UC Berkeley News


Gentleman and scholar, academic leader and diplomat
This week, Karl Pister will receive the Clark Kerr Award from the Academic Senate for a career (still going strong) of service, leadership, and advancing higher education for all

| 24 October 2007

Karl Pister is known for taking on a challenge where others might shy away. He's been a tireless advocate for underrepresented or disadvantaged students, a steady voice for bolstering K-12 science and math education, and a determined believer in high-tech innovation to shore up U.S. competitiveness. And in a 66-year association with UC, he has been an undergraduate, grad student, professor, dean, chancellor, vice president, and go-to guy for nearly every intractable problem a university can dish out.

Among the many boards, nonprofits, and advisory groups to which he dedicates his energies, Karl Pister is president of the Berkeley Faculty Club (Peg Skorpinski photo)

For a career of achievement - and his success at meeting myriad challenges to advance higher education - Pister will be presented with the Clark Kerr Award for Distinguished Leadership in Higher Education by the Berkeley Division of the Academic Senate in a campus ceremony on Thursday, Oct. 25.

The award recognizes extraordinary and distinguished contributions to the advancement of higher education. The Berkeley Division established the award in 1968 as a tribute to Kerr, a former Berkeley chancellor and UC president. Kerr died in 2003 at the age of 92.

In the citation for the award, David Wake, professor of integrative biology and chair of the Senate awards committee, noted Pister's "multidimensional contributions to higher education within a framework of idealism and practicality, his outstanding scholarship, his leadership at critical times in the history of the University of California, and his collegial sense of obligation and service in the legacy of Clark Kerr."

Pister says the Kerr Award ranks as one of the two most significant honors he has received. "In 1980, I was elected to the National Academy of Engineering, an honor that reflects the judgment of your engineering peers," he says. "In the same way, the Kerr Award reflects the judgment of my Berkeley colleagues, so I'm tremendously honored" by it.

Those colleagues would have difficulty finding anyone with a history as steeped in the University of California as Pister's. His C.V. includes a Berkeley B.S. in civil engineering in 1945 and an M.S. in '48; appointment to the civil- engineering faculty at Berkeley in 1952 (after earning a Ph.D. at the University of Illinois); a decade as dean of the College of Engineering, 1980-90; six years as chancellor at UC Santa Cruz, 1991-96; and another six as, first, senior associate to the UC president and then UC vice president for educational outreach. For the past several years he has been senior associate to Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau, guiding the planning for the Southeast Campus Integrated Projects, including the master plan to renovate California Memorial Stadium.

Pister's energy clearly puts most people half his age to shame. Active with many boards, nonprofits, and advisory groups, the 82-year-old unfailingly accepts campus assignments that require the diplomacy of a U.N. peace envoy - as he has for much of his career.

The perils of Santa Cruz

After an accomplished career as professor and dean at Berkeley, Pister could have headed happily toward retirement, but in August 1991, a year after Pister stepped down as dean of engineering, UC President David Gardner convinced him to leave Berkeley to serve as interim chancellor at UC Santa Cruz. He was assured the position would last a year at most.

Pister knew that the position was not without perils. The previous chancellor, Robert Stevens, had had a strained relationship with the faculty and the office was in jeopardy, Pister recalls.

Pister and Ray Miles (left), former dean and professor emeritus of the Haas School of Business, cheered on the Golden Bears in a 1986 football matchup against Boston College.

In addition, the 2,000-acre, woodsy campus was experiencing growing pains. Some on campus and in town were virulently opposed to expanding UC Santa Cruz's eight colleges to 10. At the heart of the controversy was a grove of 150 trees in a secluded setting known as "Elf Land," frequented by students and townspeople, but also by vagrants engaging in illicit activities.

At his first press conference at Santa Cruz, Pister recalls, "my chief of police arrested 44 people [who were protesting to preserve the trees], and I was accused of raping the land." While Elf Land was a casualty, plans to build a disputed roadway through the campus's much-loved Great Meadow were abandoned.

To negotiate such a politically charged situation, Pister moved carefully and deliberately. "I gradually built up credibility with the faculty and didn't make any rash decisions," he says. His consensus-building skills earned him plaudits from faculty members, who urged the regents in March 1992 to remove the word "interim" from his title. Pister's anticipated short-term run as chancellor at Santa Cruz ended after four more years, when he stepped down in 1996.

