The Journal of San Diego History
Fall 1994, Volume 40, Number 4
Richard W. Crawford, Editor

Book Review

An Improbable Venture: A History of the University of California, San Diego.

By Nancy Scott Anderson. La Jolla: The UCSD Press, 1993. 317 pages. Illustrations, notes, and index. 

Reviewed by Dr. Jeffrey Charles, Instructor, California State University, San Marcos.

In her introduction Nancy Scott Anderson writes that she does not want this history, occasioned in part by the University’s thirtieth anniversary, to be considered “official” in the sense of an excessively celebrative public relations commemorative. Anderson attempts to avoid the flaws of such a traditional institutional history through a frank assessment of the flaws, as well as the accomplishments, of the University’s early leaders. Her warts-and-all portrait of University leadership, detailed in vigorous prose, must be considered one strength of this volume. Unfortunately for the general reader interested in San Diego, however, Anderson does not avoid all the pitfalls of an official institutional history. Despite some early attempts to provide a social and historical context, ultimately the book is too insular in its discussion of University affairs. And, like many traditional histories of educational institutions, the book focuses almost entirely on administrative leadership, with only brief discussions of non-administrative faculty and other staff, while most neglected of all are the students. Such emphases might reflect the institution itself, which local residents frequently accuse of insularity, and which has always been primarily a research, not student-oriented university. Still, as Anderson shows in her early chapters on Scripps and on the decisions affecting the founding of the University, local activities were as vitally important as national funding in institutional development. Anderson demonstrates that the university would have assumed a far different shape had it located elsewhere in the state, although here a comparative discussion with some of the other newer University of California branches such as Irvine and Riverside would have been enlightening. The book is particularly good at detailing the complicated negotiations and land deals that resulted in the University of California, San Diego being located in La Jolla. Some discussion of other California university communities would have placed this maneuvering in broader perspective.

Once the book describes the locating decision, San Diego virtually disappears except for occasional references to the city’s conservatism. Anderson sets to narrating the various triumphs and travails of the University’s top men. From Roger Revelle, who was responsible as much as any one person for the University’s founding, but who failed to receive the chancellorship he so coveted; to William McGill, who felt obliged to testify against his own students during the sixties campus turmoil; to the current chancellor Richard Atkinson, overcoming an early scandal over his personal life to provide effective leadership and even more effective fund-raising, Anderson provides thoughtful assessments of the school’s early leaders.

These men were central to the early history of UCSD, as was Clark Kerr, University of California President and another prominent player in Anderson’s narrative. The problem with Anderson’s extensive focus on these men and other administrative leaders, however, is that she interprets University development mainly from their perspective. Despite her conclusion that the “university had been lucky in its leaders,” none of the prominent administrators except Revelle and perhaps more recently Atkinson seem particularly noteworthy or effective. The short tenures of Chancellors York, McElroy, McGill, and Galbraith point instead to a mixed legacy, as Anderson herself establishes. A perspective less occupied with the chancellors would perhaps have spent longer analyzing the other reasons mentioned for the University’s success — early local support, extensive government funding, and a brilliant faculty spurred by above average students. More frequently than she describes their intellectual achievements, Anderson portrays the faculty as recalcitrant and self-interested, standing in the way of administrative progress. As for students, they first appear as a significant presence when they block the door of the chancellor’s office. There is a sense that students played an active role in campus formation in the book’s discussion of the changing emphasis of the University’s colleges, particularly in the founding of an ethnic studies-oriented “third college” in response to sixties protests, but even here Anderson turns immediately to the new college’s impact on the provosts.

Of course, an exhaustive history is often exhausting to read, especially in describing an institution as complex as a university. In undertaking even a semi-official history, Anderson shouldered an extremely difficult task, and her work on “the founders” will serve as a valuable reference for future historians. Still, it is disappointing that a book commemorating such a brief period as this one could not have provided a more comprehensive picture of the University and its relations with its surrounding community.