Ira Michael Heyman, former UC Berkeley chancellor, dies at 81

Ira Michael Heyman, chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, from 1980-1990 and a professor emeritus of law and of city and regional planning, has died at age 81. He died Saturday, Nov. 19, after a long battle with emphysema. Connected to UC Berkeley for 52 years, he was a champion of diversity and civil rights and recognized for his political courage.


Heyman has been widely regarded as a leader who stood up for his beliefs, no matter how controversial. As UC Berkeley’s sixth chancellor, he led efforts during his 10-year tenure – the longest chancellorship in campus history – to increase on campus the number of underrepresented minorities and low-income students through his staunch support for affirmative action.

He set two policies to achieve this goal. The first allowed admission to any UC-eligible student who applied, the other provided housing for these students if it was in short supply.

In a 1987 campus forum, Heyman said, “Berkeley cannot be a great university at the end of the 20th century … unless Berkeley can encompass in that greatness – fully and with truly equal opportunity – all of the peoples who make up our multicultural society.”

As a result, the proportion of non-white undergraduates grew from 27 percent to 51 percent during his tenure, making UC Berkeley the first campus in the University of California system to have no majority undergraduate population. Non-white graduate students also grew from 16 to 24 percent.

In 1996, passage of Proposition 209 prohibited state public institutions from considering race, gender or ethnicity, but Heyman is credited with setting a course for change at UC Berkeley that still is evident today.

“Mike was the sparkplug to diversify the campus,” said Roderic Park, who served under Heyman as vice chancellor, a position equivalent today to UC Berkeley’s executive vice chancellor and provost, from 1981 to 1990.  “His goal to accept all qualified underrepresented minorities was met with a lot of resistance. There is nothing harder to change than culture. But Heyman moved the culture at the university. He had a lot of political courage for what he did.”

Ira Michael Heyman More visions for the campus

Under Heyman’s leadership, the campus also embarked on the largest-ever reorganization of the biological sciences in North America. Working with Park, who also was a professor of botany, and Daniel Koshland Jr., then chair of biochemistry, Heyman merged 11 departments into three: molecular and cell biology, integrative biology, and plant and microbial biology.

As part of this revitalization, four building projects were launched, the most significant one being the renovation of the Valley Life Sciences Building, which took five years and $100 million to complete. The other buildings were the Life Sciences Addition, the Genetics & Plant Biology Building, and the Northwest Animal Facility.

As chancellor, Heyman also set out to modernize the campus’s development program, establishing the first major fundraising campaign for UC Berkeley. It raised $450 million. “Before then, many had believed that only private institutions did fundraising,” said Park. 

During the 1980s, private support increased from about $31 million to more than $100 million annually. The number of donors nearly doubled, and the number of endowed chairs grew from 36 to 118.

Notably, one-third of the funding for the renovation of the Valley Life Sciences Building came from private donations.

“Mike Heyman was a great and inspiring leader whose vision helped shape the future of the Berkeley campus,” said Chancellor Robert Birgeneau in a message sent out Sunday to the campus community. “Simply, he believed that Berkeley should be second to none, and open to all, a vision that is today continued through our motto of Access and Excellence.”

Before becoming chancellor, Heyman served as the vice chancellor for UC Berkeley from 1974 to 1980.

During the Free Speech Movement, professor Heyman honed his skills in campus affairs as chair of the Academic Senate’s Ad Hoc Committee on Student Conduct. That committee produced what became known as the Heyman Report, which criticized the university’s procedures during the fall 1964 Free Speech Movement demonstrations and recommended procedures for student discipline.

Last month at a University House ceremony, UC President Mark Yudof awarded Heyman the UC President’s Medal for his significant and extensive, lifelong contributions to the university and public service.

Early influences, early signs of leadership

Heyman was born May 30, 1930, in New York City, in the early years of the Great Depression. In an interview conducted by Harry Kreisler through the Institute of International Studies “Conversations with History” series, Heyman addressed the roots of his progressive values, pointing to the possible influence of his parents, Harold and Judith Heyman.

Conversations with History: Ira Michael Heyman

“I think, down deep, my father was really a liberal, although you wouldn’t know it by his political affiliation,” said Heyman in the interview. “Both my parents were very involved with the Progressive movement in New York City and were great supporters of [New York Mayor Fiorello Henry] LaGuardia. They had gotten themselves into local politics quite a bit. But my father was a person who believed in inclusion. While running an office [he] believed that the employees ought to have a stake in it. So he had a lot of the kinds of values that I think are at the core of liberalism.”

Heyman’s leadership skills emerged early. He was elected student body president of Horace Mann High School in the Bronx, earning top academic and athletic awards along the way.

