Earning My Degree: Memoirs of an American University President

Earning My Degree: Memoirs of an American University President

Earning My Degree: Memoirs of an American University President

Earning My Degree: Memoirs of an American University President


David Pierpont Gardner was president of one of the world's most distinguished centers of higher learning--the nine-campus University of California--from 1983 to 1992. In this remarkably candid and lively memoir he provides an insider's account of what it was like for a very private, reflective man to live an extremely public life as leader of one of the most complex and controversial institutions in the country. Earning My Degree is a portrait of uncommon leadership and courage and a chronicle of how these traits shaped a treasured, and sometimes mystifying, American institution.

Before his tenure as president, Gardner spent seven years at the University of California, Santa Barbara, during a tumultuous era of culture wars, ethnic division, and anti-Vietnam War protests, leaving his post as vice chancellor to serve as vice president of the University of California from 1971 to 1973. In 1973 he was named president of the University of Utah, and while there he chaired the National Commission on Excellence in High Education, which authored A Nation at Risk, regarded today as the twentieth century's most telling report on the condition of American public schools. As president of the University of California, he contended with intense controversies over affirmative action, animal rights, AIDS research, weapons labs, divestment in South Africa, and much more. This memoir recounts his experiences with these and other issues and describes his dealings with the diverse cast of characters who influence the university: U.S. presidents, governors, legislators, regents, chancellors, faculty, staff, students, alumni, and donors. The epilogue of Earning My Degree is a thoughtful and engaging account of the ten years since Gardner's retirement that includes his personal views about what has truly mattered in his life.


As I read Gardner’s memoirs—which are also a deep, heartfelt, and loving appreciation of the University of California, which he presided over as president for almost a decade—I was reminded of what a complex, exhausting, exasperating, and yet exhilarating life one leads when one chooses to spend a good part of one’s career in the field of higher education.

While at Brown University, I came to appreciate the former Brown president (1937–55) Henry Wriston’s description of the president’s job: the president, he said, is “expected to be an educator, to have been at some time a scholar, to have judgment about finance, to know something about construction, maintenance, and labor policy, to speak virtually continuously in words that charm and never offend, to take bold positions with which no one will disagree, to consult everyone, and to follow all proffered advice, and do everything through committees, but with great speed and without error” (Wriston, The Structure of Brown University, 1946).

Recently I once again came across Clark Kerr’s somewhat expanded but equally evocative description of the job in his Godkin lectures, which he delivered in 1963 at Harvard University. He said, “The American university president is expected to be a friend of the students, a colleague of the faculty, a good fellow with the alumni, a sound administrator with the trustees, a good speaker with the public, an astute bargainer with the foundations and the federal agencies, a politician with the state legislature, a friend of industry, labor and agriculture, a persuasive diplomat with donors, a champion of edu-

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.