Richard Atkinson had spent 15 years as UCSD’s chancellor when in 1995 he was tapped to become president of the University of California system, overseeing its nine prestigious research universities.
However, neither his tenure at UCSD nor his time as the National Science Foundation’s deputy director could have prepared him for the firestorm that awaited.
With tensions already running high over the state university system’s nearly a $1 billion budget shortfall, the UC Regents voted to end affirmative action in its admissions and hiring, just four weeks into Atkinson’s tenure.
How Atkinson dealt with that controversial decision and went on to lead the university system as its 17th president is chronicled in a new book from the University of California Press, “Entrepreneurial President: Richard Atkinson and the University of California, 1992-2003.”
“I think it’s sort of an insider’s view of higher education ... and how the regents, president, faculty, students and the general public all get involved in this activity of deciding on university issues,” said Atkinson, who returned to his life in La Jolla with wife, Rita, at the end of his presidency.
Author Patricia Pelfrey interviewed some 80 people researching the book, which also sheds light on the growth of the university system at the end of the 20th century.
“It’s an incredible set of interviews,” Atkin- son said, noting that Pelfrey’s recordings will become part of the UC system’s permanent archives. “She interviewed just about every- body you can imagine who was involved in these things. Everyone sort of had their chance to comment on (the manuscript) as to whether she got the story right or not.”
Atkinson recalled how early in his presidency he was almost fired by Governor Pete Wilson over the implementation date of Resolution SP-1, which ended affirmative action in student admissions. Atkinson ultimately kept his job and prevailed in delaying the measure’s implementation, arguing that students were not prepared for such a sudden and radical shift in policy, which Pelfrey characterized as “an institutional train wreck” and a “political dilemma of daunting proportions.”
“The Board of Regents rolled back 30 years of history by abolishing the use of racial and ethnic preferences in admissions and em- ployment,” she writes. “It was a decision made against the advice of the president, vice presidents, the system-wide academic senate and the nine chancellors of the university.”
The issue became a national lightning rod. While President Clinton publically supported affirmative action, opposition to the policy became the centerpiece of Pete Wilson’s failed bid for the Oval Office.
“It’s still an issue around the country, but certainly we were the first to face up to the problems,” said Atkinson of the measure, which was spurred by a complaint from Mr. and Mrs. Jerry Cook of San Diego, whose Caucasian son James, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of UC San Diego, had been accepted to Harvard Medical School in 1992, but denied admission to UC’s medical schools based on his race. “From my view there was never a question that if the regents established a policy, it had to be followed,” Atkinson said. “That was the responsibility of the president. On the other hand, when they established the policy they had no idea of the implications, in terms of what had to be done, in terms of announcing it to students, the preparation. It just couldn’t be done properly on a one-year schedule. So I did extend it.