by Linda Weimer
On Bob Berdahl's last day as President of the University of Texas at Austin in late June, his staff came to work dressed in black. After he walked out of the building, one colleague actually broke down and cried for an hour.
"It's no exaggeration to say that it was a heartbreaking departure," recalls one associate.
When such departures these days are as often celebrated as mourned, why does Robert M. Berdahl, UC Berkeley's eighth chancellor, inspire such loyalty, respect and affection?
Ten minutes in his presence and a conversation with almost anyone who has ever worked with him will give you some idea.
"Bob Berdahl is one of my heroes," says Tom Everhart, President of the California Institute of Technology.
As Chancellor of the University of Illinois in 1986, Everhart led Berdahl down the road toward becoming a college president by hiring him as Illinois's Vice Chancellor of Academic Affairs.
It was a key decision point for Berdahl, then dean of letters and science at the University of Oregon. Facing the question at age 49 of whether to return to his faculty post in the history department or to pursue college administration, Berdahl says: "I stayed in administration because of the opportunity to go to the University of Illinois. I felt I could make a contribution. One is drawn to things one can succeed at."
Succeed he did, says Everhart. "Bob is a super colleague, a wonderful leader." Illinois philosophy Professor Dick Schacht said Berdahl "encouraged a context in which faculty with ideas could get them officially blessed.
"Bob brings out creativity and gives other people license to think outside the boxes," says Schacht, who was founding chair of Berdahl's Council on Undergraduate Education.
"We're still implementing ideas that emerged from that committee," says Schacht. "Bob is unselfish about ideas; he creates a very collegial environment and he brings certain Midwestern values that are important. His honesty and integrity are deeply rooted."
Honest, warm, thoughtful, a good human being, highly articulate, smart, humble, fun, calm, genuine. These are words one hears over and over again in talking with Berdahl's colleagues.
But along with that warmth and thoughtfulness goes a toughness and a deep understanding of higher education that come from 30 years of experience, including 16 years as a college administrator. During that time, he has had to deal with almost every imaginable institutional challenge: revamping undergraduate education, budget shortfalls, thorny faculty tenure decisions, crime on campus, athletic rules violations, student turmoil, rocky town-gown relations and the dismantling of affirmative action programs.
In fact, when UC President Richard Atkinson selected Berdahl to become UC Berkeley's chancellor, he succeeded in attracting the one college leader in the country who already had experience in eliminating affirmative action programs.
With the court's Hopwood decision, the University of Texas last year was precluded from using race as a criterion for admission to its law school, which resulted in a significant drop in African American students enrolling there this year.
This mirrors UC's situation following the Regent ban on using affirmative action as a tool in selecting students - a ban later supported by voters who passed Proposition 209.
Berdahl believes deeply in diversity. "At Berkeley, the evidence is overwhelming that diversity does not diminish excellence, but in fact, enhances it," he recently wrote. "We cannot hide from the fact that the initial effect of the new Regental policy and Proposition 209 will be to yield a less diverse student body. I do not believe this is in the best interests of our students, whose education is enhanced in a diverse environment; the employers of California who desire a diverse workforce; and the citizens of California, who live in the most diverse state in the union."
At the same time, Berdahl is committed to working within the new guidelines with more aggressive outreach programs, and more careful review of admissions and recruitment processes. "While the purpose of our actions must be to continue to develop a student body that reflects the brilliant diversity of our state and nation, we are required to change our means of doing so," he says.
"Bob drafted the AAU (American Association of Universities) statement on affirmative action," notes Caltech's Everhart. "He has a very principled stand on this issue and yet, he adapts and moves forward.
"He is a wonderful combination of idealist and pragmatist."
Everhart adds that constraints on public higher education make it imperative that institutions like UC Berkeley have "a particularly gifted leader. Bob is one."
When growing up in Sioux Falls, S.D., Berdahl never envisioned his future as a pre-eminent college leader.
"My dad was in the insurance business, and at various times, I thought I'd be a minister or a lawyer," he recalls.
Some might say his current calling combines aspects of both those professions.
On a recent sunny, Sunday afternoon in Berkeley, weary parents gathered for an orientation session in Foothill Residence Hall.
After a day spent wrestling with luggage, bedding, televisions and computers, they finally had their sons and daughters - new students at Cal - settled.
When Berkeley's new chancellor was introduced, a buzz swept the room as parents got their first look at the man ultimately responsible for the physical and intellectual welfare of their children over the years to come.
Dressed casually in a Welcome Week T-shirt, Berdahl was warm and comforting, not unlike a minister preaching to his flock.