He went on to earn his bachelor’s degree from Dartmouth College in 1951. Heyman completed his studies in three years, spending his fourth year as a student intern as a legislative assistant in Washingon, D.C., to U.S. Sen. Irving Ives (R-New York).

In 1951, Heyman joined the U.S. Marine Corps as a 1st lieutenant during the Korean War, and continued on after the war ended as a captain-in-reserve from 1953 until 1958. During those reserve years, he attended Yale Law School, serving as editor there of the Yale Law Journal before graduating with his J.D. degree in 1956.

After graduating, Heyman went on to highly prestigious clerkships in federal court, first for Chief Justice Charles E. Clark at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit from 1957 to 1958, and then for Chief Justice Earl Warren at the U.S. Supreme Court, where he served as chief law clerk from 1958 to 1959.

Following his clerkships, Heyman headed west, joining UC Berkeley’s School of Law in 1959 as acting associate professor. Two years later, after passing the California Bar Exam, Heyman was promoted to full professor. In 1966, Heyman also joined the Department of City and Regional Planning faculty.

“Mike was one of the best and most important leaders Berkeley has ever had,” said Christopher Edley Jr., dean of UC Berkeley’s School of Law. “He stayed a part of this community, which he loved so deeply and served so well, until the end of his life, and he’ll remain a part of it for as long as he’s remembered, and beyond.”

The law school in March 2010 launched the I. Michael Heyman Project to raise $3 million to establish the I. Michael Heyman Distinguished Professorship Chair and to name the school’s new west patio the I. Michael Heyman Terrace. 

After stepping down as chancellor in 1990, Heyman returned to teaching full time at UC Berkeley until he retired on July 1, 1993. Yet, even in retirement, he frequently returned to campus to teach.

Impact beyond UC

Heyman worked on several issues related to the protection of the environment and treasured spaces in his position from 1993-1994 as counselor to the secretary and deputy assistant secretary for policy at the U.S. Department of Interior. He established the methodology for land-use planning for ecosystems that has been used across America.

In 1994, Heyman was selected by the Smithsonian’s Board of Regents to serve as the Institution’s 10th Secretary, the first non-scientist to hold that position. He served in that role for five years, overseeing 6,000 employees and the functioning of 16 museums and galleries, the National Zoo and numerous research facilities.

During his term, the Smithsonian celebrated its 150th anniversary with a traveling exhibit that reached nearly 3 million people, strengthened its fundraising activities, established a Latino center, and began an affiliates program to share the national collections with museums around the country.

A biography on the Smithsonian’s website noted that Heyman was confronted with several challenges at the start of his term, including the Institution’s deteriorating facilities and the pressing need for more funding.

But perhaps the biggest controversy Heyman had to tackle surrounded the exhibit of the Enola Gay, the first aircraft to drop an atomic bomb during war. The exhibit at the National Air and Space Museum had been planned to mark the 50th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Heyman scaled down the exhibit in response to groups who believed the exhibit focused more on the casualties of the bombing rather than on the reasons for its use.

“Mike tackled that incident very forthrightly,” said James Hobbins, who was executive assistant to Heyman at the Smithsonian from 1980 to 2007. He pointed out that Heyman set in place a protocol for review of exhibits that helped avoid future controversies during his tenure.

“Mike was a tireless and inspiring leader of the Smithsonian complex,” said Hobbins. “He demonstrated from the outset that the Secretary could work effectively with members of Congress, donors, Regents and staff at all levels. Perhaps most important for me was that as an administrator, he remained a professor and maintained his great sense of humor.”

Heyman also served with the U.S. Civil Rights Commission and the Department of Health, Education and Welfare and on several boards and commissions, including the California Civil Rights Commission, to advise on race-related issues that later helped shape his chancellorship. 

Heyman received numerous awards and honors throughout his distinguished career, and published many journal articles, papers and legal documents in areas including civil rights, constitutional law, land planning and affirmative action. He held memberships on at least 10 different governing or advisory boards, including the Presidio Trust, Pacific Gas and Electric, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the Dartmouth College Board of Trustees and the National Association of State Universities and Land Grant Colleges.

He is survived by his wife, Elizabeth, of Berkeley, Calif.; his son, James Heyman, of St. Paul, Minn.; and three grandchildren. He was preceded in death by another son, Stephen Heyman, and by his first wife, Therese Thau Heyman.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made to the I. Michael Heyman Project at Berkeley Law or the Ira Michael Heyman Memorial Scholarship Fund, University Relations, 2080 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA 94720-4200. Those wishing to donate online may do so by going to the Give to Cal website and searching under “Heyman.”  

A memorial service will be held on campus on Monday, Feb. 27, at 4:30 p.m. at the International House, in the Chevron Auditorium.

The family is planning a private interment. 

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