People, Milestones

Remembering David P. Gardner, historic advocate for California higher education

A leader of remarkable vision, the former UC president left an imprint on American education. He died this month at the age of 90.

By Edward Lempinen

An informal portrait with tessellation of former UC President David Pierpont Gardner sitting outside, with tall dry grass and a snowy field in the background

David Pierpont Gardner is a storied leader in University of California history. He served as president from 1983 to 1992 and is credited with laying a foundation for the modern growth and strength that have made the 10-campus system one of the most respected educational institutions in the world.

Courtesy of the family of David P. Gardner

The year was 1983, and University of California was mired in an era of financial stress and institutional malaise. State funding had been ebbing year by year since the tumult of the late ’60s. Buildings throughout the nine-campus system were in disrepair. Faculty salaries were low, as was morale at every level.

David Pierpont Gardner had just taken office as president of UC system, and he opened budget discussions with newly elected Republican Gov. George Deukmejian — private discussions at first, then negotiations. He emerged with a historic success: a one-year budget increase of roughly 30%, plus an infusion of state investment for UC facilities.

Gardner died Jan. 2 at age 90, and at a memorial service Friday at UC Berkeley, Chancellor Carol T. Christ described his unlikely partnership with Deukmejian as emblematic of his legacy.

"That negotiation shows so much about his character," Christ told the audience. "His analytic intelligence, his advocacy, at once precise and forceful, his boldness of conception and action, his emotional and political intelligence. In looking at his achievements across the course of his presidency, it is striking how much the University of California owes its current excellence to initiatives he led in those years."

UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol T. Christ with a guest at the memorial service of former UC President David Pierpont Gardner
At a memorial for David P. Gardner, UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol T. Christ (left) greeted Patrick Dunne, Gardner’s son-in-law. Gardner served as UC president from 1983-1992 and, Christ told the audience, "it is striking how much the University of California owes its current excellence to initiatives he led in those years."
Brandon Sánchez Mejia/UC Berkeley

Gardner was president from 1983 to 1992 and had a close connection to the Berkeley campus dating to his graduate school days. His leadership and his own writings confirm an administrator of remarkable vision and political skill, but also a philosopher-statesman, a small-d democrat.

Even as he moved at the highest levels of political power, Gardner was closely aware of the needs of students and prospective students, their families and their communities, said political scientist Lisa García Bedolla, Berkeley’s vice provost for graduate studies and dean of the Graduate Division.

"He articulated and advocated an essential value: In his view, education prepares people to participate fully in community life," said García Bedolla, interim director of the Center for Studies in Higher Education (CSHE). "That means that education is essential for healthy communities. It’s essential for democracy. His vision and his generous spirit will be deeply missed at CSHE, but I’m confident that his legacy will live on long into the future."

Gardner was born in Berkeley in 1933 and educated in the city’s public schools. He earned a bachelor’s degree in political science, history and geography from Brigham Young University in Utah, then served two years in the U.S. Army, stationed in Japan and Korea. He returned home and enrolled at Berkeley, earning a master’s degree in political science and, in 1966, a Ph.D. in higher education.

Even while pursuing advanced studies, he was building the foundation of his career. He worked with the California Farm Bureau Federation, the California Alumni Association and then as the first director of the California Alumni Foundation. In 1964, he moved to UC Santa Barbara, serving six years as a faculty member and as vice chancellor for external relations.

From 1973 to 1983, Gardner was president of the University of Utah and a professor of higher education there. In 1981, during the administration of President Ronald Reagan, U.S. Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell appointed Gardner to chair the National Commission on Excellence in Education. Two years later, the commission’s report, "A Nation at Risk," inspired a sustained campaign to upgrade U.S. education, with bipartisan support at the highest levels of government.

Gardner arrived at the UC president’s office with that national profile and credibility — and was immediately confronted with a distressed, demoralized university system.

In her talk at Gardner’s memorial, Christ described how the new president’s staff advised him to ask Deukmejian for a budget increase of 3 to 7%. Instead, he decided on a gambit that seemed impossibly bold: He would ask the governor to make up for 16 years of state budget losses in a single year.

Later, even Gardner expressed surprise that his move succeeded.

During his presidency, the UC invested $3.7 billion in a historic campaign of new and improved buildings, labs and other facilities. New resources were focused on undergraduate education, and new opportunities opened for women and students of color. The UC invested in humanities research and in science; it partnered in building the world’s largest optical telescope and the associated Keck Observatories. International programs were expanded. The university began planning for a 10th campus, later established in the Central Valley city of Merced.

Characteristically, Gardner often attributed this success to support from the voters and taxpayers he served.

"I really believe that democracy works," he said in a 1998 interview. "I mean, on balance, over time, I have a lot of respect for the average citizen. … Therefore, it seemed to me one of the most important things I could do in the responsibilities I've had is not to act in ways that suppose people don't really understand, and that we're going to have to tell them (what to think).

"What I've got to do is help bring them along, help inform them, recognize they won't always get it — but in the end, they really will."

Photos, books and a bouquet adorned a table at the memorial event for former UC President David P. Gardner
At the memorial service for former UC President David Pierpont Gardner, photos of Gardner and books that he had written adorned a table. Gardner died on Jan. 2, 2024, at the age of 90.
Brandon Sánchez Mejia/UC Berkeley

After leaving the UC presidency, Gardner served in a variety of formal and informal positions, including as president of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and as a board member and chairman of the J. Paul Getty Trust.

He also maintained a longtime affiliation with Berkeley’s Center for Studies in Higher Education. The CSHE’s David P. Gardner Seminar in Higher Education is open to select UC doctoral students. Most recently, he was a member of the CSHE Advisory Board.

Marci Gardner Dunne, Gardner’s youngest daughter, said her father worked behind the scenes, too, providing counsel to UC leaders who took office after he had left.

Gardner "believed passionately in the great promise of public higher education," she said, "and the full potential of the University of California system to be an instrument for good in the lives of all Californians and future generations of students everywhere."