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Features May 2007: Volume 4, Number 2

First Chancellor

Herbert F. York, UC San Diego's first Chancellor.

by Sylvia Tiersten


In our May issue we will publish a feature on Roger Revelle. If you would like to share memories and/or photos of him, or any aspect of UCSD throughout the years, contact us at: alumnieditor@ucsd.edu

Update: Herbert F. York, Founding UC San Diego Chancellor, Dies May 19, 2009

It is with great sadness that the Alumni Association announces the passing of Herbert Frank York, UC San Diego’s founding chancellor. A world-renowned physicist who helped develop the atomic bomb as a young researcher and later championed arms control, York was a mentor to generations of students and a friend to the Alumni Association. He died May 19 at Thornton Hospital in San Diego, Ca. He was 87.

For more on Herb York’s career click here.

Photograph by Jim Coit

The following article was published in the January 20009 issue of @UCSD.

When Herbert F. York arrived on campus in 1961, UC La Jolla had just changed its name to UC San Diego. A dusty mesa with rows of Quonset huts, recently vacated by the Marines, “campus” was perhaps a linguistic leap. As Highway 101 wound its way through the cactus, sand and eucalyptus, on its way north to Los Angeles, it passed a 1929 Spanish style Flying A gas station and a one-room trucker’s café. UC San Diego was more an act of faith than an actual place. Essentially a “graduate science and technology college” when he arrived, York would oversee its transformation into a fully fledged university, that would accept its first undergraduate class of 181 pioneers in 1964.

As founding chancellor from 1961 until 1964, Herbert F. York inherited a stellar research faculty that had arrived with the first graduate students in the late fifties. The atmosphere in those early days was “hyper collegial,” recalls York “There were a lot of ideas floating around, and everybody was engaged in planning the future.”

That left York with the unofficial role of arbiter-in-chief. From Ernest O. Lawrence, his mentor at UC Berkeley, York had learned the art of management-by-walking-around. It meant asking questions of everyone at least once a week—right down to the janitor—and listening to what they had to say.

York was not an academic when he arrived in La Jolla in 1961—at least not yet—but his resume was beyond persuasive. A Manhattan Project whiz kid during World War II, York completed his doctoral studies in physics at Berkeley after the war and co-discovered the neutral pi meson (a type of subatomic particle). He was the first director of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory at UC Berkeley, an advisor to President Dwight Eisenhower, chief scientist of the Depart­ment of Defense’s Advanced Research Project Agency—now known as DARPA—and defense director of research and engineering at the Pentagon.

And all before the age of 40.

The Beep Heard Around the World

The Soviet launch of Sputnik in 1957 changed everything—including U.S. higher education and the arc of York’s career. The beeping, manmade satellite “shook the money tree, got the rules changed, and helped push the Califor­nia Master Plan for Higher Education,” says York.

Federal support for academic re­search quadrupled over the next seven years. New institutions sprouted, including the National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA) and DARPA.

Sputnik propelled York from Liver­more Laboratory into the White House as a member of Dwight Eisenhower’s newly formed President’s Science Ad­visory Committee (PSAC) in 1957. York subsequently spent three years at the Pentagon.

Meanwhile, back on the West Coast, University of California President Clark Kerr was putting the finishing touches on the Master Plan. It included provisions for new UC general campuses at Irvine, Santa Cruz and San Diego.

By 1960, York was contemplating a return to California. Exhausted from a workload laced with 11-hour days, he suffered a heart attack at age 39. A lifestyle change was obviously in order.

The election of John F. Kennedy clinched York’s decision. Although incoming Secretary of State Robert McNamara invited him to stay on, “I realized the sweetheart relationship

I had with the White House would not last. McNamara was going to be a much more formal and detailed boss than I was used to,” says York. When Kerr offered him the founding chancellor position at UCSD, York jumped at the chance. 

The Vision Thing

By the time York arrived in La Jolla, UCSD’s scientific core of researchers and faculty was already in place. Scripps Institution of Oceanography Director Roger Revelle and his colleagues had established the School of Science and Engineering in 1958 and wasted no time in recruiting top faculty.

Revelle’s high-profile hires included Harold Urey, a Nobel laureate in chemistry; and Maria Mayer, a soon-to-be Nobel laureate in physics. “Roger and the people at Scripps gave us a fantastic start,” says York.

Still, there was the vision thing—or to put it another way, the clashing-visions thing. “There was a conflict between the local Scripps people and those in the president’s office about the nature of the campus,” says York.  “Clark wanted a campus analogous to Berkeley, and some of the local people, and I think this included Roger, wanted something smaller and much more elite—a state version of Caltech combined with Occidental College. There were some doubts as to whether Roger would build the kind of campus Clark wanted.”

