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

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Richard C. Atkinson was named president of the University of California in August 1995, just four weeks after the UC Board of Regents voted to end affirmative action in the admission of students.  The Regents’ decision reversed thirty years of history and made Richard Atkinson the first UC president in decades to face the conflict between the California Master Plan’s goal of broad educational access and UC’s high academic standards without the tool of affirmative action. 

UC’s often stormy transition to the post-affirmative action age was to be his first major task as president.  Entrepreneurial President analyzes this and other defining issues of Atkinson’s eight-year presidency:  UC’s expansion into new forms of  scientific research with industry; Atkinson’s much-publicized challenge to the nation’s dominant college-entrance examination, the SAT; and the 1999 arrest of Los Alamos nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee on charges of espionage, which ignited a prolonged controversy over the University’s management of the national nuclear weapons research laboratories at Los Alamos and Livermore. 

The Atkinson years were a seminal period in UC history, reflected in some important underlying currents of his tenure—his role in the evolving relationship between presidents and chancellors in the ten-campus system and administrative changes he introduced that altered the architecture of UC governance.  

One of the paradoxes of an administration that began with a governance crisis is that in a number of ways the Atkinson era seemed to exemplify what Clark Kerr meant in describing the twentieth century as unusually hospitable to academic enterprises.  Despite the challenges, it was a time of growth, expansion, and optimism for UC.  The University opened its tenth campus, UC Merced, and UC’s place as a leader among research universities was underscored by independent national studies demonstrating the high quality of academic programs throughout the system.  

The political and demographic stresses that set the stage for the Atkinson administration still remain today, intensified by the plunge in state funding for California public higher education generally.  Entrepreneurial President concludes with some reflections on the evolution of the UC system and its future.

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