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Features May 2007: Volume 4, Number 2

Growth Spurt
By Sylvia Tiersten

As a sunny vacation hub and principal home port for the US Navy's Pacific fleet, San Diego in 1980 was largely dependent on hospitality and defense-manufacturing jobs. Then, in the late 1980s, the Soviet Union collapsed and San Diego's defense-related industries slashed 100,000 jobs. That could have been catastrophic if San Diego had not then been busily reinventing its economy. What emerged was one of the nation's fastest-growing, diverse and knowledge-based economic regions, with robust biotech and wireless communication clusters.

“We continued to have a high standard for the recruitment of faculty—and that paid off in very dramatic ways,” Atkinson says. “We were able to compete with the best universities in the country.”

Putting Expectations on Hold
Biotech Beach, or San Diego’s biotech research cluster, began with the founding of Hybritech in 1978 by two UCSD faculty members: medical school Professor Ivor Royston and Howard Birndorf, a biochemist. Irwin Jacobs, a former UCSD engineering professor, was cofounder of Linkabit in 1968 and Qualcomm Inc. in 1985, and in so doing, pioneered the local wireless communication industry. Strong linkages between the University, neighboring research institutions and startup companies set in motion a reinforcing interchange that remains in play today.

“San Diego found its sweet spot in the knowledge economy,” says Mary Walshok, associate vice chancellor of extended studies. As early as the 1950s, she recalls, Convair/General Dynamics Chairman John J. Hopkins warned that to keep the military in San Diego, the region would have to focus on research and development. That prompted the re-zoning of land on the Torrey Pines Mesa for R&D and light manufacturing—including the Camp Matthews acreage where UCSD now sits.

Some—but not all—of the pieces were in place for a biotech cluster when Richard C. Atkinson arrived as UCSD’s fifth chancellor in 1980. From a collaborative-research perspective, the campus was in a great neighborhood. The Scripps Metabolic Clinic, renamed the Scripps Clinic and Research Foundation in 1956, moved to the Torrey Pines Mesa in 1977; and the Salk Institute (now the Salk Institute for Biological Studies) was founded in 1960—the same year as UCSD.

Like William D. McElroy, the chancellor he was replacing, Atkinson wanted to reach out to local technology leaders and the business community. But an aura of pessimism gripped the nation in the early 1980s. American pundits griped that “Japan and Germany are eating our lunch.” A 1986 Business Week cover story, “The Hollow Corporation,” deplored deindustrialization and the loss of U.S. manufacturing jobs.

“It was a miserable time for the country,” Atkinson recalls. Meanwhile, at the University of California, enrollment projections had tumbled from their previous optimistic highs. There was talk of shuttering UC Riverside and capping UCSD’s population at 9,000 students.

However, Atkinson did not leave his post as National Science Foundation (NSF) director from 1977-1980 to preside over diminished expectations.

His intent was to build on the founding tradition of UCSD—admittedly a difficult feat during the first few years of his tenure, when lingering budget woes from the 1970s plagued the UC system. “We continued to have a high standard for the recruitment of faculty—and that paid off in very dramatic ways,” Atkinson says. “We were able to compete with the best universities in the country.”

Evidently, the National Research Council agreed. In 1995, shortly after Atkinson left San Diego to become president of the UC system, the NRC ranked UCSD number 10 in the nation for the quality of its graduate programs. Berkeley was the only other public university to make the top-10 cut.

The Silicon Valley Model
How did Atkinson bring UCSD—a 35-year-young institution—into the top ranks of the country’s graduate programs? Applying the lessons he had learned earlier in Silicon Valley helped in no small measure.

As a faculty member of Stanford University’s psychology department from 1956-80, Atkinson had an up-close-and-personal view of the Silicon Valley phenomenon—and unqualified admiration for Frederick Emmons Terman—the man who made it happen.

Terman, a Stanford University electrical engineering professor, set the wheels in motion in the 1930s. Troubled by the lack of employment opportunities for talented engineering graduates in the San Francisco Bay Area, he encouraged some of his former students, including William Hewlett and David Packard, to establish local startups. Hewlett-Packard began in 1939 in a Palo Alto garage, which is now widely celebrated as the birthplace of Silicon Valley.

