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Richard C. Atkinson (born March 1929) is an American professor of psychology and academic administrator He is the former president and regent of the University of California system, and former chancellor of U.C. San Diego.



Atkinson started out as a professor of psychology at Stanford University, where he worked with Patrick Suppes on experiments in which they tried to use computers to teach math and reading to young children in Palo Alto elementary schools. The Education Program for Gifted Youth at Stanford is a descendant of those early experiments.

Eventually, Atkinson transitioned from research to a career in administration, and went on to serve as Director of the National Science Foundation, Chancellor of the University of California, San Diego, and President of the University of California system.

Atkinson is widely recognized for his scientific, academic, and administrative accomplishments. He has been elected to the National Academy of Sciences, the Institute of Medicine, the National Academy of Education, and the American Philosophical Society. He is past president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, former chair of the Association of American Universities, the recipient of many honorary degrees. A mountain in Antarctica, and Atkinson Hall, the home of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology at UC San Diego, are named in his honor.


After earning his bachelor’s degree at the University of Chicago and his Ph.D. in experimental psychology and mathematics at Indiana University, Atkinson joined the faculty at Stanford University in 1956. Except for a three-year interval at UCLA, he served as professor of psychology at Stanford from 1956 to 1975. His research on mathematical models of human memory and cognition led to additional appointments in the School of Engineering, the School of Education, the Applied Mathematics and Statistics Laboratories, and the Institute for Mathematical Studies in the Social Sciences. Atkinson’s theory of human memory has been influential in shaping research in the field of experimental psychology. Advances in computer-assisted instruction and methods for optimizing the learning process have been among the more applied outcomes of his theoretical interests.

In 1977, he received the American Psychological Association’s Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award.

National Science Foundation[]

As as deputy director and director of the National Science Foundation (1975-1980), Atkinson had a wide range of responsibilities for science policy at a national and international level. Among them was negotiating the first memorandum of understanding between the People’s Republic of China and the United States, an agreement for the exchange of scientists and scholars. It became part of a more comprehensive agreement on science and technology between China and the United States signed by Chair Deng Xiaoping and President Jimmy Carter in January 1979.

During Atkinson’s tenure at NSF, skeptics in both Congress and the media mounted frequent attacks on government funding for basic research as little more than subsidizing idle curiosity about trivial topics at the taxpayers’ expense. This trend was aptly symbolized by Senator William Proxmire’s Golden Fleece Awards for waste and fraud in public programs, one of which went to NSF for a study of the sexual behavior of screwworm flies. As NSF director, Atkinson defended this and other projects—whose value Senator Proxmire ultimately acknowledged—as well as the long-term importance of fundamental intellectual inquiry. In the same vein, NSF conducted some of the early studies on the contributions of basic research to productivity and economic growth.

U.C. San Diego[]

As chancellor of the University of California at San Diego (UCSD) from 1980-1995, he instituted a major administrative reorganization of the campus and began a sustained effort to strengthen UCSD's ties with the city of San Diego. This highly successful effort yielded important dividends in the form of financial and community support, with private giving rising from $15 million to nearly $50 million annually during his chancellorship. Despite a series of tight budgets in the late 1980s, he found innovative ways to fund the construction of new buildings and to support new academic programs. UCSD's increasing academic stature was reflected in its 1982 election to membership in the prestigious Association of American Universities, consisting of 62 of the nation's top research universities. The campus's steady growth in size and distinction was a mark of Atkinson's tenure. UCSD's faculty expanded by nearly 50 percent and enrollment doubled to about 18,000 students. In 1995, the quality of its graduate programs was ranked tenth in the nation by the National Research Council.

During his years at UCSD, Atkinson also followed a strategy of encouraging technology transfer and active involvement with industry, especially with the small, high-technology companies that were springing up around San Diego in the 1980s. The UCSD CONNECT program, self-sustaining but run by UC San Diego Extension, began in 1985. It was successful in helping aspiring entrepreneurs in high-technology fields find information, funding, and practical support on such crucial topics as writing a business plan, marketing, and attracting capital. It also acted as an advocate on public policy issues that affect business. UCSD's outstanding faculty, innovative research, and commitment to industry-university partnerships were major factors in transforming the San Diego region into a world leader in technology-based industries. Atkinson's role in this transformation was noted in a recent study of research universities and their impact on the genesis of high-technology centers (see Raymond Smilor, Niall O'Donnell, Gregory Stein and Robert S. Welborn, III, "The Research University and the Development of High-Technology Centers in the United States," Economic Development Quarterly, Vol. 21, No.3, August 2007, pp. 203-222).

