Entrepreneurial President: Richard Atkinson and the University of California, 1995-2003

Entrepreneurial President: Richard Atkinson and the University of California, 1995-2003

by Patricia A. Pelfrey

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Richard C. Atkinson was named president of the University of California in August 1995, barely four weeks after the UC Regents voted to end affirmative action. How he dealt with the admissions wars—the political, legal, and academic consequences of that historic and controversial decision, as well as the issue of governance—is discussed in this book. Another focus is the entrepreneurial university—the expansion of the University’s research enterprise into new forms of scientific research with industry during Atkinson’s presidency. The final crisis of his administration was the prolonged controversy over the University’s management of the Los Alamos and Livermore nuclear weapons research laboratories that began with the arrest of Los Alamos scientist Wen Ho Lee on charges of espionage in 1999. Entrepreneurial President explains what was at stake during each of these episodes, how Atkinson addressed the issues, and why the outcomes matter to the University and to the people of California. Pelfrey’s book provides an analysis of the challenges, perils, and limits of presidential leadership in the nation’s leading public university, while bringing a historical perspective to bear on the current serious threats to its future as a university.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520952218
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 03/06/2012
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 250
File size: 532 KB

About the Author

Patricia Pelfrey is a Research Associate at the Center for Studies in Higher Education at UC Berkeley. She is the author of A Brief History of the University of California (UC Press, 2004).

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Entrepreneurial President

Richard Atkinson and the University of California, 1995â?"2003

By Patricia A. Pelfrey


Copyright © 2012 The regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95221-8


The Evolution of a Crisis

For some reasons ... it has been very difficult for the University community to create, develop, and rally around a vision of the University for the future—a vision that can be supported by all constituencies, faculty and staff, students, Regents, State government and alumni. —UC PROVOST WALTER MASSEY, REMARKS TO THE REGENTS, JULY 21, 1995


On July 20, 1995, the Board of Regents of the University of California rolled back thirty years of history by abolishing the use of racial and ethnic preferences in admissions and employment. The two resolutions approved by the board, SP-1 (on admissions) and SP-2 (on employment and purchasing), passed by a narrow margin after a long and exhausting day of regental maneuvering and unsuccessful attempts at compromise. The vote itself was the culmination of eight divisive months of discussion and debate about the merits of affirmative action. It was a decision made against the advice of the president, the vice presidents, the systemwide Academic Senate, and the nine chancellors of the University. Given the glacial pace at which universities change course, this was a reversal of extraordinary speed.

There were historical ironies in the Regents' action. The University of California had been among the first universities in the country to establish programs to attract more minority and low-income students to its overwhelmingly white student body. In the 1970s, when a white applicant, Allan Bakke, challenged an affirmative action program at UC's Davis medical school, the University took the case all the way to the US Supreme Court. The decision in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, which held that race and ethnicity could be considered as one factor among others in admission, set a new legal standard for the use of preferences in American colleges and universities. UC's efforts over many years to prepare and enroll talented minority students were undertaken at the urging of both the Regents and the legislature, in recognition that California was on the threshold of becoming the first mainland state to consist of a majority of minorities. With annual immigration in the hundreds of thousands from some sixty countries, California was already one of the most diverse societies on the planet. Its public university seemed the last place in which anyone would contemplate a sudden break with three decades of affirmative action.

Yet in fall 1994, when the topic of racial preferences first appeared on the Regents' agenda, circumstances were ripe for such a challenge. Politically, the state was in the midst of one of its periodic spasms of anti-immigrant sentiment; 1994's Proposition 187, one of several anti-immigrant initiatives, would have ended access to health care and public education for illegal immigrants, most of whom were Mexican. (The measure was overwhelmingly approved by the electorate—including nearly two-thirds of white voters—but later thrown out as unconstitutional by the courts.) The state's Republican governor, Pete Wilson, had just ridden to reelection on this wave of anti-immigrant feeling, exacerbated by a prolonged economic downturn. In the first three years of the 1990s, with the collapse of the defense and aerospace industries, the state lost nearly half a million jobs and its unemployment rate leaped to over 9 percent.1 The public mood was sour. Californians who were pessimistic about the direction their state was heading outnumbered optimists by two to one.

All state-supported agencies were struggling through their fourth straight year of draconian budget cuts. For the University, the cumulative shortfall—the difference between what it would have gotten from the state in normal times and what it actually received—amounted to nearly a billion dollars, the equivalent of the entire state-funded budget for three of its nine campuses. Divisions were rife within the University community over the budget crisis; deciding how to share the pain was a difficult and contentious process. The lingering effects of a highly public controversy over the University's compensation policies and practices that began with the 1992 departure of the previous president, David P. Gardner, made it even worse. Some on the campuses blamed the Office of the President, the University's system-wide administration, for transforming a bad budget situation into a terrible one.