As dean of engineering after World War II and university provost from 1955-65, Terman chose specific technologies for intensive research and solicited military contracts to fund the work. He also set aside unused land on campus for an industrial park in 1951 and persuaded high-tech firms to sign on as tenants. It was the world’s first university-owned industrial park and a place where technology and industry leaders could rub shoulders with Stanford students and faculty.

 “If there is a model for me in academic life, it is Fred Terman,” Atkinson wrote in 2004. “I was able to apply the knowledge I gained from Fred’s work at Stanford years later when I became chancellor of UCSD. I sought to use the ‘Terman Model’ as a roadmap for UCSD’s partnerships with the telecommunications and biotechnology industries that were beginning to spring up in the region.”

Improvising the Future
Improvisation was the secret sauce in UCSD’s improving fortunes. “There wasn’t a lot of academic infrastructure when Dick Atkinson came in as chancellor,” says Walshok. “Dick is an academic entrepreneur. If he didn’t have a school or he didn’t have a faculty, he would find somebody who could create a program.” 

Atkinson wondered early on where are all our business supporters and how do I get to meet the local head of Hewlett-Packard? At Stanford, close ties with business led to endowed chairs, industry-university partnerships and regional entrepreneurship on a grand scale. But Stanford had business and engineering schools—and UCSD had neither.

What the La Jolla campus did have was an extended studies program that could turn on a dime—from courses in nutritional science and social psychology in the introspective 1970s, to business innovation and executive training in the high-tech-oriented 1980s. An executive program for scientists and engineers (EPSE), which UCSD Extension created in 1984, was launched at the chancellor’s home and hosted by Atkinson. CEOs from Hughes, IBM, Cubic, Rohr and Hewlett-Packard were among the 32 attendees. “These were all companies that had wanted to connect to the University, but there had never been an invitation before,” says Walshok.

She and Atkinson co-founded CONNECT, another Extension offshoot, in 1985 to accelerate the growth of San Diego’s innovation economy. CONNECT linked promising high-tech entrepreneurs to one another—and to key sources of funding, technical research and business know-how—from strategic planning to legal advice.

When Peter Preuss, M.A. ’67, founded Integrated Software Systems Corp. (ISSCO) in San Diego in 1970, he says there was no networking. “I didn’t know anybody. The peers I talked to were all over the country, but not in San Diego,” he recalls. “The law firms that specialized in high-tech companies did not exist yet, and it was difficult to find an accountant.” Until the sale of his computer graphics firm to Computer Associates in 1986, he relied on East Coast financial and legal experts.

“CONNECT was a blessing and a magnet,” says Preuss. “Once it was founded, the law firms came to San Diego, and San Diego became a stellar example of technology transfer.” Bill Otterson, hired in 1986 to run CONNECT, was an expert in networking, “and we all got to know each other,” Preuss recalls.

Engineering by Degrees
In 2000, Atkinson wrote in his memoir, 20/20: Reflections on the Last 20 Years of the 20th Century:  “A modern research university without programs in engineering is at a serious disadvantage; the synergy between engineering and other disciplines is simply too important.”

And yet, in 1980, when he publicly announced his goals for the campus, Atkinson deliberately avoided any mention of a new engineering school. “The last thing the faculty wants to hear is that the chancellor is pushing for a particular school or program and claiming credit for its creation,” he wrote in 20/20.

 In the late 1960s, California was in a recession with a glut of engineers. As a result, the newer campuses at San Diego, Irvine and Santa Cruz did not have engineering programs. By 1980, the situation had changed. The knowledge economy and the proliferation of computers were fueling the demand for engineering talent.

“You need engineering to come up with new technology and to make that technology useable for society,” says Frieder Seible, dean of the Jacobs School of Engineering. “Historically the field has evolved from its trade school roots and become more of an applied science and an academic discipline.”

UCSD, which began as a graduate school of science, established a department for applied electro-physics, and a department of aerospace and mechanical engineering in 1964. “Dick Atkinson turned these applied sciences into a more recognizable discipline by establishing the school of engineering,” says Seible.

But it had to be done in stages. “The academic senate said no when Dick Atkinson proposed a school of engineering in 1981,” says Richard Attiyeh, professor emeritus of economics and former dean of graduate studies and research. “They felt it was applied science—and would steal resources from physics, chemistry and biology.” 

