David S. Saxon, a physicist who was forced to give up his teaching position at UCLA during the anti-communist loyalty debates of the McCarthy era but governed the entire UC system as its president two decades later, shepherding it through a period of excruciating budget restraints, has died. He was 85.
Saxon, who headed the University of California system from 1975 to 1983, died Thursday at UCLA Medical Center after a long illness, according to UCLA, where he had been a vice chancellor before rising to the UC presidency.
The Minnesota native assumed the top UC post during the recession of the 1970s, when Jerry Brown was governor and a voter revolt resulted in the passage of Proposition 13, which established strict limits on education funding.
Saxon was forced to impose tough budget-cutting policies, which made him unpopular with many campus administrators and faculty members, but he was well regarded in education circles as an advocate of academic freedom and excellence.
He was one of 31 UC professors in 1950 who refused to sign oaths imposed by the UC Board of Regents, which required all employees, regardless of tenure, to affirm their loyalty to the national and state constitutions and swear that they were not members of the Communist Party.
When the California Supreme Court struck down the loyalty oath in 1952, Saxon and the other faculty members were reinstated. He returned to UCLA, where he eventually joined the administration and gained a reputation for fiscal prudence that was vigorously tested during his eight years as UC president.
"I had a chance to work with David Saxon from the day we appointed him president of the University of California," Brown, now Oakland mayor, said Thursday. "I remember him as a tireless fighter for the independence and well-being of the university."
"He was a man of principle and vision whose outstanding scholarship and thoughtful leadership made a lasting contribution to the university and the state," UC President Robert C. Dynes said in a statement Thursday.
Former UC President Richard Atkinson, who was UC San Diego's chancellor under Saxon, said Saxon would "go down in history as one of the really great presidents of the university. He was totally dedicated to the public interest."
Saxon was born in St. Paul and graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he earned a bachelor of science degree in 1941 and a doctorate in 1944.
He joined the UCLA faculty as an assistant professor of theoretical nuclear physics in 1947. Two years later, UC became an epicenter of the anti-communist frenzy that was sweeping the nation. More than 130 UC employees were fired when they refused to sign loyalty oaths.
Although Saxon had not been prominent in the fight against the oaths, "many of those actively involved eventually signed," David P. Gardner, who wrote a book on the controversy and succeeded Saxon as UC president, told The Times in 1975. Saxon's refusal to sign "was based on conscience and on principle, and he resigned for no other reason," Gardner said.
Saxon worked for the National Bureau of Standards and taught part-time at USC before returning to UCLA in 1952.
Over the next decades he became known as a competent physicist and won a distinguished-teaching award in 1967. He began to climb the administrative ladder, becoming chairman of the physics department in 1963, dean of physical sciences in 1966, and executive vice chancellor -- essentially the No. 2 man under UCLA Chancellor Charles E. Young -- in 1967.
As executive vice chancellor, Saxon initiated reviews of all departments and set priorities for funding, whittling down what he perceived as weak departments, such as speech and physical education, and bolstering strong ones such as philosophy.
Though his decisions did not endear him to members of departments targeted for reductions, they won the respect of statewide planners and raised his profile in the UC system. In 1974, he was named UC provost and given the task of aligning academic goals with unpleasant budgetary realities.
In 1975 he became the 14th president of the UC system -- and the first to ascend to that post from UCLA.
"He represented the emerging importance of UCLA," said Patricia Pelfrey, a former top assistant to Saxon who is a research associate at the Center for Studies in Higher Education at UC Berkeley.
As UC president, he vehemently opposed Sacramento's demands to cut costs and often tangled with then-Gov. Brown, whose asceticism was legendary. Just before Saxon took office, Brown signed into law a state budget that lopped $50 million off UC's $590-million appropriation request.
Soon after Saxon became president, Brown, who had rejected the governor's mansion for a modest apartment, chastised UC regents for providing free homes for the system's president, vice president and nine campus chancellors, which Brown said created an aura of aristocracy and separated UC executives from the people "who have to pay the bills."