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Mr. Keck's Bequest : Caltech Vs. UC Berkeley in a Story of Academic Intrigue, Technological Breakthroughs and Astronomical Ambition

May 24, 1987|PAUL CIOTTI | Paul Ciotti is a Los Angeles Times Magazine staff writer.

IN AUGUST, 1984, THE PRESIDENT OF THE University of California, David P. Gardner, was vacationing with his family on an island in the middle of a Montana lake when a neighbor rowed over with an urgent message: "Please call Frazer." Since William Frazer, UC's vice president for academic affairs, wouldn't normally disturb Gardner on vacation, it had to be important. Gardner took a boat ashore and called Frazer from a pay phone. The news concerned UC's proposed 10-meter telescope, and what Gardner heard, he says, left him "startled" and "concerned."

For nearly a decade, UC astronomers had been looking for a way to catapult the university into the front ranks of astronomical observatories by building the world's largest and most powerful telescope. But it wasn't until early 1984, after a year of intense negotiations, that Gardner had received the money for the project--$36 million from the estate of Marion O. Hoffman--in exchange for a promise to name the telescope after her husband, Maximilian E. Hoffman, a wealthy importer of Porsches and BMWs. Although the $36 million was the largest single gift in UC's 116-year history, it would cover only half the cost of the new telescope. As a way of raising some of the rest, Gardner had asked Caltech to contribute $25 million to the project in return for 25% of the viewing time.

To everyone's surprise, Caltech succeeded beyond its wildest expectations, which was the reason for Frazer's frantic call to Gardner that day. Caltech president Marvin L. Goldberger had just revealed that he had an unsolicited offer of $70 million from the W. M. Keck Foundation, enough to fund the whole telescope project and, as Frazer immediately realized, to dramatically change the entire relationship between Caltech and UC.

At the same time, the gift left Gardner in a terrible bind. Just three months before, he had held a news conference to announce that the telescope would be named after Maximilian Hoffman. Now as a result of this new gift he would have to go back to the Hoffman Foundation and say he was terribly sorry, the telescope would instead be named after W. M. Keck. He wanted to be fair. He wanted to be ethical. He didn't want what he called Keck's "unexpected generosity" to be misunderstood by the Hoffman people. Most certainly of all, he didn't want to have to turn around and give back $36 million. No wonder he was, in his words, "perplexed." His efforts to fund the telescope had become a "complicated high-stakes" game, and the end, he feared, was nowhere in sight.

TO BOTH HIS ADMIRERS and critics, David Gardner was in many ways an anomaly for a university president. He was a Mormon, had earned his doctorate in the relatively unprestigious field of education and, in contrast to some other university presidents who use their office to speak out on such major moral issues as apartheid and arms control, in public he was so determinedly nonpolitical that one state legislator called him "the most infuriatingly inscrutable public official" he had ever encountered. Once, when Assembly Speaker Willie Brown heatedly challenged him to provide "one scintilla of evidence that the atrocities of the South African regime" in any way bothered him, Gardner responded that, as a Mormon, he had first-hand experience with injustice and persecution--the bones of his ancestors, he said, were strewn all over the western United States--and as a result he abhorred oppression wherever it occurred. Unlike Brown, however, he did not "choose to advertise it."

Despite Gardner's mild-mannered nature and a tendency to speak in academic boilerplate, his track record at raising money was enviable. Unlike his predecessors, who had lived with static or declining budgets under the administrations of Ronald Reagan and Jerry Brown, Gardner--by proceeding in a systematic, non-confrontational manner--won a commitment from Gov. George Deukmejian to increase state support for UC by 64%, which was another reason he chose not to denounce social injustices over which he had no control. Speaking out would compromise what he saw as his real job: maintaining the university as a place where ideas are welcome and respected; serving the faculty and students, and finding ways to fund important new projects--for instance, the world's largest telescope.

WHEN ASTRONOMERS at UC's Lick Observatory first started thinking, back in the mid-'60s, that they needed another telescope, it was not their notion to build something twice as big and four times as powerful as Palomar. All they really wanted was another 120-inch reflector in a dark location to supplement the Lick Observatory on top of Mt. Hamilton just east of San Jose. If you wanted to do deep-space observations, you need a totally dark night sky--something that was no longer available on the outskirts of San Jose.

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