Welcoming parents to Cal, he recognized this as a moment of mixed emotions for them: pride in the achievements of their sons and daughters, and sadness at the thought of the family breaking up.
"I've been there three times myself," he said reassuringly. He and his wife Peg sent their three daughters off to college with similar feelings, he said.
"Thank you for entrusting (your children) to us. We will make certain their lives here are rich and fulfilled, and that they achieve what they want to achieve here.
"This is a remarkable place," he went on to say. "Cal is the leading public institution in America - no place has a stronger student body, stronger faculty or finer facilities.
"Being in a class with other bright kids is the most important part of their experience here," he said, "but to really benefit from Cal, you have to be assertive. Make sure your students make demands on us.
"This is one of those rites of passage in our society, and it's thrilling to watch your children grow. You'll be amazed at the changes in them," he said, provoking a laugh when he added: "There may be some changes you're not too thrilled about, but don't worry, they'll come out of it by the time they're 35 or so."
In greeting parents and students throughout the campus, he struck a calm, caring note. As he dropped in on one student in Bowles Hall, the mother, not quite catching her introduction to the new chancellor, thought she was talking to the new university chaplain.
"The level of humanity in the man is larger than that of anyone I've ever known," says Matt Lyon, a close aide to Berdahl in Texas who now lives in the Bay Area. "He loves the world and people. He has a huge sense of idealism, and believes in the goodness of people."
That idealism can be seen in the way Berdahl expresses the university's obligation to its students.
"Universities should be transformational institutions," he says. "The theme I hear from alumni is that 'I couldn't have done what I've done if not for the university.' We don't measure our success in terms of rankings, but on the impact we have on people's lives."
Berdahl believes that at large research universities like Illinois, Texas and Cal, undergraduates in the past have not gotten as much attention as they deserve. "They are the heart and soul of the educational process," he says.
As president of Texas, he put a lot of energy into the students. Among other achievements, he revised the student advising structure, introduced freshmen seminars with distinguished faculty (a similar program exists at Cal), and built a more personalized and intimate experience for undergraduates.
A tangible manifestation of that was his revamping of Texas's commencement. Attendance had dwindled to about two thousand people, but he saw an opportunity to "use commencement as a way to connect the students and parents to the university," says UT Associate Vice President Susan Clagett.
This past year, she reports, there were 16,000 people at commencement, which now culminates in fireworks over the Texas bell tower. Students and their families left the university on a high note.
Adds Jim Boon, director of UT Austin's Former Students Association: "The kids that graduated while Bob was here had a terrific experience. In our business, the key to a good alum is the experience they have as a student, and Bob understands that. He is really focused on students.
"The most important thing he did here was to create a sense of place, a sense of community. A lot of his emphasis was on making the university more user friendly."
He broke down territoriality, Boon adds. "He was very open and got people to pull together."
Boon and Berdahl came to be close friends during the time they worked and traveled together.
Always cost conscious, Boon once bought plastic flowers for an alumni dinner so he could use them again at subsequent events.
"Upon arriving at the event, Bob and Peg were appalled. They thought it was incredibly tacky and told me so in no uncertain terms. We scrambled to get real flowers for the dinner," recalls Boon.
On Boon's birthday, Berdahl sent him a bouquet of flowers - plastic ones. "I sent them back on his birthday," says Boon, "so we now have this plastic flower thing going on."
Berdahl's sense of humor and genuine approach appealed to a lot of Texas alumni, says Boon.
"Basically the alumni fell into two camps. Those who knew him thought he was the most wonderful person they'd ever met; but others never warmed up to him because he wasn't a Texan, and they felt he was unduly harsh on the Greek system."
Boon was referring to an incident in which a student was killed during hazing at a Texas fraternity, and Berdahl clamped down on the Greek system as a consequence.
Boon said Berdahl also understood the importance of athletics to alumni and to building a sense of community.
"Bob and Peg are sports fans, but I think coming to Texas was a shock to them in terms of the huge importance placed on athletics by our alums," says Boon. "But Bob was able to adapt to that and yet not let it overshadow the university; he kept it in perspective."
Perspective, community, continuity - these are ideas that his friends and colleagues come back to when describing Bob Berdahl.
"Bob searches for continuity," says Matt Lyon. "He sees it in a personal way."
Berdahl's father attended UC Berkeley as a graduate student in economics in 1922-23, and since arriving on campus, the chancellor has been drawn to pictures of the campus taken during that period.