But perhaps the key institutional reality that ignited the debate over affirmative action was the intensifying competition for a place at UC. Admissions standards at UC are closer to those of elite private institutions like Stanford than to those of most public universities. Under the state's 1960 Master Plan for Higher Education, the University's students must be drawn from among the top 12.5 percent of California high school seniors. To become eligible for admission to UC, students must meet stringent requirements in subject matter, scholarship, and standardized examinations. Eligibility, as the idea was applied at UC, did two things at once: it spelled out the University's academic standards, and it promised every undergraduate student who met those standards a place at UC, though not necessarily at the campus or in the program of first choice. In the words of a faculty white paper, eligibility is both "a 'road map' to students aspiring to attend UC and, since the 1960s, a guarantee of admission to those who meet the threshold requirements."

Until 1973, UC was able to accommodate all applicants in the top 12.5 percent. In that year, for the first time, the University's Berkeley campus had to turn away qualified freshmen. Over the next twenty years, admission to both Berkeley and UCLA became increasingly difficult even for exceedingly well qualified students; many were redirected to other UC campuses. And despite fee increases to help deal with budget reductions, UC was still one of the best bargains in American higher education. Changes in the price structure of private institutions meant that UC was a place in which students could receive an undergraduate education comparable to a university like Stanford for a fraction of the cost. Demand in both undergraduate and professional programs was outstripping the spaces available at campuses like UCLA and Berkeley. In 1994, UCLA received 25,300 applications for a fall 1995 freshman class of 3,700; Berkeley's numbers were similar. The college-age cohort in California, the largest since the baby boom generation of the 1960s, was about to hit, and UC was already beginning to feel the insistent push of rising demand. The University would have to accommodate student numbers comparable to those of the 1960s but at an even faster pace and in the midst of a fiscal drought. Since it considered only the most highly qualified for acceptance into its undergraduate programs, admission to UC was intensely competitive.

In the mid-1970s, the California legislature had adopted a policy calling on UC and the California State University (CSU) system to enroll an undergraduate student body that approximated the ethnic and racial composition of the state's public high schools. By the 1990s, a public collision between these two realities—UC's high-stakes, zero-sum admissions policy under the Master Plan and the legislative mandate to encompass an ethnically and racially diverse undergraduate student body—was increasingly likely. That is exactly what President Gardner told the Regents during a 1990 discussion of affirmative action:

So, we talk about these policies ... as though they somehow all hold together to everybody's satisfaction, when in fact, translated into practice, everybody is unhappy. ... The groups that are ... more eligible on academically objective criteria are unhappy because we're turning them away. Those who think the academically objective criteria are, in fact, discriminatory against them because of special problems and circumstances in their communities, think we ought to rely less on those and more on subjective criteria. Anyone who thinks they have the answer to this problem does not comprehend it. And those who comprehend it don't have an answer.

It was a highly unstable environment in which the University of California was more than usually vulnerable to challenges from unhappy constituencies. Even so, the Regents' decision might never have happened were it not for Mr. and Mrs. Jerry Cook of San Diego.

In 1993, the Cooks launched a letter-writing campaign to legislators, University officials, and others about what they saw as the unfair advantage minority applicants enjoyed in UC's five medical schools. Their son, James, a white applicant who was also a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of UC San Diego, had been accepted at Harvard Medical School in 1992 but denied admission to UC's medical schools, including his first choice, UC San Diego. He reapplied in 1993 but was accepted only at UC Davis.

What made the Cooks different from other disgruntled families of rejected applicants was the energy and thoroughness with which they pursued information about the students who did get admitted. First, they gathered statistics about the students who were accepted at UC San Diego's medical school between 1987 and 1993. Later, they analyzed similar figures for UC Irvine and UCLA. These statistics, they claimed, demonstrated two telling facts about UC medical school admissions.

One was that minority students on average had the lowest grades and test scores of those accepted at UC medical schools. The Cooks translated these abstract numbers into visually compelling form by producing a chart, called a scatterplot, that showed the distribution of grades and test scores for those admitted. Most minority scores clustered at the bottom.

Further, the Cooks maintained, their figures showed that minority students' chances of being admitted were three times greater than those of nonminority students—a much larger disparity than one would expect if race and ethnicity were just one factor among others. As a result, according to the Cooks, the University discriminated against highly qualified whites and Asians, who were forced to go to expensive private and out-of-state institutions for their medical education.

The matter might have ended there, were it not for two things. First, through persistence and determination the Cooks won a sympathetic hearing for their views from several Regents, including Clair Burgener of San Diego and Ward Connerly of Sacramento, an African American businessman recently appointed to the board by Governor Wilson. Connerly later wrote that he first heard about the Cooks' complaints from Regent Burgener who, concerned that the couple might sue the University, asked Connerly to meet with them in his capacity as chair of the Regents' committee on finance. Connerly did so in August 1994. The Cooks did not know that Connerly was of African American heritage until they met him in his office, and they immediately assumed he would have no interest in their cause. They were wrong. He was impressed both by their son's qualifications and by their statistics, including the scatterplot. "The last thing I wanted was to become embroiled in racial politics on the Board of Regents," Connerly wrote. "But ... I said to them what I couldn't deny in my heart: 'This is wrong.'"

