BERKELEY — In his first public statements since he fought--and won--a battle to keep his job, University of California President Richard Atkinson acknowledged Thursday that he had "obviously failed" to keep Gov. Pete Wilson sufficiently informed about his recent decision to delay an affirmative action ban at UC.
But Atkinson said the miscommunication resulted in part because he did not realize that Wilson would care about the postponement. "I didn't consider the time schedule change that major an issue," Atkinson said at a news conference on the UC Berkeley campus. "I just didn't believe the governor would be unhappy with the change."
By now, the governor's unhappiness with Atkinson's decision is well known. Last week, Wilson summoned Atkinson to his office for an angry, one-on-one meeting to discuss the delay, leading to speculation that he might either quit or be fired.
But on Thursday, a stiff but smiling Atkinson told reporters he had never considered quitting. When pressed, the 66-year-old president confirmed that he still personally opposes the regents' ban on the use of race- and gender-based preferences--a view he first made public last year when he was chancellor of UC San Diego. But he realizes it is his duty to uphold whatever policies the regents approve.
"There can be no question: The board makes policy and it is the responsibility of the president [and] the chancellors to carry out that policy," he said.
Asked whether he thought the policy would be put in place more quickly if more administrators supported it, Atkinson--a psychologist--said: "That almost requires a psychoanalytic analysis and I'm not up to that this morning. I believe that the university and the administration have proceeded in good faith."
Atkinson emphasized repeatedly that he erred by not adequately consulting with not only the governor, but the entire 26-member Board of Regents. But for the first time since the furor began, he indicated that some of the people who acted as intermediaries between him and the governor should share the blame for the bungled dialogue.
"I would not have taken the steps that I had taken without assuming that the governor understood what I was planning to do," he said. "I had been in discussions with individuals close to the governor, and I had thought that the governor understood."
Atkinson declined to identify whom he spoke with.
Earlier this week, Regent John Davies told a Times columnist that indeed, Atkinson had clearly communicated his original proposal to delay the new admission policy so that it would take effect for undergraduates entering in fall 1998. But when he relayed that message to the governor, Davies said, the date got misinterpreted as the fall of 1997. As a result, Wilson felt tricked when Atkinson announced the 1998 date.
Atkinson has since proposed a compromise--the spring 1998 term--and the full board is expected to consider that idea later this month.
"It's obviously the case that I failed to really do what needed to be done," a contrite Atkinson said Thursday. "I had thought that the governor was aware. . . . Clearly, he was not, and I think he was taken by surprise and I think justifiably, [he was] quite annoyed to be taken by surprise."
Asked why he did not inform the entire Board of Regents of his decision to delay the ban at its January meeting--which had convened just one day before Atkinson announced the delay to campus officials--Atkinson said he was worried that it would appear to be linked to two resolutions on the agenda to be considered at that meeting. One of those asked the regents to rescind their affirmative action ban; the other would have imposed a one-year moratorium on the ban's implementation.
Atkinson said his delay "had nothing to do with that meeting. It had simply to do with the fact that in my judgment there were too many problems that we had not solved to move forward on the [original] schedule."
Regent Ward Connerly, one of the board members who has been most critical of Atkinson's recent actions, has suggested that the nine campus chancellors played an inappropriate role in "egging on" the president to delay the ban. Atkinson said that is not true.
"You can believe this or not: No chancellor put pressure on me to do this," he said, although he acknowledged having talked with them about it. "Under no conditions did I feel that I was pressured."
Atkinson shared the podium Thursday with Clair Burgener, chairman of the Board of Regents, who had nothing but compliments for the UC president.
"I, for one, just speaking for myself, feel the president has a lot of latitude and must have [it]," he said. "And while this would have been better, we all agree, to have happened in a different sequence, I was never offended by it, never left out. I've been a total supporter of Dick."