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LOS ANGELES TIMES INTERVIEW : Jack Peltason : Struggling to Keep California's Promise of Higher Education

June 11, 1995|Amy Wallace | Amy Wallace is a reporter who covers higher education for The Times

In 1992, when Jack W. Peltason became the 16th president of the University of California, it already seemed like the hardest of times for the nine-campus, 162,000-student system. And it would get worse before it got better.

During Peltason's tenure, UC has lost about $300 million in state revenues, and student fees have risen by more than one-third. The faculty went without cost-of-living raises for two years and the following year took a 3.5% pay cut. To cut costs, the university offered an early-retirement package that depleted the ranks of its most experienced professors. By January, 1995, when Gov. Pete Wilson proposed a budget that plotted out four years of moderate funding increases for higher education, UC was hurting. But thanks, in part, to Peltason's conciliatory style, some observers say, it was still very much alive.

In four months, the 71-year-old political scientist will step down, three years to the day after taking the $243,500-a-year job. The former chancellor of UC Irvine jokes this is his third attempt to retire, and this time, he says, "I think I'm going to make it." He will leave a university that is still recovering. Wilson's budget proposal fell far short of the 7.9% funding increase UC had asked for, providing just 2% more for UC this year and annual 4% increases for the next three years. UC officials say the governor's plan will provide financial stability, if not resources for much improvement.

But Peltason says recent budget woes have forever changed UC. In an interview in his Oakland office just weeks before a search committee is expected to announce his successor, Peltason talked at length about the future of the state's Master Plan for Higher Education, which assigns most of the state's research, Ph.D. and professional school training to UC. The plan says that the top eighth of the state's high school students are eligible for UC and the top one-third for California State University, while anyone who can benefit from additional education can attend a community college. The implied promise of the plan, which was drafted in 1960, is a place in public higher education for all.

But Peltason says that promise is in danger of being broken. Particularly during the next decade, when the state's college-age population is expected to surge, Peltason says UC may need to play a different role in undergraduate education than in years past. The alternative, he says, is mediocrity.

Question: To hear some members of the UC presidential search committee talk, your successor will ideally be a scholar, an inspirational speaker, an ambassador for public education, a fund-raiser, a sports cheerleader and chief executive officer. What qualities are needed to do your job?

Answer: Most search committees list their criteria and then they find out: God--she's not available. And they have to go find a human being. There are a lot of qualities that are essential. Universities have a lot of business enterprises, so, therefore, you need to be able to manage those. But they are primarily educational institutions and they're primarily for the purpose of the transmission and application of knowledge.

My own preference, without trying to prescribe, is that universities such as UC select administrators from people who have been on the front line of teaching, research and public service. Just as the military has people come up from the ranks. To preside over an enterprise of faculty and students, you need to be knowledgeable about that enterprise. Your decisions are more likely to be respected than if you have not participated in that process.

Q: Have there been parts of the job that surprised you?

A: None of us, I think, anticipated the depth of the recession. We thought we had a few short years of belt tightening. Also, I've never had a job where more people want to be told everything first. I mean, the regents need to be told before the newspapers. The chancellors want to be told before that. The faculty say, "How come you didn't let us know? " There's a lot of base-touching.

Q: Is your job fundamentally political rather than academic?

A: In a way, yes, if you define political in not a pejorative sense. You don't, as the president of the university, teach a class. You don't have the time to be a full-time professor. The president of this university, in the course of one day, may talk to some undergraduates, to some legislators, to some faculty, to irate taxpayers, to newspaper people. You're presiding over a process, finding support for things which get all of these people moving in the same general direction.

Q: When you announced you were going to step down, many people credited you as a consensus-builder who helped UC through a difficult time. But others say you've been too passive.

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