By Pat Sherman
Richard Atkinson had spent 15 years as UCSD’s chancellor when in 1995 he was tapped to become president of the University of California system, overseeing its nine prestigious research universities.
However, neither his tenure at UCSD nor his time as the National Science Foundation’s deputy director could have prepared him for the firestorm that awaited.
With tensions already running high over the state university system’s nearly a $1 billion budget shortfall, the UC Regents voted to end affirmative action in its admissions and hiring, just four weeks into Atkinson’s tenure.
How Atkinson dealt with that controversial decision and went on to lead the university system as its 17th president is chronicled in a new book from the University of California Press, “Entrepreneurial President: Richard Atkinson and the University of California, 1992-2003.”
“I think it’s sort of an insider’s view of higher education … and how the regents, president, faculty, students and the general public all get involved in this activity of deciding on university issues,” said Atkinson, who returned to his life in La Jolla with wife, Rita, at the end of his presidency.
Author Patricia Pelfrey interviewed some 80 people researching the book, which also sheds light on the growth of the university system at the end of the 20th century.
“It’s an incredible set of interviews,” Atkin- son said, noting that Pelfrey’s recordings will become part of the UC system’s permanent archives. “She interviewed just about every- body you can imagine who was involved in these things. Everyone sort of had their chance to comment on (the manuscript) as to whether she got the story right or not.”
Atkinson recalled how early in his presidency he was almost fired by Governor Pete Wilson over the implementation date of Resolution SP-1, which ended affirmative action in student admissions. Atkinson ultimately kept his job and prevailed in delaying the measure’s implementation, arguing that students were not prepared for such a sudden and radical shift in policy, which Pelfrey characterized as “an institutional train wreck” and a “political dilemma of daunting proportions.”
“The Board of Regents rolled back 30 years of history by abolishing the use of racial and ethnic preferences in admissions and employment,” she writes. “It was a decision made against the advice of the president, vice presidents, the system-wide academic senate and the nine chancellors of the university.”
The issue became a national lightning rod. While President Clinton publicly supported affirmative action, opposition to the policy became the centerpiece of Pete Wilson’s failed bid for the Oval Office.
“It’s still an issue around the country, but certainly we were the first to face up to the problems,” said Atkinson of the measure, which was spurred by a complaint from Mr. and Mrs. Jerry Cook of San Diego, whose Caucasian son James, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of UC San Diego, had been accepted to Harvard Medical School in 1992, but denied admission to UC’s medical schools based on his race. “From my view there was never a question that if the regents established a policy, it had to be followed,” Atkinson said. “That was the responsibility of the president. On the other hand, when they established the policy they had no idea of the implications, in terms of what had to be done, in terms of announcing it to students, the preparation. It just couldn’t be done properly on a one-year schedule. So I did extend it.
“A number of regents called for me to be fired, but … it worked out well. … That’s just part of being a president. You put your neck on the line every week or so with one group or another.”
Though some feared state legislators would cut off university funding in retaliation for eliminating affirmative action, Atkinson said state funding diminished for other reasons — eventually causing some universities such as Berkeley to consider breaking off from the UC system and becoming a private institution.
“The fact is that the share of the university’s budget from the state has just grown really small,” he said. “Twenty-five years ago it represented 40 percent of our budget. Today, it represents about eight percent. Twenty years ago student fees were almost negligible. Today, they’re significant.”
In the book Pelfrey characterizes Atkinson as “often impulsive, quick to embrace new ideas, highly intellectual, but with a distinctly unacademic dislike of verbal dueling. Those who knew him up close also saw the drive, the willingness to remove people he did not think up to the job.”
Asked how he feels about the characterization, Atkinson’s said it surprised him.
“She sort of thinks that I’m very hard driving and was going to march forward no matter what,” he said. “I don’t think that’s always the case … (but) my life has been one where I’ve never been worried about getting fired and I’ve always sort of taken the view that I’m going to do what has to be done on a reasonable basis. If it doesn’t work out, I’m happy to take the consequences.
“To put it another way, I don’t believe in delaying decisions forever. I believe in getting the choices out there and then coming to a decision, consenting with the faculty and the regents, but making decisions. I’d rather be wrong on occasion and make the decision in a timely way than never to make decisions and that what is so characteristic of universities. They never can quite make decisions.”
The decisions Atkinson made as UCSD’s chancellor, and their impact on the region’s economic and technological growth, spurred Washington Post publisher Kathryn Graham to dub San Diego’s economic rebirth during the 1980s as “the Atkinson Miracle.”
Atkinson said that during his time with the National Science Foundation and as a professor of psychology at Stanford University he came to value “the importance of getting research results that occur in the university out into the private sector.
“The university’s cooperative activity has always been important for me, but that’s the way the world is going over time,” he said.
Looking back on his presidency, Atkinson said it was his bold plan to force the college board to develop a different kind of SAT, the SAT-R, which is perhaps most significant.
“That story has never really been told … and I think she tells it very well — all the complications, the conflict and the efforts by the college board to sort of block change,” he said. “I think that’s a particularly good story and one that is not that well understood by most people.”
Though Atkinson would not say what advice he has given incoming UC Chancellor Pradeep K. Khosla (formerly the dean of Carnegie Mellon University’s College of Engineering), he said they have met on several occasions.
“I’m very, very pleased with the choice,” Atkinson said. “We’ve gotten to know each other since he was appointed. I just know that he is the right person for the job and I think that he will do an excellent job.”