taking the time and your busy schedule to chat with us today, Dean Maurer.

Bill Maurer:
Well, thank you for having me.

Let’s start our conversation at a time point over 10 years ago when you decided to throw your hat into the ring to become the dean of the School of Social Sciences for the very first time. What motivated your decision to apply for that leadership role?

Well, to be honest, I had actually no ambitions whatsoever to be dean. At the time. I was associate dean for research and graduate studies. I was running a successful research institute. I had a very nice research career I was very comfortable in. But there were others in the school, including myself, who were concerned about what a leadership transition might mean and what a search for a new dean would lead to.

Often a new dean might come in with a very big kind of ambitious agenda to transform everything into their own image, or especially in the social and behavioral sciences, make everybody do one kind of thing. We’re going to focus only on this for the next five years or only on that. And what had made the School of Social Sciences here at UCI so great and so distinctive was that we had ­– and continue to have – an incredible range of disciplines represented and also incredible connections among the departments through our various research centers and so on, that made it a uniquely vibrant place.

And I and others were worried that a new dean coming in with a big agenda would ruin all of that… would say, “We’re all going to do, you know, whatever – computationally driven social and behavioral science, or we’re all going to do ethnography or we’re going to go full-on international ­– when we had excellence in all of those areas, and we had excellence in those areas because they were all talking to each other.

So, the former dean, a couple other senior colleagues said, “You know, Bill, just apply, put your name in the hat. Really the goal is to educate people, educate the campus, educate the committee about who we are so that they pick someone who doesn’t screw it all up.” So, I applied. I went through all the motions. I did the work of putting data in front of the committee and in front of the campus leadership that was looking at who to appoint in the hopes that that would give them the right questions to ask of a dean candidate.

And then I thought, “Well, my work is done.” And the then-interim provost called me up and I thought for sure this was the, “Sorry, we picked somebody else” call, but she said, “We’d like to offer you the position.” And I was completely dumbstruck for a second or two because I just didn’t believe that it was true. So, then I said that I would consider it and I let it hang there for a couple of weeks until one of the staff members in the provost office called me up and said, “You’re going to accept, right?” So, then I wrote out my list of demands, which included a tour of the tunnels under the campus, which I got by the way.

I thought those were fake.

They’re real. It’s really one big tunnel. It’s really sort of a large, interconnected basement of most of the original buildings on the campus. It’s not as exciting as it sounds when you say tunnels.

Still sounds pretty cool though. You know, “in the underground where the things dwell.” Did you process at that time how it made you feel that all of these colleagues that had a similar goal to you wanted you to be their leader? What was that like?

So I’m not entirely sure that they wanted me to be their leader (laughs). I don’t know if they knew what they were getting themselves into, but you know, I certainly had their confidence that I could tell the story of the school in a way that would make sense to the administration, to the committee, to the wider constituencies that we serve. And I still appreciate that my colleagues, the faculty, the staff ­– and now, the leadership of the campus – trust me to tell that story.

Remembering back to those first five years, which I’m sure right now seems like yesterday, but a million years ago, what stands out?

There was a lot of infrastructure to be built. And when I say infrastructure, I mean physical stuff, but also, institutional things. So, when I became the dean, we had a development office – a fundraising team – but it was small. It wasn’t really very active in anything other than engaging some of the existing donors and stewardship activities. So as a condition of accepting the deanship, I said, “I want two ‘FTE’ – I want two positions full-time, to really staff up this office.” So, we really built out a development office.

We also had things that I was like, “oh, what’s that?” We had a large copper-lined room in the basement of the Social and Behavioral Sciences Gateway building. This was constructed when that building was raised with the intention of putting an fMRI machine there for neuroimaging research. But that never happened.

So, I’m like, “What are we going to do with the copper room?” Right? And faculty and others were like, “Well, why don’t we try to honor the original intention ­– since it’s lined in copper, it’s shielded. Let’s get a big neuroimaging magnet and put it in.” But you can’t just go to Target and get one. So, there was an enormous operation to convince the campus that this was necessary, rally the faculty behind it from across the schools, not just in social sciences, and then go after the funding, which we got from the Office of the President. Then once you had the funding, you had to actually go buy the thing. There was a time when anytime I would open Google, I would get targeted ads about neuroimaging. Like, “So, you’re interested in the exciting world of imaging, medical imaging, here’s what you need, blah, blah, blah.” I’m like, “No, no, no. Clear cache. I’m not buying one myself.”