University of California[]

Atkinson became the University of California’s seventeenth president in October 1995. His principal goal was sustaining the excellence of UC’s faculty, recognized in several national studies of academic program quality. An equally important challenge was accommodating an additional 63,000 undergraduates—an enrollment increase of forty percent—between 1998 and 2010. UC Merced, the University’s first new campus in forty years, was founded during Atkinson’s presidency.

He also sought to expand the University’s contributions to California’s productivity and economic growth through such efforts as the Industry-University Cooperative Research Program, which supports collaborative research in areas critical to the state’s competitive edge. The California Institutes for Science and Innovation, proposed by California Governor Gray Davis and established at four UC campuses, are aimed at creating the next generation of knowledge in high-technology fields through interdisciplinary research partnerships with industry.

Atkinson’s most important task as president, however, flowed from the July 1995 decision by the UC Board of Regents to eliminate racial preferences in admission. Under his guidance, UC embarked on an ambitious partnership with the K-12 public schools to raise the level of academic accomplishment among all California children. Within UC, the Academic Senate and the Regents approved his proposals for several new paths to undergraduate admission that moved UC closer to the comprehensive review of students’ records used by selective private universities. By the end of his tenure, UC was admitting more minority students than it was in 1997, the year before the ban on affirmative action took effect.

Under Atkinson's leadership, the University adopted a new academic freedom policy that clearly defined the central role of the faculty in protecting and promoting the freedom to teach, to do research, and to express and publish views in the context of the modern research university. He established the California Digital Library to expand access to UC's collections and to advance new forms of scholarly communication. UC established several new professional schools and began expanding its graduate enrollments. Enrollment in engineering and computer science—disciplines essential to the high-tech California economy—rose by nearly 70 percent, and total UC enrollment increased by a third, from 150,000 to 202,000 students. The University prospered during Atkinson's tenure. For the first time, private giving reached the billion-dollar mark in a single year, UC's state-funded budget nearly doubled, and federal research funds soared.

Personal life[]

Atkinson is married to psychologist, Rita, with whom he has one daughter, retired neurosurgeon Lynn.


In February 2001, Atkinson announced he was recommending elimination of the College Entrance Examination Board Scholastic Aptitude Test as a requirement for admission to the University of California. Students, he argued, should be tested on what they had actually achieved academically, not on the basis of “ill-defined notions of aptitude.” Atkinson’s challenge inaugurated a national debate on the relative merits of aptitude versus achievement tests and ultimately led to a major revision of the SAT I. The new SAT I, introduced in 2005, incorporates higher-level mathematics and a written essay to reflect the quantitative and writing skills students need for success in college-level work.

As president, Atkinson had to face some of the most contentious and complex issues in American higher education, from achieving diversity to managing a multi-billion dollar budget greater than that of many states. He will be remembered for his skill in guiding the University into the post-affirmative action age and for the creative and energetic leadership he brought to the nation's most distinguished public university.

In 2005, the unnamed Sixth College at UCSD moved to name the college in his honor. Around April 27, 2005, UCSD students were notified that Dr. Atkinson had withdrawn his name from further consideration as the future namesake of Sixth College. The decision was an abrupt surprise as Atkinson only a week earlier had told The San Diego Union-Tribune he would be "honored if the name were approved"[1]. Although student reception to the naming proposal was lukewarm, demonstrated opposition was generally meager with only conspicuous organized criticism by opponents desiring a more racially diverse name. The Perry scandal was not the subject of public criticism.


  1. ^  Eleanor Yang, "Naming of UCSD school sparks dispute; Sixth College should honor a noted Latino, some say", The San Diego Union-Tribune, April 18, 2005.
  • “Distinguished Scientific Contribution Awards for 1977,” American Psychologist, January 1978, pp. 49-55.
  • William J. McGill, “Richard C. Atkinson: President-Elect of AAAS,” Science, Vol. 241, July 29, 1988, pp. 519-520.
  • Richard C. Atkinson, “The Golden Fleece, Science Education, and US Science Policy,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 143, No, 3, September 1999, pp. 407-417.
  • “Developing High-Technology Communities: San Diego,” report by Innovation Associates, Inc., for the U.S. Small Business Administration, March 2000.
  • Patricia A. Pelfrey, A Brief History of the University of California, Second Edition, (Center for Studies in Higher Education and University of California Press, 2004), pp. 78-89.
  • David S. Saxon, “Foreword,” The Pursuit of Knowledge: Speeches and Papers of Richard C. Atkinson, ed. Patricia A. Pelfrey (University of California Press, 2007), pp. ix-xi
  • Raymond Smilor, Niall O’Donnell, Gregory Stein and Robert S. Welborn, III, “The Research University and the Development of High-Technology Centers in the United States,” Economic Development Quarterly, Vol. 21, No. 3, August 2007, pp. 203-222.

External links[]

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