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UC Leader Departs as He Arrived -- Amid Crises

September 19, 2003|Rebecca Trounson | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — Perhaps, Richard C. Atkinson said with a rueful smile, he has an uncanny knack for dramatic entrances and exits.

The University of California president, who led his final Board of Regents meeting Thursday, is ending his eight-year tenure in the post as he began it -- at a time of crisis for the university and the state.

In 1995, a debate over affirmative action was raging. Now, UC is struggling to cope with deep budget cuts, dramatically increased student fees and the prospect of more of each.

Atkinson, although voicing confidence in his successor, said he cannot help but worry about the future.

"It's a time of risk for the university," said Atkinson, 74. "And it threatens to undermine much of the progress we've made."

The white-haired UC leader, who will retire Oct. 1, was given a warm send-off Thursday by regents and university officials, several of whom were teary-eyed at his departure. He looked pleased and embarrassed as those in the regents' basement auditorium stood twice for lengthy standing ovations toward the session's end.

"He's one of the great men of higher education and he will be sorely missed," said John Moores, the regents' chairman.

Atkinson, a cognitive psychologist, has won praise from within and outside the UC system. Many admirers cite his successful effort to spur reforms in the widely used SAT college entrance exam. More broadly, they cite his quiet, steady leadership of the university through an era of politically and racially charged debates.

His final meeting was marked again by those issues, as a small group of students briefly interrupted the session to demand the resignation of Regent Ward Connerly, who helped lead the successful campaign to stop the state from using affirmative action at public colleges and other state agencies.

Atkinson is a strong proponent of affirmative action, but adapted deftly to the changes --even winning praise from Connerly.

He "has skillfully navigated the institution through the treacherous waters of dealing with the Legislature, the governor, the faculty and others," Connerly said last week. "Lord knows we've had our differences, but I have a great deal of respect for him."

Barry Munitz, president of the Getty Trust and a former chancellor of the California State University system, agreed that Atkinson had been "an aggressive and effective leader." He praised the UC president for his ability to build consensus.

But he also suggested that Atkinson could have had an even greater influence if he had spoken out more on national education issues.

"My one regret about his tenure is that, apart from the SAT ... he chose not to lead in quite the same way on higher education issues nationally," Munitz said.

In a recent interview in his Oakland office, where boxes of books were being packed for his departure, Atkinson reflected with pride, candor, and flashes of humor and anger on his occasionally stormy tenure at the helm of the nation's most prestigious public university system.

He said that he had headed the nearly 190,000-student system longer than all but four of his 16 predecessors.

And he said he is looking forward to moving back to San Diego. He is swapping locations with his successor, Robert C. Dynes, the current chancellor of UC San Diego.

Dynes, a runner, will find a gift from his predecessor: a well-used treadmill. "And he's going to need it to deal with some of the stresses and strains of this job," Atkinson said.

Looking back over his tenure, Atkinson recalled that he took office just a month after the regents voted to ban affirmative action at the university. Six years later, the board would rescind that decision, but by then the turnaround was mainly symbolic. A year after the regents' vote, California voters had approved the Connerly-backed Proposition 209, which barred affirmative action in all state agencies.

Soon after the regents' 1995 vote to prohibit affirmative action, Atkinson ran afoul of then-Gov. Pete Wilson by trying to delay the ban without first consulting the governor. The mistake nearly cost him his job.

"The governor was really quite annoyed, and we had a pretty stormy period," Atkinson recalled. But although conceding that he made some mistakes, he essentially defended his actions, saying that admissions officials could not have handled the changes so quickly.

The UC leader takes pride in many achievements at the university in the years since, although he declines to take full credit for them.

Among them, he cited admissions changes after the affirmative action ban that helped to broaden access to the university for many students. One program guarantees admission to the university for California students who graduate in the top 4% of their high school class. Another takes personal achievements, along with academic ones, into account for every applicant.

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