Now we have this wonderful facility – the Facility for Imaging and Brain Research ­– in the basement. Beautifully decked-out top-of-the-line equipment headed up by a faculty member from Bio Sci, but used by faculty from social sciences, medicine education, social ecology ­­– across the campus. So, really, really, really quite rewarding.

I mentioned we didn’t really have much in the way of a development operation. We also didn’t have much in the way of alumni engagement. And my development team really went to work on that. And there’s a photograph that I can see right now that was taken by my communications team of me with eight other people – all alums –the founding members of what we call our Dean’s Leadership Society. And if you look at that picture, you will see my face and you will see that I am definitely not on board.

I’m like, “Is this going to work? There’s only eight people here. Is this how this kind of thing starts?” But it is. And now there’s over 180 folks who are alumni, community members, supporters – they’re all al also donors – very invested in the mission of the school and highly engaged. And this has really helped us do things that now have become signature events on the campus, like our gigantic lunar New Year celebration. And also, the way that we essentially dominate homecoming right now with our giant tent, which is always full of people and good cheer. So, you know, those first five years really were about building out that infrastructure and getting things going so that then we could advance the school to an even higher level.

So you have the ball rolling, everything’s going well. We always hear that typically the tenure for deans is four to six years on average, but you applied for a second five-year term and then recently you just applied again for five more. What motivated sticking around for more of that leadership responsibility?

That’s probably a topic for a longer conversation, maybe 50 minutes long, where you would have an insurance code and you would bill for your therapeutic counsel to me. But the first re-up was a pretty easy decision, right? I built the stuff and now I wanted to play with it.

The second re-up was harder and I was – and remain – somewhat ambivalent about it. And maybe this goes back to the initial kind of reluctant leadership kind of attitude that I have about the thing. But there are still things I’d like to get done.

And also, there were those years of the pandemic. How do we even think about that? Right? Sort of 18 months to two and a half years of weirdness that we’re still very much in. And what I heard from faculty and staff really was a desire for some stability –some sense of security. With everything that happened in the pandemic… Also, with other campus leadership changes and everything happening in the world, I think folks felt that it would just be a lot better if I would stick around for a while. So, hearing that and talking to my own self about that, I thought, “Okay, you know, I can probably do this.”

There was that period within that second stint of five years that had to be so unique. I could see wanting almost a do-over another chance to…


… to resettle the ship, if you will.

Yeah, definitely. And then, you know, during that time we learned to do so many new things, right? We learned to do… we learned Zoom, we learned to do podcasts, we learned to do webinars. We learned new ways of engaging with the community at all hours of the day and really expanding our reach. We learned new ways of working with one another. And now I think is the time to try to figure out what were some of those lessons? What are the ones that we can adopt to this new world we’re in now? What are the ones that we left by the wayside? You know, it is actually an exciting time now to take what we’ve learned from that experience and now use it to build the university anew.

I like that positive spirit around it. If you had to list top three maybe highlights or points of growth or achievements during your first 10 years as the dean, what comes to mind? I know you’ve got your fancy new equipment that’s got to be in there…

I got my fancy new equipment. That’s a big deal. FIBRE is a big deal for those first five years. That was a definite win.

Another big one was my predecessor had signed a contract with the U.S. Census Bureau to establish a census data center here on the campus, which allows access to federal statistical data. There’s only 30 or so of these in the country. And just getting that done and operational and sustainable was a big deal – again, in that infrastructure category.

Social Sciences has the largest undergraduate major population, around 7,000 students. They reflect the diversity of the campus as a whole. And I think one of the things that we’ve been really trying to do and succeeding at is ensuring that they have the kind of education that they deserve and then the job prospects and outcomes that we want them to have.

