Q&A with outgoing UC President Atkinson

    Richard C. Atkinson stepped down Oct. 1 as president of the University of California after eight years in office. Atkinson had served previously as UCSD’s chancellor until he was instated as UC President in 1995. Editors from student newspapers around the UC system were invited to ask Atkinson some questions about his experiences at the university.

    Guardian: What was one of the hardest things you had to do as UC President?

    Atkinson: One of the hardest tasks has been charting a course for the university through the state’s current budget crisis. The excellence of a UC education, and the excellence of the UC faculty, are unparalleled. But the university took $410 million in cuts in the 2003-04 budget passed by the state, and we’ve had to make tough choices. To lessen the impact on students and the quality of their education, I made sure our top priority was to protect the university’s academic quality by preserving the instructional budget.

    To fill the budget gap, we are taking deep cuts to non-instructional programs, borrowing money to cover regular operations for the first time since the early 1990s, foregoing cost-of-living increases for faculty and staff, delaying the opening of UC Merced, and raising student fees by 30 percent. I know students are worried about fees, and we regret having had to raise fees so much this year after so many years without an increase.

    Fortunately, financial aid will mitigate the impact of the fee increase for about 40 percent of UC undergraduates.

    Perhaps the most difficult part is that we expect there will be even more budget cutting next year. I hope the state will recognize the value of higher education to the people of California and maintain a strong investment in the university, so that we can minimize impacts on quality, access and affordability.

    Guardian: California’s economy, according to outgoing-Gov. Gray Davis’ spokespeople, has been in crisis largely due to its dependence on the tech sector for revenue. Do you see UC research playing a vital part in the economic turnaround and, if so, how?

    Atkinson: I’ve always believed that California’s economy is driven by new ideas, and much of the innovation in our state springs from UC campuses. Our state’s excellent system of higher education, and in particular its research universities, has been a key advantage in California’s rise to the fifth-largest economy in the world. The research and workforce preparation that occur on our campuses are absolutely critical to California.

    An example of our efforts are the California Institutes for Science and Innovation, where some of the University of California’s best scientists collaborate with private industry in ways that help trigger economic growth. The institutes are engaged in research in biomedicine, bioengineering, nanosystems, telecommunications and information technology, and will continue to make an impact on the daily lives of all Californians.

    That’s why it’s important for the state to proceed carefully when considering budget cuts for higher education. We need to focus attention on expanding access to educational opportunities for students and providing them with the highest quality education available.

    Guardian: You officially stepped down on Oct. 1, a week before the recall election. Did you, the leader of the most widely-heralded education system in the world, consider running?

    Atkinson: Although I’m touched by the high esteem showed for the University of California, I did not consider running for governor. I do hope the state will benefit from insightful leadership as a result of the recall election.

    Guardian: In July, the systemwide Academic Senate approved an amendment to the university’s policy on academic freedom. This was criticized by some who argued that the policy revision would give more leeway to instructors who sought to make their classes more political.

    Given the concerns about politics in the classroom, and the bigger concern about the imbalance of power between a faculty and students, how do you answer the critics who contend that amending the academic freedom policy makes faculty more unaccountable to students, the university and the general public as a whole?

    Atkinson: I don’t think it has that impact at all. The revision to the statement on academic freedom does not preclude the faculty from having a point of view, but it holds them to a high standard of academic and professional excellence. It makes clear that academic freedom should depend on the quality of the scholarship as measured by professional standards, not on the motivations behind the production of the scholarship.

    The statement refers explicitly to the ³independence of mind² we seek to instill in students, and it emphasizes the importance of students and faculty in the classroom being able to express the widest array of viewpoints within the standards of academic inquiry. In addition, a separate document, the Faculty Code of Conduct, contains even more specific language that will still apply, including prohibition of the faculty member’s use of his or her position to coerce the judgment or conscience of a student.

    Guardian: What do you feel will be your legacy as you step down?

    Atkinson: I think that is for others to judge. I have enjoyed my time as UC president, and I have been deeply honored by the opportunity to be involved in the education of California’s best and brightest students.

    I hope I will be remembered as a president who succeeded in preserving the world-renowned academic quality of the University of California, for that is a very special treasure that Californians are fortunate to have. I hope that our admissions initiatives will be remembered for expanding access to the University of California for the state’s highest-achieving students from all walks of life. I hope that the national reforms in admissions testing we initiated will send a powerful message to students in high school: Take challenging courses, do well in them, write a lot, and it will all pay off when you take the tests for college.

    And I hope that our various initiatives to expand the university’s impact on the California economy will pay off in terms of the health, well-being and quality of life of all the people in our state.

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