Undaunted by obstacles

The skills that served Pister at UC Santa Cruz earned him his current assignment overseeing plans to renovate and develop key elements of the southeast quadrant of the Berkeley campus, including a master plan to modernize and seismically strengthen 84-year-old California Memorial Stadium. Phase one of the stadium project is construction of the Student-Athlete High Performance Center to remove daily occupants from the stadium and provide up-to-date training facilities for student-athletes in 13 sports. Other proposed plans for the region include new facilities for the law and business schools, landscape improvements along Piedmont Avenue, a new parking structure, and enhanced access around the stadium for pedestrians and emergency vehicles.

Lawsuits to block construction of the student-athlete center have tied up the project and now await a judge's ruling; Pister is undaunted and doesn't balk at tackling such seemingly thankless tasks. "At Berkeley, I've felt such a commitment to the campus," he explains. "It has been so good to me. I feel I have to give something back."

Cathy Koshland, vice provost for academic planning and facilities, has worked closely with Pister on the southeast-campus projects. "His capacity to take on things is remarkable," she says. "Karl continues to be able to facilitate, to lead, to bring people together, and to ask very good questions. I think he is an incredible citizen of this campus and the UC system, and every day demonstrates leadership, provides his wisdom, and continues to give."

An activist for access

Access to higher education, for students from all backgrounds and circumstances, is a goal to which Pister has given tirelessly for more than 25 years. When Pister was a new engineering dean, he recalls, Chancellor Ira Michael Heyman pointed out to him that the college's entering class lacked diversity. Heyman's observation sparked Pister's awareness of the challenges faced by underrepresented students in higher education.

For first-generation students who come to Berkeley, there's a "culture shock," he says, one he realized was far more intense than the adjustment he had to make as a freshman coming from the Central Valley.

"Both of my parents were teachers, and they had prepared me to go to college," he says. But when he arrived on campus in 1941, "the change from being at the top of everything at Stockton High School, where I was very sure of myself, to this Berkeley atmosphere where a lot of people were much brighter than I was was a shock," recalls Pister. "If I, a young white male with all this support and preparation in my background, had trouble making the cultural adjustment, what about a kid coming from South Central Los Angeles?"

In 1996, at the campus's commencement, Pister received the Berkeley Medal, the university's top honor (Peg Skorpinski photo)

Creating programs to provide underrepresented students with support and access to the university became a passion for Pister. As engineering dean at Berkeley he helped initiate a suite of programs to bring more women and minority students into the pipeline that led to an engineering degree, graduate work, and leadership in the profession. As chancellor at UC Santa Cruz he created the Leadership Opportunity Program, providing two-year scholarships of $20,000 to accomplished local community-college students who were committed to improving the lives of others, had overcome socioeconomic obstacles, and could not attend Santa Cruz without the aid provided by the scholarship. After he stepped down as chancellor, the scholarship program was renamed in his honor.

Seeing former Pister Scholars at the program's recent 10-year reunion was moving for him. "Even speaking about it makes me emotional," says the usually composed engineer. "Over the years we will have impacted hundreds of kids. What we're doing is dropping a stone in the pond that creates a ripple."

More than a decade since California Proposition 209 passed, banning consideration of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in admissions and hiring by public institutions, Pister continues to address inequities in education. He has long been concerned with the academic pipeline - from preparation to application, admission, and finally enrollment - for science, math, and engineering students. He chairs the board of the California Council on Science and Technology and also sits on the board of the Center for Teaching and Learning.

"California's bi-modal public-education system" is at the root of the problem, he says. "In the areas of California where there's sufficient wealth and a college-going tradition, kids are doing fine." But in areas predominantly populated by minority groups or people stuck at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder, students are doing badly, says Pister. "They don't have the kinds of schools and teachers they need. It's just that simple."

Gibor Basri, vice chancellor for equity and inclusion, has worked with Pister for more than a decade in various capacities, including on Berkeley's Academic Senate Committee on the Status of Women and Ethnic Minorities.

"Karl Pister has been one of the strongest implicit influences on me to become very involved in issues of equity and inclusion," he says. "He has, through his own example, helped me decide to work patiently toward bringing the university back to its roots in serving all the people while maintaining its high standards. I have also gained humility, as we develop ideas only to find that they were already articulated years ago in one 'Pister report' or another."

Those reports from earlier days are testaments to Pister's staying power, a quality he says Clark Kerr had, and one that has made him stand out as a role model for Pister. After stepping down as chancellor of UC Santa Cruz, Pister met with Kerr, then in his mid-80s. "I asked him what keeps him going," recalls Pister. "He said, 'Two things: You have to keep your body active and your mind engaged.'"

Pister has followed Kerr's recipe. What also keeps retirement at bay is Pister's strong commitment to others, which is rooted in his Catholic faith. "I really do see the work I do as informed by my sense of why I'm here and what life's about," he says. "If you try, you can really help people. That's what I'm trying to do."

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