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Atkinson Admired for Diplomatic Skills, Consensus-Building

November 14, 2002|Stuart Silverstein | Times Staff Writer

In a moment last year that highlighted the national debate over affirmative action, Richard C. Atkinson demonstrated one of his finest skills: As a cognitive psychologist, he knows how to find the middle ground between opposing human forces.

Atkinson, who will step down as president of the University of California system next year, crafted a compromise while being pressured by state lawmakers at a tense regents meeting in May 2001. The legislators wanted UC to rescind its ban on affirmative action.

The move would be largely symbolic -- even with the action, Proposition 209 still would bar affirmative action at UC and other state agencies. All the same, some regents resented the intrusion of legislators.

So Atkinson shuttled between the regents and the lawmakers in a nearby room, finally negotiating a deal that enabled both sides to put their qualms with the ban on the record.

"He was doing diplomacy between the parties as we came up with the final language. Twenty-four hours before the meeting, I don't think anyone thought this would come about," marveled Paul Mitchell, former chief consultant to the Assembly Higher Education Committee.

Observers say Atkinson, 73, has been a master of consensus-building.

"He led the university through the period following the passage of Proposition 209 quite deftly, trying to balance concerns about the use of race in admissions and financial aid decisions against the need to keep some semblance of diversity on campuses," said Thomas J. Kane, a UCLA expert on higher education.

At the same time, Atkinson knew when he could throw his weight around. That was demonstrated by his threat to scrap the SAT test in UC admissions, which sent the exam's owner scurrying to put more emphasis on what students learn in high school.

Atkinson earned a degree from the University of Chicago at the age of 19 and then a doctorate from Indiana University. As a professor, mainly at Stanford, he developed one of the first computer-assisted learning programs for schoolchildren. Atkinson eventually was so respected for his research on memory and cognition that he was one of the rare psychologists elected to the National Academy of Sciences.

Atkinson also co-founded Computer Curriculum Corp., earning him a fortune when it was bought out by a bigger company, and co-wrote a best-selling psychology textbook with his psychologist wife, Rita. Their daughter, Lynn, is a neurosurgeon in Florida.

He also spent five years as assistant director and then director of the National Science Foundation until he became chancellor of UC San Diego in 1980, where he stayed until being named UC's president in 1995.

In 1982, he endured a personal crisis. He was sued by a former assistant professor of education at Harvard University who claimed that he impregnated her in 1977 and persuaded her to have an abortion.

Atkinson consistently denied the allegations, but in February 1986, he agreed to pay Lee Perry $250,000 to settle her claims. He said at the time that the settlement was not an admission of liability, but that he and his wife wanted to bring the matter to a close and avoid further legal proceedings.

The incident did not stop his career. Along the way, he won praise for his fund-raising and a gentle style that deflected animosities, traits that he carried on to the system presidency.

At a news conference when he became UC system chief, Atkinson made a rare personal reference. He 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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