So, we have stood up programs like our First-Gen First Quarter Challenge, really aimed at first-generation students, ensuring that they have the counsel and mentoring that they need from other first-gen students and faculty who themselves were the first in their family to go to college.

But then also through the Dean’s Leadership Society – and now an offshoot organization, the Women of the Dean’s Leadership Society – we’re standing up a mentoring program specifically for women students to be mentored by our female alums who will share their perspectives in a structured program over the summer and into the following year.

So, the students really are the focus of a lot of what we do. I talked a lot about research. It’s important to note that most of our faculty with active research programs involve undergrads in what they’re doing, including myself.

You know, the other big thing is we established two new departments. So, we went from seven to nine departments ­– one in language science and another in global and international studies. And those have now been built out. There’s still room for growth. Each has launched a Ph.D. program and there’s a lot more to come there.

I think with language science we’re looking at speech language pathology and an audiology degree as well as potentially an audiology clinic. With global and international studies, there’s a lot going on really to redefine that field and to put kind of questions of race and indigeneity at the center of the study of the global and international order.

The other big thing for me is we expanded the faculty at the same time that we diversified the faculty and rose in the rankings. And I actually think that there are causal connections among those things that because we really intentionally went out to build an inclusive faculty, a faculty representative of the diversity of the state of California and the world and also at the same time were thinking, “What does that mean intellectually? How does it change our fields to have different voices at the table?” We really have achieved something very special. Every single one of our departments went up in the rankings. We now have several in the top 10. And again, we have an incredibly diverse faculty now compared to when I became dean.

That sets a wonderful example. When you think about your vision for what’s next with UCI’s School of Social Sciences, what does that look like?

Well, one thing is I do want to be mindful now that we’ve built this thing and we’ve achieved these rankings, and so you don’t want that to fall, you don’t want it to slip. At the same time, there’s opportunities now that we have this robust faculty and research infrastructure really to push the boundaries of our disciplines even further. So, I’m very interested in the way our faculty are picking up contemporary global challenges, right? Climate change, racial injustice and racial reckoning, population shifts in aging societies in the global north and changing flows of immigration – and really thinking about how we can use our sciences to speak to the pressing questions of the day.

Now a lot of this gets into like super downer territory, right? But things like the future of democracy, are we going to have it like in the future? How can we ensure that we do? How can we ensure that we have mechanisms in place to keep it going, to quell disinformation, to tamp down the rise in extremism we’re seeing around the world or the rise in anti-Semitism?

So, to just give you one concrete example: this past year we hosted a couple of events on rising antisemitism, particularly in digital spaces and online extremism in an event we did in partnership with the ADL and OC Human Relations. And I expect that to continue. We have an initiative in the school that’s part of a cross-campus initiative really to hit head on what we can do about rising antisemitism.

Take climate change. There’s a whole cluster of faculty in my school across several departments who were looking at fires, about fire abatement and fire management, and doing it from the point of view of community-based knowledge and indigenous knowledge of how you manage forestry resources and other natural resources really to kind of change the conversation in the state of California about what we do about fires.

Fires lead right into air quality, right? We have other people in Social Sciences who are bringing social and behavioral perspectives on what it means to really address pollution and how to involve community voices and community activists in the fight for environmental justice.

So, it’s, it’s those sorts of things where really helping the rest of the scientific community to see – but also the rest of our Orange County community to see – why and how the social and behavioral sciences are central to addressing some of these challenges.

And with that in mind, one of the things I’d like to achieve in the next few years is to stand up some kind of translational research office that will help us bridge that gap between what we’re doing here on the campus and community needs. Right now, the School of Social Sciences enjoys really strong collaborations with organizations like OC United Way, Asian Americans Advancing Justice and others.

And that mostly is kind of done through kind of one-off projects. We ran a big study with the United Way about the cost of homelessness in Orange County, but it was sort of a “me pulling in a faculty member, pulling in a grad student, pulling community partners and then making the thing go.” And I’m hoping that we can – just as we did with development – stand up an office that would help the community with these sorts of research requests and research needs.

