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ANN CONWAY

Taking Care of Busyness : Ex-UCI Chancellor Peltason Finds Retirement Is No Place for the Lazy or Timid

May 06, 1996|ANN CONWAY

It is an unusual "retirement": consultant to billionaire Donald Bren, goodwill ambassador for UC Irvine, academic engagements around the country.

And former UCI Chancellor Jack Peltason, who retired last year as president of the University of California system, is having a chuckle about it all.

"I'm very busy," he said last week in his hilltop home on the UC Irvine campus. "But it's a pleasant kind of busyness. I was so apprehensive that I wouldn't have anything to do, I'm afraid I overbooked myself."

After spending three years in the Berkeley Hills area, Peltason and his wife, Suzanne, are back in Orange County for good.

"Irvine is home," Peltason, 72, said as one of his six grandchildren skipped through the house. "We have lots of friends here. It's ideal to live in a place where there are many cultural, civic and educational events."

Fixtures on the local charity scene when Peltason was chancellor from 1985 to 1992, the couple have begun to resume their public profile here, attending university-related events and recent galas for the Philharmonic Society of Orange County and Childhelp USA.

Of their commitment to supporting nonprofit groups--the couple attend as many as five events a week--Peltason said: 'You have to enjoy people, enjoy being out there with them."

But don't look for Peltason in denim and sneakers when he's put his tux to bed. Watch for him in a pinstripe in his Newport Beach office, where he is employed as a charity consultant to Bren, Irvine Co. CEO.

"I'm primarily advising Donald on his charitable contributions," said Peltason, who, during his tenure as chancellor, founded UCI's Executive Roundtable to promote friendship between professors and business leaders.

"He is a man of great interest in building institutions. . . . I admire him, and I am very flattered he asked me to assume this responsibility.

"As he is thinking through . . . his charitable contributions, I'm there to help him--talk to him about alternatives."

When Peltason isn't working for Bren out of offices on Newport Center Drive, you may find him in his UCI office. There, he works as an unpaid goodwill ambassador for the university.

"It's a win-win situation," Peltason said of his two positions.

Not only does Bren welcome his advice on charitable giving, but Peltason is also in a position to encourage the billionaire's donations to university programs, he said.

"I think Donald had that in mind when he asked Jack to help him," Suzanne said.

Adds Jack: "Mr. Bren knows what he wants to do. I don't tell him. I help him do it."

Then there's that other office, the one on the second floor of Peltason's campus home. There, he revises the political science textbooks he has written.

The couple's fashionable home is one of dozens belonging to university professors on campus. The university sells the homes to faculty and administrators with the understanding that they later be sold back at a controlled price. ("They are great to live in but not too good of an investment," Peltason said.)

An enclosed patio contains a rectangular pool and Jacuzzi. Peltason points out the panel of buttons that controls the pool. "Press one and you can swim in the pool against a current," he said. "Suzie does it. I don't."

*

Except perhaps when he was navigating the waters of the university system.

Looking back on criticisms encountered during his career, Peltason said it came with the territory. "I held to the saying 'This too will pass,' " he said. "And it has."

The best of it was "meeting the wonderful people," he said.

The worst: "The personal attacks, abuse. No matter how experienced you are, it's never pleasant. It's the price you pay for any public position. You try not to dwell on it; you move on to the next thing."

The most difficult attacks are those aimed at your integrity, he said, "when people accuse you of having selfish motives, doing things for individual gain when you know that isn't the case.

"I used to sit there with pictures of my smiling grandchildren and think, 'They don't think I'm a fascist beast!' "

A recent controversy that hit the university system concerns alleged favoritism. Newspaper reports have suggested that a backdoor exists to UCLA's admissions process that has favored some children of the rich and politically connected.

Peltason's take on the issue: "We answer questions of everybody who asks about admissions, whether they're famous or not famous. Everybody who asks is entitled to a polite response," he said. "Public officials get letters from their constituency, wanting to know why their son didn't get in. They refer them to us and we respond.

"Every now and then, in the course of responding, you find you can help somebody--tell them to take this course or that, go there, transfer. But I don't think anybody got in who wouldn't have otherwise gotten in."

*

In a career that began with teaching political science and concluded with heading the nine-campus system, Peltason said he has no regrets.

"Oh, there are lots of decisions you make and you realize if you'd tweaked it this way or that or explained it a little more . . . but I don't think there any major decisions I made that I wouldn't make again.

"A university is one of the few places where people of all ages from all over the world can come together to learn about every subject known to humanity," he said.

"You're always learning something new, always exposed to exciting, interesting people."

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