People, Profiles, Milestones

Paul Licht, Botanical Garden director, reflects on 52 years of service

By Christopher Merchant


After 52 years at UC Berkeley, Paul Licht is retiring as director of the UC Botanical Garden — but it remains to be seen whether he is gone for good.

It’s not the first time he’s retired from an appointment at Berkeley. In 2002, Licht ended his term as chair of deans in the College of Letters and Science, an oversight role similar in some capacities to what the campus provost now does. His plan was to volunteer at the Botanical Garden. Instead, something else was in store for him.

Paul Licht, former director of the Botanical Garden and biology dean

Paul Licht (UC Berkeley photo)

“The day after my retirement, I was asked to come back and be director of the Botanical Garden,” Licht says. “So I was technically retired, but I’ve never been retired. I’ve never had a break in service in 52 years.”

More than 13,000 different kinds of plants are cared for at the garden. The specimens hail from around the world, cultivated by region in naturalistic landscapes over its 34 acres. Licht began studying biology because of his interest in exotic animals like rare frogs, sea turtles, alligators, snakes and African hyenas, but he fell in love with the variety of flora in the garden and even began cultivating his own small patch of backyard plants as a way to unwind after work.

“If the garden was at any other university, it would be the highlight of the campus,” Licht says of the 126-year-old preserve. “It’s like that with so many of the sites at Berkeley.”

Prior to his 12-year stint as chair of deans ending in 2002, Licht served in a handful of administrative appointments overseeing major capital projects. As dean of the Division of Biology in Letters and Science he oversaw the reorganization of the campus’s life sciences program to take a more holistic approach to biology at a time when advancements in microbiology were dominating the field.

Licht also oversaw the renovation of Barker Hall and the Valley Life Sciences Building, and spearheaded fundraising for Stanley Hall, the Berkeley headquarters for the California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences.

Licht’s turn at the Botanical Garden was no different: In 2005, two years after he began his appointment as director, a modern entrance and plaza were completed to replace the outdated infrastructure.

The Chinese herb garden at the Botanical Garden

The Chinese herb garden at the Botanical Garden (UC Berkeley photo)

“I’m not famous for my patience,” Licht said then about his desire to help the garden shine. Last year, the Redwood Amphitheater was renovated with a new stage, seats and paths, and a major project was undertaken to replace the entire garden’s irrigation system.

Being in the thick of things at Berkeley is nothing new for Licht, he says. When he accepted his initial appointment as an assistant professor of zoology, he was in his 20s.

“This was in the fall of ’64, a month before the Free Speech Movement,” Licht says. “The motto of the time was ‘Never trust anyone over 30.’ I think because of my relatively young age I ended up on a lot of committees working with students.”

Over the past half-century, Licht has taught thousands of undergraduates and collaborated with graduate students to publish more than 300 papers.

“They are wonderful, world-class students,” Licht says. “I can’t imagine a better place to spend my whole adult and working life.”

But after all these years, will Licht’s second retirement stick?

“Maybe I’ll get to go back to the Botanical Garden as a volunteer now,” Licht says. “It’s funny how it all worked out. You never know, do you?”