"My dad didn't talk about Berkeley much," recalls Berdahl. "I wish now I had asked him more about it."
As a historian, Berdahl's search for continuity also affects his world view in a very interesting way, says Lyon. He has an acute sense of the past, and he looks for ways to build continuity. That explains his interest in kids and what happens to kids in our society, and his search for core values and threads of community in the institutions he comes to.
"When he got to Texas (in 1993), he found a fractured community," says Lyon. "The faculty-administrative relationship wasn't that good; there was a poor town-gown relationship."
Berdahl made the university a better citizen of Austin, and his wife Peg did a lot as well, serving on the local board of the Urban League and taking an active interest in community outreach.
On campus, says Lyon, Berdahl realized that too much power resided in the presidency, and he worked to push power back down the chain of command to the provost, deans and faculty.
"Bob seeks support at the grassroots level," says Lyon. "He calls on faculty to come and help solve a problem. There's always a dialogue, never a monologue. And that's what he looks for up and down the chain of command.
"I think the largest and most profound change he brought to Texas is the most intangible one," observes Lyon. "He set a new standard for academic excellence and leadership in Texas. He elevated everyone's eyes to a new spot on the horizon."
Lyon acknowledges that Berdahl's leaving was a shock to the UT and Austin communities. "No one would have said that he finished his work there."
But the chance to lead the nation's premier public research university was ultimately an opportunity that Berdahl could not ignore. Having brushed aside overtures from Berkeley's search committee several times before, he was finally persuaded to put his name in play.
When President Atkinson announced the appointment March 6, he said Berdahl is "an outstanding educator and a leader who possesses an unstinting commitment to excellence and a dedication to fostering an inclusive campus community. He is well-suited to guide the Berkeley campus through the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead."
By all accounts, after two months on the job, Berdahl is living up to those expectations.
"Berkeley has been fortunate to have had chancellors who were right for the times during which they served," says Assistant Chancellor John Cummins, who also served Michael Heyman and Chang-Lin Tien in that capacity.
"It was a different time when Chancellor Tien came. There were visible issues that needed solving: we were building a more supportive environment for students, dealing with budget cuts, People's Park, the merger of men's and women's athletics, the need to dramatically boost outreach and fund raising.
"Tien did an astounding amount of good work for the campus, and the university is in exceptionally good shape. But large, infrastructure issues need to be addressed: the library, upgrading our technology and business systems, deferred maintenance, improving the seismic condition of our buildings."
Adds Cummins: "These are big, complicated internal issues that are essential; they provide the underpinning of the academic enterprise. They're not glamorous, but they're important and complex."
Berdahl, who has demonstrated a team approach, should do well tackling such issues that transcend traditional boundaries.
"He has a sense of equanimity about him that comes across in a variety of ways," says Cummins.
"He brings so much experience and such a broad perspective to this post. There aren't many issues that he hasn't dealt with before. There is a calm and in-charge sense about him."
In fact, when you ask him what he likes best about the job, Berdahl says, "the adrenaline that comes with problem solving. I enjoy dealing with complex issues. I enjoy meeting people, and being engaged in a range of issues. There's a freshness, a newness about it; every day brings a new set of issues, or new nuances to old issues."
On the other hand, the relentless nature of the job is hard, he adds. "It never ends. There is little respite."
To relax, he goes to his cabin in Oregon where he spent two weeks in August with his wife and family.
"I'm pretty good at putting it out of my mind. I pace myself pretty well. I find I need time to think."
As for what he thinks of Berkeley after two months on the job: "One of my strongest impressions is the great strength of Berkeley. It has invested so heavily in faculty - more than any place I've ever been. Clearly it's a part of the history of the place, the creation of shared governance. I'm convinced that's what's made it a great place.
"The faculty are the guiding spirits here, and that is refreshing and the way a university ought to be. I feel very comfortable with that."
In contrast, he notes, Texas has more of an administrative culture, more "imperial."
Berdahl expresses some regret at leaving Texas when he did. "I felt bad because I felt the changes we made there might not last. If I had been there longer, the changes would have been more durable."
But colleagues at Texas say otherwise.
"He inspired us," says Susan Clagett. "It's up to those of us who are here now to see to the lasting nature of the changes he made. They will stand on their own merit; three or four years is long enough to establish patterns.
"We're thinking of him, and I know he's thinking of us," she adds.
That will no doubt prove especially true on Berdahl's next birthday, when he gets a bouquet of plastic flowers.
[Table of Contents] [Berkeley Magazine Home] [UC Berkeley Home]
Please e-mail your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org