Thursday, June 29, 2017
Archives | 1975
Robert Gordon Sproul, president of the University of California for 28 years, died Wednesday at his home in Berkeley after a long illness. He was 84 years old and had retired in 1958.
In a tribute to Mr. ?? Clark Kerr, his successor, said yesterday that he had led the university during “some of its brightest times—its rise to preeminence in the world of science, the emergence of the University of California at Los Angeles as a campus with national and international academic stature; and some of its darkest times—the Great Depression, the loyalty oath controversy of the Joe McCarthy days.”
By combining a tireless bonhomie with superb administrative talent, Mr. Sproul transformed the University of California from a merely large institution to the biggest in the Western world with a faculty sprinkled with Nobel Prize winners.
From 1930 to 1958 the taxsupported university, with its eight campuses including the Lick Observatory, grew from 19,626 students to 45303. Its library quadrupled to four million volumes; and its state appropriations increased nine times to $73‐million.Continue reading the main story
Although these figures reflect to some extent the state's growth, they also attest to Mr. Sprotil's extraordinary career as the university's president; for much of what he accomplished resulted from the force of his personality and the network of friendships he built.
Not a teacher or a scholar (his only earned degree was a B.S. in civil engineering from California) Mr. Sproul was involved in several academic controversies, most notably one over free speech on the campus and another oer faculty loyalty oaths. His positions in these two episodes led some liberals to question his devotion to academic freedom. He survived these attacks, howeer, to retire in an atmosphere of general good feeling.
Powers Were Limited
Extroverted, bluff, with a booming voice and a resonant laugh. Mr. Sproul (pronounced to rhyme with jowl) had many of the attributes of a politician, glad‐hander and small‐town booster. At one time he belonged to 268 organizations, ranging from the Kiwanis to Tau Beta Pi, and he spent a great deal of his energy speaking to luncheon clubs and service groups about the university and its problems. These activities, which some thought unbecoming an educator, helped Mr. Sproul to obtain public understanding of the university and to get money from sometimes reluctant legislators, or to wangle donations wealthy citizens.
Mr. Sproul found persuasion necessary becaue his powers were limited. The Academic Senate a powerful faculty body, had to approve his educational program; and the Board of Regents, which was dominated by conservatives for much of his tenure, could dismiss him or curtail university spending.
Additionally, he was under pressure from the student body, which was open, tuition‐free, to all legal residents of California who received B‐average high sresident,hool The university president therefore, had to be nimble‐tongued.
In his attempt to he one of the boys and to supervise each campus—Berkeley, Los Angeles, San Francisco, La Jolla, Riverside, Davis, Santa Barbara and Mount Hamilton (the site of Lick Observatory)—Mr. Sproul worked incessantly. “Sure it's tough, but I do it purposely,” he once remarked. “I do it with the intention of making my person the visible unity of the university.”
A Practical Policy
His educational policy was largely practical. Under Mr. Sproul, the university's strongect departments were physics, chemistry, engineering, history, agriculture and music, with a stress on tangible research and preparation for a career in industry or business. The faculty was high‐powered, but most classes were so large that student professor contact was limited.
The son of a Scottish father and a New England mother, Mr. Sproul was horn in San Francisco on May 22, 1891. (A brother, Allan, became president of the Federal Reserve Beard in New York.) Robert Sproul attended Berkeley, graduating in 1913. He was a “big man on campus”—class president, a star two‐miler, carnival manager and drum major of the hand. A college friend was Earl Warren, who, as Governor of California during part of Mr. Seroul's presidency, helped him through several legislative crises.
After a brief stint as an efficiency engineer for Oakland, Calif., Mr. Sproul went to work in the university business office and rose to become controller. Fart of his job was to act as the institution's legislative lobbyist. When he was not persuading legislators to he kind, he was barnstorming the state to convince farmers that The university was spending their tax dollars well.
But Mr. Sproul had more difficulty with dissenting students and with the newspapers of William Randolph Hearst, which were quick to suspect “Communist influence” on the campuses. In the thirties. Mr. Sproul, while upholding the right of individual students to dissent, looked with less favor on organized groups. He opposed, for example, attempts to organize a chapter of the Gold Star Mothers of Future Wars, and he openly disliked student political groups.
‘Very Little Sympathy’
He cracked down in 1940 on a student movement against conscription. “For those who prefer to fiddle while Rome burns or to accelerate the pace of destruction by building bonfires, I shall have very little sympathy,” he asserted.
“Indeed, I may find it necessary to ask some of them to defer their enjoyment of an education at the state's expense until the life and prosperity of the state have been made secure again by their more patriotic fellows.”
Despite Mr. Sproul's vigorous administration, the Hearst press from time to time raised the cry of “Communist penetration” of the university. On at least cne occasion Mr. Sproul felt obliged to tour the state to dispel the criticism.
The most serious controversy of his presidency involved a 1949 order by the Regents that faculty members sign a special non‐Communist oath. This step, part of a nationwide response, to the cold war with the Soviet Union, aroused many teachers, who considered the oath an intrusion into academic freedom.
In the year‐long, skirmishing, Mr. Sproul, while not agreeing with the hardliners among the Regents, was not unstinting in his support of the faculty, according to “The Year of the Oath,” an account of the affair by several California professors. Ultimately, 40 professors were discharged for refusing to sign the oath; but their jobs were restored in 1956, when the courts ruled the oath unconstitutional.
Several years later, in 1954, it was charged that the university maintained a “thought policeman” who checked on the opinions and associations of faculty members, in addition to investigating teachers engaged in classified Government re search. Mr. Sproul disavowed the actions of the security specialist, a former agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Despite these controversies, Mr. Sproul retired in 1958 with accolades. “Throughout his career,” a university biographer wrote, “President Sproul managed to hold the allegiance of the majority of the people who counted, within and without the university.”
In retirement Mr. Sproul and his wife, the former Ida Wittschen, moved from the president's 12‐room stone mansion overlooking the Berkeley campus to a smaller house in the hills above the school. He turned from education to conservation—an old interest—and was active in the Save the Redwoods League and the East Bay Regional Park District. He also served on the National Park Advisory Board.
He kept an office, as president emeritus, and during the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley in 1967 he contributed one of the few notes of humor in an otherwise grim confrontation.
There was a report that student demonstrators had broken into his Sproul Hall office and had scattered his papers. “Nonsense,” he told a reporter. “Nobody messed up my office. It always looks that way.”
Besides his wife and brother, Mr. Sproul leaves three children, Robert Jr., Marion Vernon L. Goldin, and John A. Sproul and 11 grandchildren.
A funeral service, scheduled today, will be private.