We have another one right now with Second Harvest Food Bank, where I’ve connected them with a researcher not in my school, but in public health, to do a food security assessment to help them plan what they do through the food bank. So, I’m hoping to build a translational research office to bridge that divide between the campus and the community for the social sciences and help demonstrate the value that we bring to these sorts of questions.

I think that those are all wonderful foundational ideas and I’m looking forward to you possibly bringing them to fruition in a five-year period. Go!


We’ve talked a lot about Bill Maurer, the dean, but I’d like to learn a little bit more about Bill Maurer, the anthropologist. What drew you to the study of human societies and cultures and their development?

When, when I went into college, I was going to be pre-med like everybody else. And so, I took, bio and chem and calculus and all those things and I had room for one elective, and I took anthropology. It was at the beginning of the alphabet in the catalog. And I took a course called – this is how old this is –I took a course called “Peoples and Cultures of the Soviet Union” and it was about the Russian Empire and then the consolidation of the Soviet Union and the really repressive cultural policies and linguistic policies that the Soviet Union used to try to build this new kind of empire. And I found it super fascinating.

But what it really kind of tapped into for me was a preexisting interest in – this is going to maybe sound like a leap –but you know, in science fiction. Right? In world building. In the ways in which culture and society are fundamental parts of the construction and creation of new worlds. And once we have that insight that pretty much everything around us is socially constructed. Well then there’s that kind of moral question, or that imperative, of, “Well if it’s socially constructed, can we build it a different way, please? Right? If we don’t like it, can we build it anew?” And it’s really that that kind of motivated me. You know, this sort of science fiction inspired Star Trek-ish desire for brave new worlds.

We’ve got plenty of doctors. I’m glad that the energy that is palpable in the space talking to you, moved you in that path. If I had to pick a word to summarize what I feel is your specific research expertise, it’d be “money.” But I know that that’s too simple. I know your work is far more intricate. How would you explain to an anthropology novice like myself exactly what your interests are in your research and what your team examines?

Sure. So, you know, anthropologists have always looked at how people exchange and transact with one another and just think stories about like beads or cowrie shells or whatever. So, this is part of the discipline. It’s not where I started.

I started really thinking about immigration and citizenship in the Caribbean and the parts of the world that have touched it and that it touches. But when I was doing research – and still to this day in the Caribbean – one of the dominant things in the economies there was not tourism, but offshore financial services. I had no idea what that was. I didn’t know what offshore banking was. I didn’t know what offshore anything was. I was not trained in economics. And so, the dutiful anthropologist, I was like, “Well, let’s find out. Let’s go interview people, let’s go interview accountants. Let’s sit in on court cases where there were disputes about these trusts that were incorporated by Brazilian men who were hiding all of their assets from their wives – because there was a lot of that going on. And for me as an anthropologist, I’m like, “Oh, kinship – that’s interesting, right? Marriage and kinship stuff is central to the sort of things that we study.” So, that really got me thinking about money and finance in a new way.

So, I started doing that work offshore. That led into doing some work on Islamic banking and finance ­–sort of religiously inflected modes of money –which then just took me right down into the money world.

What I’ve been looking at over the past several years is the interface between physical currency like cash and coin and digital currency or digital modes of payment stretching from things like mobile phone-based money transfer services that exist in parts of Sub-Saharan Africa to Venmo and then also Bitcoin, cryptocurrency and so on.

In recent years, I’ve been doing research in the crypto community and reflecting on its sort of political motivation – some of which can be quite scary – but also the way that it’s really helped open up the conversation about what money is in a way that hasn’t happened in this country anyway since the late 19th century when there were active political debates and there were different political parties with positions on what is money. We don’t really have that now, but we did once upon a time and bitcoin and crypto are sort of reopening that conversation. That’s fascinating to me.

You say fascinating, I say terrifying. Something about cryptocurrency for me… every time I read about it, I try to understand it. I come away baffled. Is it a security? Is it a currency? Is it going to last? Could it someday replace money? You say money, I think of cash and coin. I’m very old school. What are some of the important takeaways for people like myself who are a bit intimidated by crypto?

