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UC president calls it quits

By David Scharfenberg Daily Planet Staff
Thursday November 14, 2002

University of California President Richard Atkinson, who pushed for SAT reform and campus diversity in the post-affirmative action era, announced his retirement Wednesday and will step down Oct. 1, 2003 after eight years in office. 

“These have been extremely rewarding years – challenging, stimulating and deeply interesting years, but the time has come to bring them to a close,” said Atkinson, 73, speaking at the UC Board of Regents meeting in San Francisco. “It is also time, I might add, for my grandchildren to see more of their grandfather.” 

John Moores, chairman of the Board of Regents, said Atkinson has done “a magnificent job for this university” and called the president’s retirement announcement “a moment of considerable sadness.” 

Atkinson announced his retirement as UC enters a period of budget uncertainty. The university, which receives a significant chunk of its funding from the state, fared well in last year’s budget – taking a relatively modest $100 million cut in the face of a $24 billion state budget shortfall. 

But with next year’s state deficit expected to exceed $10 billion, university officials are concerned about further cuts. Atkinson said he is staying in office for 10 more months, in part, to shepherd the university through a shaky period in state finances. 

In the coming months, a 10-member committee, including several Regents and Governor Gray Davis, will consider candidates to replace Atkinson and recommend a finalist to the full board. 

University officials and Atkinson himself said they expect the search to be national and even international in scope, but emphasized that there are several qualified leaders in the current UC system. 

Atkinson took office in October 1995, just months after the Regents approved a resolution eliminating affirmative action in UC admissions. In 1996, California voters solidified the policy with passage of Proposition 209, which forbids any public institution to grant preferential treatment on the basis of race. 

After the demise of affirmative action, minority admissions dropped sharply on several UC campuses. Atkinson, who supported affirmative action, implemented several programs aimed at restoring diversity. 

The president expanded outreach efforts to California high schools and implemented a new program guaranteeing admission to students who finish in the top 4 percent of their classes at struggling and successful high schools alike. 

Atkinson also ushered in UC’s “comprehensive review” admissions policy which weighs intangible factors like achievement in the face of adversity alongside traditional academic measures like grades and test scores. 

Critics say the policy is an attempt to skirt Proposition 209, but advocates say it is simply a way to get a fuller picture of each applicant. 

Last year Atkinson made national headlines when he asked the university, the nation’s largest SAT customer, to consider dropping the standardized test as an admissions requirement and making use of exams closely aligned to California’s high school curriculum. He argued that students should be assessed on their mastery of core subjects rather than “vague” notions of overall talent and innate intelligence. 

The College Board, which administers the SAT, was skeptical at first. But in June, the organization approved several changes to the test – adding an essay, expanding the math section and dropping the analogies portion in favor of critical reading passages. The new test is scheduled to go into effect in March 2005 and will be administered nationwide, not just in California. 

“I’m very pleased with the changes in the SAT,” Atkinson said Wednesday. 

College Board President Gaston Caperton called Atkinson “one of the country’s most distinguished educators” and praised the president for his role in reforming the SAT. 

“When he first made his announcement, we had a strong disagreement on many things,” Caperton said. “But I think we came up with a really wonderful outcome.” 

Tim McDonough, spokesperson for the American Council on Higher Education, a Washington D.C.-based organization that represents 1,800 colleges and universities across the country, said Atkinson’s work on diversity and the SAT made him a national figure. 

Atkinson’s reconsideration of the SAT, McDonough said, has led university presidents around the country to question some of the other fundamental tenets of admissions policy, citing recent moves by Stanford and Yale universities to change their early admissions policies. 

“He’s really had a tremendous impact on higher education in the U.S.,” McDonough said. 

Atkinson has also overseen record-breaking growth in private donations and federal research grants, the groundbreaking of a new UC campus in Merced, and the extension of domestic partner benefits to UC employees. 

Before taking office as president in 1995, Atkinson served as chancellor at UC San Diego for 15 years. Upon retirement, Atkinson will return to San Diego with his wife Rita. 


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