After much discussion and maneuvering, the faculty agreed to Atkinson’s alternative proposition: a division of engineering, with Lee Rudee as its first dean. Atkinson promised that new funds would be obtained, engineering students would be subject to the same liberal arts requirements as any other undergraduates and courses such as calculus and physics would be taught in departments that were already up-and-running.

When Rudee stepped down as dean in 1994, Bob Conn was recruited from UCLA as his successor, but only agreed to take the job if he would head up an engineering school as opposed to a division. “By that time engineering was a very strong part of the campus, and the faculty agreed to the name change,” says Attiyeh.

In 1997, the School of Engineering became the Jacobs School of Engineering in honor of Irwin Jacobs and his wife Joan, who provided it with a $15 million endowment. With 6,000 students, Jacobs is currently the largest engineering school in California, and over one third of all UCSD graduate students are in engineering programs. “Atkinson had the right intuition,” says Seible, “and the outcome proved him right.”

Growing the Campus
With Stanford as his model, Atkinson wanted a law school and a business school with M.B.A. programs for San Diego’s expanding high-tech community. UC President David Gardner turned him down in 1984, arguing that the UC system already had more than its fair share of law schools and M.B.A. programs.

Alternatively, Gardner suggested a school of international relations that would focus on the Pacific Rim. None of the UC campuses had a school of international studies—and U.S. schools that did exist emphasized Atlantic rather than the Pacific-Rim issues.

The Graduate School of International Relations and Pacific Studies (IR/PS), which greeted its first students and faculty in 1987, received priority funding for faculty positions, library resources, support staff and construction funds. It was UC’s first new professional school in nearly two decades.

Professional schools with large numbers of students are essentially master’s programs that help to defray the cost of Ph.D. programs, which are very expensive. “It’s hard to build up a decent ratio of graduates to undergraduates without having programs in business, law, nursing, library science and so forth—and Atkinson understood that,” says founding IR/PS Dean Peter Gourevitch.

The campus doubled in size on Atkinson’s watch—to 18,000 students. With inflation running wild in the early 1980s, UCSD administrators saw a growth opportunity—and aggressively recruited undergrads. “We wanted more graduate students, but undergraduates are what the state was interested in and where the payoff was, and we tried to balance that out,” says V. Wayne Kennedy, former UC senior vice president for business and finance, and UCSD vice chancellor of administration from 1985-93. “For every X number of students you took, you got a new faculty position—and along with that position came some operating funds.”

Like Roger Revelle and UCSD’s founding faculty, Atkinson opted for academic depth rather than breadth. “Scripps put in motion a very narrow vision—and Atkinson reinforced that in a very major way. His philosophy was that a great university should not try to be all things to all people,” says Steven Relyea, vice chancellor of external and business affairs and UC San Diego Foundation president. When budget woes resurfaced in the late 1980s, “Atkinson was like a surgeon,” says Relyea. “Rather than using a machete and administering across-the-board cuts, he used a very small knife to cut very deeply in specific areas—and took  much smaller cuts in areas that he saw as the future of UCSD’s strength. That’s the definition of a good leader.” 

Atkinson favored endowed academic chairs as a tool for attracting top faculty. “Named Chairs were cheap in those days—as little as $250,000,” says Kennedy. Atkinson also lobbied successfully for UCSD’s election to the Association of American Universities (AAU). Still, he understood that national recognition among scholars was a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for a research campus to grow and thrive in the information age.

“The early guys came out of a model where the money comes out of the National Science Foundation or the Department of Defense. They relied on a top-down flow of money and never had to worry much about community and political support,” says Gourevitch. “Atkinson had a shrewder vision.”

And it is a vision that continues to shape UCSD today. Through his creation of an engineering school and IR/PS, the launching of CONNECT, the pursuit of endowed chairs and his construction of a UCSD version of the “Terman Model,” Atkinson changed the University’s academic landscape and influenced the economy of its hinterland. In the light of decreasing state funding, that vision of private/public partnerships will increasingly shape the University’s future.

Sylvia Tiersten is a freelance writer who lives in San Diego.