President Atkinson Retirement Dinner

President Atkinson Retirement Dinner
San Francisco
September 18, 2003

President Richard C. Atkinson Retirement Dinner

By Robert M. Berdahl
University of California, Berkeley

I feel very privileged tonight to speak on behalf of the UC Chancellors in this tribute to Dick Atkinson. Each of us who has worked with Dick would have a slightly different story to tell, I am sure, but in the main, I believe we would find agreement on the primary accomplishments of his tenure. And, I believe, we would all focus on the same qualities of leadership he has brought to the University. The qualities I have most appreciated in Dick are perhaps those I found lacking in other university system heads whom I have observed; they are qualities that account for the strength of this great university system at this moment in its history.

Dick has been, above all else, a Chancellor's President. Having been a successful Chancellor himself, he has recognized that the strength of each campus lies in its unique culture, history, tradition, location, and complex of programs. He has understood that Chancellors need to be given a great deal of independence to work within those unique cultures, and that they also require his support. Systems, by their very nature tend to homogenize, and regents, by their very inclinations tend to seek uniformity of practice as well as policy. Dick has understood that the strength of the university is in its individual campuses. In doing so, he built a team of Chancellors who work together without competition and conflict. At the last Council of Chancellors meeting, Bob Dynes commented that one of Dick's achievements was building this team of Chancellors who not only worked together, but liked one another. And that is an important fact. He did it by trusting us and supporting us. You might say that by letting us hang separately, he enabled us to hang together!

But he has also understood that the University can be more than the sum of its individual parts and that the role of the President is to make happen those things that could never be achieved by an individual campus. There are many examples. The California Digital Library is a case in point. It is more than could ever be achieved as a sum of the individual campuses.

The California Institutes of Science and Innovation provide the best example. When the idea of the Institutes was first mentioned in the Council of Chancellors most of us were skeptical. An open competition seemed far-fetched, since the geographic distribution of the Institutes seemed pre-ordained by political considerations. Moreover, we were concerned that a competition within the University, among the campuses, would pit the campuses against one another. Dick recognized the synergy that could be created through inter-campus collaboration and steered the project to a successful conclusion, including, importantly for Berkeley, the inclusion of a fourth Institute.

Dick has two noteworthy qualities that are not always combined in a university president. He has a remarkable intellect and keen political instincts. His intellect leads him to think faster than most of the rest of us, giving him what can only be described as a relatively impatient attention span. Indeed, at the last Council of Chancellors meeting, I lost track of the number of times he said, "Okay, enough of this discussion, let's move on." -- something he may be muttering under his breath right now! He is not given to small talk and we all know how short and to the point his phone conversations can be.

This political world rewards patience and the capacity for small talk. Dick isn't given to either patience or idle conversation. Yet he has been extremely successful politically. (Several of us suggested he run for governor in this recall. He might have won.) He did win the respect and support of both governors with whom he worked -- a Republican and a Democrat -- no small feat in this age of extreme partisanship. And he has avoided deep and potentially catastrophic divisions among the Regents -- also no insignificant accomplishment with a Board of Regents whose party affiliations shifted with the gubernatorial transition and whose composition is marked by -- how shall I say it? -- some colorful personalities and strong philosophical persuasions.

Dick's leadership in extending the reach of the University to help improve K-12 education, as well as his admissions initiatives -- Eligibility in a Local Context, Dual Admissions, and Comprehensive Review -- may be viewed by some merely as a response to a political and demographic reality. But they represent far more than that. They represent his commitment to making certain that this great institution -- by far the finest array of public universities in the world -- fulfills its public trust: to provide an educational opportunity of remarkable quality to all segments of California's population.

Dick Atkinson also understood that he was perhaps the only person in America who could challenge the assumptions of the SAT and lead to its reform. He understood that it would take a distinguished psychometrician and a university leader of stature supported by the weight of the most prestigious and largest university system in the country to launch the challenge. He insisted that the SAT should measure how well students had mastered a curriculum rather than how well they had mastered test-taking skills. And he won the battle. This will be a lasting legacy to American higher education.

Dick has shepherded the University through the planning for its largest growth and expansion since the 1960's. Not since the presidency of Clark Kerr has the University had to contend with such demographic change. But, Kerr was able to lead the growth in a period of a nation-wide expansion of universities, when the percentage of the state budgets dedicated to higher education was significantly higher, and when the issues were, on the whole, less complex. However, the current growth has had to take place in the context of tighter resources, even during the brief boom of the late 90's. Throughout, Dick has remained steadfast in his commitment to quality. And yes, Merced, the first new UC campus in four decades, will go forward, I am confident, regardless of what any of the 135 gubernatorial candidates say on the stump

The histories of great universities, like those of the nation itself, tend to be organized around the terms of their presidents. Some of those presidencies are seen as interludes, often brief tenures bridging between longer tenures of more illustrious presidents, whose accomplishments mark the moments of achievement in the history of the University. We remember the achievements and skip over the interludes.

We remember Daniel Coit Gilman, though his term was brief, as the first genuine president who set the course for the University. We don't recall much about the presidents between Gilman and Wheeler, but Wheeler's presidency laid the foundation for excellence which was later built upon by Sproul and Kerr.

Without chronicling the entire history of the University of California, I submit that President Richard Atkinson, the fifth longest serving president in the University's history, will assume his place in the pantheon of great leaders in our history. His achievements are remarkable; his leadership enabled us to be much more than the sum of the individual campuses. He has inspired us to great things and helped put them within our reach.

Dick, on behalf of all ten chancellors, I salute you. And I thank you. It has been a pleasure and an honor to serve with you.