Second, Governor Wilson was about to make a bid for the presidency in the 1996 national elections. His outspoken support for Proposition 187 during his 1994 gubernatorial reelection campaign had won him both a landslide victory in California and national attention as a potential presidential candidate. Opposition to affirmative action was the centerpiece of his presidential agenda. The University of California was a promising target for a demonstration of this anti–affirmative action strategy; ending racial and ethnic preferences in California's leading public university would have a nationwide impact. As governor, Wilson not only appointed members to the UC Board of Regents (Connerly, an old friend, was one of his nominees), but was a member himself.

Regents Connerly and Burgener asked UC President Jack Peltason to put the Cooks' report and the issue of medical school admissions on the agenda for the board's next meeting in November 1994. At that meeting, UC officials did not dispute the Cooks' assertion that the grades and test scores of minority students admitted to UC's medical schools were generally lower than those of white and Asian applicants. It was the consistent disparity in these academic measures among racial and ethnic groups, after all, that made affirmative action necessary in the first place. Rather, as Peltason emphasized in his introductory remarks, every student accepted by a UC medical school was deemed academically qualified to become a physician. In admitting students, the University did what other selective universities did, which was to assemble a class that reflected different backgrounds, experiences, races, and interests.

Other speakers reminded the board of how slow the journey toward educational access had been for minorities who aspired to become physicians. In 1964, 97 percent of all medical students in the United States were non-Hispanic whites; in 1968, when the UC Davis medical school opened, its first class had no African Americans, no Latinos, and no Native Americans, at a time when 25 percent of California's population consisted of members of minority groups. It was only as medical schools began actively recruiting minority students in the 1970s that enrollments began to rise.

The Regents' deputy general counsel, Gary Morrison, discussed the legal ramifications of professional school admissions. He told the board he had reviewed the University's medical school admissions practices, and though he had a very few changes to recommend, generally they were legally sound and consistent with Bakke.

Dr. Michael Drake, associate dean of the UC San Francisco school of medicine, explained that in the ferociously competitive world of medical school admissions, grades and test scores were not the only factors that the University considered. Good physicians must excel at other things besides chemistry and anatomy. Admission to medical school was not simply a reward for having performed well in the classroom:

To be sure, classroom performance above a certain level is required to indicate that the student can withstand the considerable scholastic challenge of a modern medical education. But although there are levels of classroom performance that are so poor that they virtually guarantee failure, there is no level of performance so high that it guarantees an outstanding physician. We have to look deeper, at the people behind the scores.

And the University, in looking at "the people behind the scores," did not end its scrutiny of prospective students with an assessment of individual merit. As a public institution, it took into account health care trends in California, physician manpower needs, and social policy. All the evidence, the University argued, suggested that minority physicians were far more likely than others to practice in medical specialties and geographic areas where the state's needs were greatest.

Dr. Drake told a story to illustrate his point that the University was not sacrificing excellence in pursuing diversity. Every year at UCSF, he told the Regents, members of the medical school graduating class select the classmate they believe most closely approximates the ideal physician. In each of the previous two years, the students chosen by their peers were members of minority groups.

UC's medical school admissions policies and procedures were, at bottom, a complex calculus that balanced academic merit and intangible qualities of mind and character with the professional workforce requirements of a highly diverse society. The need to strike this balance was why exceptionally qualified applicants like James Cook could be accepted at a private institution like Harvard and turned down at a public institution like UC.

Regent Connerly was unconvinced. He felt the presentation failed to answer the questions raised by the Cooks and to address the issue of whether, in employing racial preferences, the University was ignoring the rights of individuals of all races for access to higher education. "It is time to take off the training wheels," he said at the November 1994 meeting, referring to UC's admissions policies.

Six weeks later, in early January 1995, he told the secretary of the Regents that he wanted the issue of affirmative action put on the agenda again. His interest now extended beyond the question of medical school admissions to the broader issue of affirmative action in the University at all levels.

Peltason immediately made a counteroffer: a series of presentations over the next six months that would inform the board about the nature and purpose of affirmative action, as it functioned not only in the admissions process, but also in employment, contracting, and purchasing. Peltason also told Connerly that he was initiating a review of the University's current practices in affirmative action and would report to the Regents on that review.


Excerpted from Entrepreneurial President by Patricia A. Pelfrey. Copyright © 2012 The regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Foreword by Karl S. Pister
About This Book

1. The Evolution of a Crisis
2. The Education of a Chancellor
3. Who Runs the University?
4. Seventeenth President
5. A Problem in Search of a Solution
6. "A More Inclusive Definition of Merit"
7. Reinventing the Economy
8. An Idea and Its Consequences
9. History’s Coils: The Nuclear Weapons Laboratories
10. Presidents and Chancellors
11. Epilogue: One University

Appendix 1. Regents’ Resolutions SP-1, SP-2, and RE-28
Appendix 2. Atkinson Presidency Timeline
Appendix 3. University of California Trends, 1995–2003
Select Bibliography

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"Very readable, thoughtful, and richly informative."—Chronicles: Newsletter of the Ucsd Emeriti Association

"A most interesting book. . . . It is hard to imagine anyone more qualified than Pat Pelfrey to write this book."—De Gruyter

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