In the Beginning There Was Scripps

The official announcement of York’s appointment surprised many San Diegans and occasioned some wailing and gnashing of teeth, particularly at Scripps. “Why did the Regents roam so far and come up with a chancellor from such an unlikely spot as the Pentagon?” wondered an editorial writer in the El Cajon Valley Times, a suburban San Diego County newspaper.

“I was very much a Revelle fan,” says oceanographer Walter Munk, Ph.D. ’47 (Scripps), who chaired the Scripps academic senate at that time. “We all thought Roger would get the job as UCSD chancellor, including Roger himself, so it was a great disappointment when he didn’t.”

In retrospect, Munk allows, York may have been the better choice. “Roger had his administrative problems at Scripps along with his very imaginative leadership,” says Monk. “He was late to meetings, didn’t answer the phone, got totally absorbed in first-order problems and was not very good at keeping his desk clean.” York, Munk reckons, while not necessarily a clean-desk man, “had learned to do these relatively second-order things that go with an administrative job.”

York welcomed many of Revelle’s ideas—such as building the University from the top down, and breaking up the campus into intimate colleges, patterned after those at Oxford and Cambridge in England. Also, the plan to start with graduate education and add the undergraduate piece soon after brought early prestige, research assistants and grant money to the fledgling campus.

Reinventing Academia

Opportunity was the carrot for the early UCSD faculty. Many of them were dissatisfied with traditional academia and relished starting over.

“It was like the Wild West, it was wide open, it was called the Golden State and the money flowed like it was water,” recalls Professor of Pediatrics Emeritus Robert Hamburger, who arrived in La Jolla in 1960 by way of Yale. “At Yale, you’d come to the chairman or division chief with a great idea and they’d say: ‘Oh, we don’t do it that way at Yale.’ At UCSD, the response was more likely to be: ‘Wow, what a great idea. How much do you think it will cost?’”

UCSD’s startup science faculty viewed existing schools of engineering as pedestrian and conservative, and wanted neither. “And when we finally acquired some humanists,” says York “they were determined that our medical school would not be like traditional medical schools.”  The push was for a stronger research orientation and a focus on genetics or molecular biology as it was known in those days. “The founding faculty were disdainful of natural science—in other words wet biology, meaning people who dissected frogs,” says York.

If launching a new university was liberating for the faculty, it was constraining for York. At Livermore and the Pentagon, his executive status had given him direct responsibility over operating budgets and recruitment of scientific staff.

“At UCSD, as on all other UC campuses, things were totally different,” he wrote in his 1987 book Making Weapons Talking Peace. “The most interesting matters of substance fell under the authority of the faculty, not the chancellor. The recruitment and the promotion of faculty, while nominally under the authority of the chancellor, are in fact almost entirely controlled by faculty.”

The life of a chancellor, York decided after two years, was not his cup of tea. “I liked it at UCSD and was determined to stay,” he says, but he also wanted to reconnect with national security issues. “I retreated to the classroom, which was my day job,” he says, “but I also spent a lot of time in Washington.”

When York tendered his resignation as chancellor in 1963, he hoped the San Diego media would not overplay the story. Unfortunately, he got his wish. It was November 22, the day President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas.

“I still feel bad about letting Kerr down,” says York of his decision to go back into the physics classrooms and labs. But he had an encore stint as chancellor ahead of him. 

Encore Performance

In 1970, during a time of turmoil at UCSD and college campuses across

the nation, Chancellor William McGill resigned to become president of Columbia, his alma mater. York was asked to step in as the acting chancellor, and stayed for two years while the University tried to find a replacement.

To his surprise, he enjoyed the job on his second time around. On balance, he found the maturing campus a more interesting and fulfilling place. Intercollegiate sports were underway, the student body was 6,000 strong, and there was a wide spectrum of academic departments.

York officiated at Muir College’s first graduation ceremony in June 1971, and took joy in witnessing his daughter, Rachel York Williams, receiving her degree. “I made him promise not to kiss me during the ceremony,” she says

After this second act as chancellor, York did not slow down. From 1979-81, he served as U.S. ambassador to the Comprehensive Test Ban negotiations in Geneva. In 1983, he established the statewide Institute on Global Conflict & Cooperation on campus, to promote academic study of peace and security issues.

The Enrico Fermi Award, which York received in 2000, acknowledged his contributions as an educator and author who has “introduced several generations of Americans to the best thinking on the history, science and politics of nuclear weapons development and arms control.”

York still warms to the fledgling campus he first met in 1961. “I’m proud that I had a part in building one of the greatest universities in the world,” says York. “I didn’t have a creative or original part, but I did my job right.”

Sylvia Tiersten is a freelance writer who lives in San Diego


"Why did the Regents roam so far and come up wtih a chancellor from such an unlikely spot as the Pentagon?"


Tritons in Tijuana?
Interested in volunteering to work with Oscar Romo and his students in Tijuana? Contact us at alumnivolunteer @ucsd.edu. We are ­putting together an alumni group to volunteer in the winter and spring.