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Atkinson Wins Confirmation as UC Head

August 19, 1995|AMY WALLACE | TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

SAN FRANCISCO — At the end of a contentious closed-door meeting, the University of California Board of Regents on Friday voted 19 to 1 to make UC San Diego Chancellor Richard C. Atkinson the 17th president of the nine-campus, 162,000-student system.

The internationally respected experimental psychologist, who has headed UC San Diego since 1980, will replace President Jack W. Peltason, who steps down Oct. 1. Atkinson, 66, will earn an annual salary of $243,500, the same as Peltason.

"The people of California have created the finest public university in the world, and I'm committed to maintaining its preeminence," Atkinson told the regents after his confirmation was announced. "This institution has a very special place in my heart, and I will do my utmost to ensure its future."

Atkinson will take over a university that faces many financial and administrative challenges. During the past three years, UC has lost about $300 million in state revenues, and student fees have risen more than a third.

A recent decision by the regents to prohibit the consideration of race or gender in the university's hiring, contracting and admissions has raised thorny questions about how to ensure UC's continued diversity and has heightened emotions among UC faculty and students. And a scandal at UC Irvine over its fertility clinic has threatened to undermine the university's reputation.

The vote came after several hours of private meetings at which Atkinson talked with groups of students, faculty, alumni, staff and various UC administrators. During one break, the genial chancellor appeared weary as he joked to reporters, "I'm getting nervous. They sent me out of the room. This is like Ph.D. orals."

But the moment the board called its open session to order about 3 p.m., its decision was obvious.

"Can we start some applause right now?" Regent William Bagley asked as Atkinson walked into the room. Atkinson and his wife, Rita, then took their seats in the front row, where they were joined in an apparent show of support by two other men who had been contenders for the president's job: UC Berkeley Chancellor Chang-Lin Tien and UC Davis Chancellor Larry N. Vanderhoef.

*

Before the vote, Student Regent Ed Gomez had told reporters he planned to nominate Vanderhoef as an alternative to Atkinson. But he apparently changed his mind. Sources said the meeting was largely spent arguing over how the search had been handled, not who was chosen. Gomez was the sole dissenting vote, while Regents Tom Sayles, Glenn Campbell and David Lee abstained.

Vanderhoef, who had been interviewed by the search committee, said Friday that at this point, he was not interested in the job.

"Not now," he said. "Atkinson will be fine. Let's get on with it."

Tien, who had reportedly protested an earlier effort by some regents to push his candidacy, offered a one-word description of his state of mind Friday: "Relieved."

Atkinson's appointment came despite the efforts of an anti-abortion group to persuade the board that he was unfit for the job. On Thursday, a San Diego group called American Victims of Abortion faxed 20 of the 26 regents to draw attention to a 1981 lawsuit filed against Atkinson by a former Harvard University professor named Lee Perry.

Perry alleged that Atkinson had impregnated her in 1977, then had tricked her into having an abortion by promising to father another child in the future. Atkinson settled the suit in 1986, agreeing to pay Perry up to $275,000. He denied her charges but said he and his wife wanted to put the matter behind them.

At a news conference after his appointment, Atkinson said, "I have never in my life at any time advised anyone to seek an abortion. That really is all I have to say about that matter."

Atkinson was more expansive, however, about his plans for the university. Asked how he would accommodate the regents' decision last month on affirmative action, he said that while he had not welcomed the vote, he thought it provided an opportunity for UC to work with the state's K-12 system to better prepare students for admission.

Atkinson also said that given the current financial climate, UC will have to begin to specialize in certain areas on each campus. And he took the opportunity to send a gentle message to those who make the funding decisions for UC, asserting that a coming tidal wave of high school graduates would necessitate the building of a 10th campus at the chosen site in Merced.

In what appeared to be a rare personal reference, Atkinson closed the news conference by talking a little about his family. His advisers, he said, had told him that "I am not human enough in my appearances." He then said he was a first-generation American, the son of a French mother--who immigrated to the United States lacking even cursory command of the language--and an English father.

His mother "learned to write the English language when I did," Atkinson said. "What's made a difference in my life has been higher education."

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