In a major rebuke to University of California President Richard Atkinson, 10 members of the UC Board of Regents on Friday demanded a special board meeting next week to review Atkinson's performance.
The closed-door meeting, which is scheduled for Wednesday in San Francisco, will address Atkinson's decision to delay the regent-approved ban on affirmative action in undergraduate admissions for one year.
Some regents say they are alarmed as much by the substance of the decision as by how Atkinson handled it without seeking broad input from the board.
"He's said, 'The hell with you, folks,' " said Regent Ward Connerly, who led the affirmative action rollback. Connerly accused Atkinson of "using the affirmative action issue to put the board in its place and to return to the good old days of [former UC leader] David Gardner and the imperialist presidency. I, for one, don't want to do that."
Connerly, who has joined with Gov. Pete Wilson in opposing Atkinson's decision to make the delay, said he hopes the meeting will result in some sort of compromise. But he did not rule out the possibility that Atkinson's brief presidency could be terminated.
"I don't want to get to that point," Connerly said. "I hope that Dick will realize he has put the board in an untenable position."
The call for the special meeting came after James E. Holst, general counsel to the regents, issued a legal opinion--requested by Connerly--affirming the position taken by Connerly and Wilson. The opinion states that the policy approved by the board in July appears to take effect for admissions decisions for students who would enroll in fall 1997.
But Holst also noted that the UC president has broad authority over administrative matters, including "authority to interpret and implement the policy." The regent board, he said, "if it is not in agreement, may act to modify that plan if it sees fit."
Earlier this week, Atkinson announced that the affirmative action ban approved by the board will be delayed for undergraduate admissions, so as to first affect students who enroll in fall 1998. An angry governor summoned the UC leader for a one-on-one meeting Wednesday, but Atkinson did not back down, earning accolades from concerned members of the faculty and administration who have opposed the ban.
But on Friday, the issue of affirmative action was in danger of being eclipsed by the question of who is in charge of the prestigious, nine-campus university. Even some regents who were unfazed by Atkinson's decision to impose the delay said they were offended by what they saw as an attempt to shift the balance of power away from the board toward the UC administration.
"This is like a corporation in which the chief executive officer doesn't keep the board of directors advised," said one regent who asked not to be identified. "This is a serious thing, forgetting the affirmative action end of it. It's a governance issue."
In the wake of the meeting's announcement Friday, a UC spokesman said Atkinson had no comment.
Atkinson was appointed by the regents last summer. He could only be fired by a majority vote of the 26-member governing board, which includes Atkinson, Wilson and 18 regents appointed by Wilson or previous governors.
On Friday, support for the 66-year-old former chancellor of UC San Diego appeared to remain strong on the board.
"There're many of us who don't feel the same way Ward does, and never did," said Regent Alice Gonzales. "The president will certainly have my support."
Regents Roy Brophy and Bill Bagley, neither of whom voted for the ban, agreed. Both worry that the continuing political infighting over the issue is hurting the university's reputation, and both suggested that Connerly and Wilson have political motives for lambasting Atkinson.
"What the president has done is fully within his powers and his rights," said Brophy, who accused Wilson and Connerly of "political intrusion at the worst. . . . It would appear to me that Connerly is interested in micro-management. Look what he's doing to the university. We look like fools."
With the coming special meeting, Bagley said, "we escalate the politics to the continuing harm of my great institution, the University of California. I'm not too happy."
Even some regents who are worried about Atkinson's handling of the matter said they were displeased by the harsh rhetoric that is being used to vilify him.
"I just hate to see the public bloodletting again," said one regent, who requested anonymity.
The 10 regents who requested the special meeting are Connerly, Glenn Campbell, Frank Clark, John Davies, Tirso del Junco, Leo Kolligian, David Lee, Velma Montoya, S. Stephen Nakashima and Assembly Speaker Curt Pringle, who is a regent because of his government position.
Late Friday, Wilson issued a statement saying that he would attend the special session as well.