I’d say, you know, remain intimidated and remain cautious and careful. There is a lot to lose and there’s a lot of scams. There’s a lot of people doing bad things in that space.

At the same time, the technology underlying cryptocurrency, which is essentially a distributed kind of database – we don’t have to really talk about that here now – is potentially quite useful for doing other kinds of things that don’t have anything to do with money. So, for instance, the technology underlying crypto allows you to basically create records of providence or records of chain of custody of an object – digital or physical – even if it’s moving through a lot of different hands, even if it’s involved in a lot of economic relationships with competitors who don’t have aligned interests.

And that sounds really abstract, but I always think about romaine lettuce, right? So, there’s a whole bunch of growers, a whole bunch of distributors, a whole bunch of supermarkets. But as soon as somebody gets food poisoning from Romaine, the whole thing shuts down. So, there’s an incentive for all of the parties in the romaine supply chain, right? To cooperate even though they’re competing and to create a system for traceability of their product in case of contamination.

The blockchain, which is this distributed database structure that crypto uses, is actually perfect for that kind of thing where you want to share information with your competitors but not too much. And you want a level of privacy and security and anonymity. But you still want to be able to track when something bad happens. Where did it start? So, you can just shut down that part of it and not the whole thing.

Another place where it’s being actively developed is around gemstones to verify both the authenticity but also the providence of things like diamonds. So that conflict diamonds don’t enter the supply chain. So that when you’re buying a thing and the jeweler says this is really this, that it actually is that, and there’s a way of verifying it. So, I would say on crypto, remain skeptical. On other applications of blockchain technology, it’s sort of wait and see, but there’s some interesting potential there.

And an important thing to note here too, on the money side – which I’m always talking about in public forums or in front of industry audiences and to academic audiences –is that because we have such a high degree in this country and in the world of economic inequality and because access to banking is not something that is universal or guaranteed, we are always going to have a need for physical cash. Always. Because all of our digital systems right now, even crypto really to get money into the system, depend on a person having access to a bank account. And where tons of people don’t have them, you’re going to need some other way for them to get their business done and get paid.

During the pandemic, we really had vivid illustrations of this, right? Folks who got pandemic relief who had bank accounts got it directly deposited. Folks who didn’t have bank accounts, who had probably filed their taxes with a service like “OC Free Tax Prep” or something, what did they get? They got prepaid debit cards. What do I do with a prepaid debit card, right? I have to pay the landlord. I have to pay him in cash. I don’t have a checking account. What do I do? I go to the ATM. I line up with everybody else and take all the cash out and then hand the cash over to my landlord. And we saw here in Orange County, around the country, lines forming at ATMs where people had figured out where’s the ATM that charges the lowest fee but allows them the highest one-time withdrawal. And that’s where folks who were unbanked when to get their money.

So, cash is always going to be important. It’s not going to be displaced by digital. And even in countries that have seemingly gone like virtually cashless like Sweden or the Netherlands, their governments have issued, guidance to the population saying you should have cash around just in case.

In the Netherlands, it’s always just in case floods knock out the infrastructure with climate change. In Sweden, they put out something that literally said like, “just in case.” And everyone freaked out. Like, “just in case what?” Because this was the time when there was Russian submarines in Stockholm Harbor.

So, when we’re dealing with the kind of world we’re dealing in today where infrastructure becomes unreliable, either because of climate-related disasters, fires, floods – think the Paradise Fire, which knocked out ATM infrastructure in Northern California, or Hurricane Sandy, I think it was, that flooded lower Manhattan and knocked out the payment infrastructure – or political violence – think about Russia trying to hack Estonia and Ukraine and other instances of government and non-government actors trying to get people where it really hurts, which is their money. It’s hard to do that with physical cash.

Still scares me. (laughs) Thank you so much for joining us today, Dean Maurer.

Well thank you. It’s been fun.

For the latest UCI News, please visit our recently redesigned website: I’m Cara Capuano. Thank you for listening to our conversation, which we recorded at the studio of UCI’s ANTrepreneur Center. The UCI Podcast is a production of Strategic Communications and Public Affairs at the University of California, Irvine. Please subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts.