Atkinson discusses priorities for lean times


UC President Richard Atkinson
Noah Berger photo

05 December 2001 | At a recent systemwide meeting of editors from the University of California campuses, UC President Richard Atkinson shared his perspective on a broad range of issues affecting the university — among them the current state budget crisis, faculty and staff salaries, enrollment growth and requirements for admission to UC.

Atkinson has headed the UC Office of the President since 1995. Before that, he was chancellor of UC San Diego for 15 years. A psychologist, he began his academic career in 1956 at Stanford University and served as director of the National Science Foundation during the Carter administration.

Following are excerpts from his discussion with UC editors at the Office of the President in Oakland.

On the current economic climate
People who were here at UC before 1995 remember how tough the early '90s were. Economists would say that those five years were the most difficult in the history of the University of California, even (compared with) the Great Depression.... We look like we're going into another tough period; whether it's a long period or short period is a little hard to discern. But those who've been here a while know we've managed to survive downturns before.

Hopefully, the economy will turn around in the latter part of 2002. That's what most people believe. And if that's the case, two bad years can be dealt with. If it goes on for four or five years, then it's a great problem for us, because we're in a peculiar moment in time, given the huge increases in undergraduate and graduate students that will be flowing toward the university.

On Tidal Wave II
In the budget discussions going on now, there is the notion of capping our enrollments. Historically, we've always taken the view that we would admit any student to the University of California — to one of our campuses — if they fell in the top 12.5 percent of the statewide high school graduating class. If we were to walk away from that, I think it would be a pretty harsh event for young people in this state.

One possibility is to increase fees. We've had extremely low fees that are going down at a fast rate, given the cost of living. We've had seven years with no fee increase, and so with the cost of living mounting, that has taken the fees way down — and we were already low compared to every other public institution. When we have fee increases, we don't lock out poor students, because half of the fee increase goes into financial aid. It's certainly something we have to consider.

On staff,faculty salaries
Our salary structure is tied, in a certain sense, to the state's. In certain areas, it's directly tied to what the state is paying. In the area of faculty salaries, itās tied to a comparison of eight institutions. And clearly we've fallen way behind in faculty salaries.

For staff, we will be giving 2 percent salary increases, plus a 3 percent CAP (Capital Accumulation Provision). The CAP isn't very helpful to someone with four children and no other income except the staff salary income. On the other hand, it will accumulate toward retirement and it is 3 percent.

Whatever the state does for its employees, we're going to end up getting the same. On the other hand, what's not taken into account is our UC benefit and retirement system. I really believe our retirement system is far better than the state's. People have to look down the road a long way to that, but I think it's an extremely good retirement system.

In the early '90s, we did everything we could to protect the faculty. And we really cut back harshly on the staff and on staff support, administrative computing, and the like. That's been a real drag on the institution. We've been trying to recoup that over these last six years, but we recognize we haven't. We also recognize that a lot of our administrative systems are really not where they should be.

On curriculum standards, testing
At certain key points, we need some standardized tests. I'm not against standardized tests across the board. But we've just thrown all sorts of things in that make no good sense. And I'm really distressed by some of the curriculum standards. Bluntly put, I think they're foolish. The curriculum standards for mathematics — for high school — I'd be surprised if many math majors could deal with the range of topics that they think high school students should deal with. There's this view: put everything you can think of into the pot, and that's the curriculum standards. And those standards in theory define the tests. It seems foolish to me. And I've said that to the State Board of Education.

That's why I've been on the path I have been with regard to the SAT. What I want instead of the SAT is a set of standardized tests that are correlated and clearly, demonstrably related to the courses we ask students to take. We now test students for six hours; I'd be happy with four to five hours of tests given sometime at the start of the senior year, but focused on the curriculum we've expected them to study, with the clear understanding that if students perform badly, they know why.

I testified not so long ago that I want a writing sample from students. I don't want just multiple choice questions. What's interesting about these analyses we've been doing on the SAT is that the best predictor of performance at UC, outside of high school grades, is the writing sample. It's not a big sample, but it's a writing sample and a good predictor.


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