Library Board member on the importance of student debate, teamwork at Moffitt Library’s Center for Connected Learning

Students in the Center for Connected Learning
The Center for Connected Learning at Moffitt Library will be a space where students can study together, work as a team, and challenge one another, Library Board member Alan Mendelson says. (Photo by J. Pierre Carrillo for the UC Berkeley Library)

For Alan Mendelson ’69, if there’s one way through the darkness, it’s together.

When he was at Berkeley, the darkness was the Vietnam War, riots, and tear gas. A few years later, while at Harvard Law School, it was Richard Nixon and Watergate, a trail of deceit and corruption that soured him on politics.

“It was an incredibly dark period,” Mendelson says. “But I think today is darker.”

Throughout those tumultuous days at Berkeley, Mendelson remembers one thing in particular: a space where folks could question themselves and each other, expanding and contracting their beliefs in rounds of research and debate. Today, as “alternative facts” proliferate and polarization snuffs out civil debate, that process will be more important than ever, Mendelson says.

Alan Mendelson ’69
Alan Mendelson ’69

“I felt constantly challenged,” he says of his undergraduate days. “That challenge was good, in a sense, because I had to keep examining myself — who I was, what I believed in, and why I believed in what I did.”

For Mendelson, chair of the Library Board’s campaign committee, that’s where the Center for Connected Learning will come in, as a multidimensional hub at Moffitt Library for students to “study together, question each other, and work as a team.”

“I hope that Berkeley can encourage teamwork like that,” he says, “where students can debate each other politely, constructively, and thoughtfully, and not resort to telling (their peers) that their views suggest they have their head in the sand.”

It is that mindset that has guided Mendelson through his 46-year career representing emerging companies, primarily in the biotechnology and life sciences industry. Through a stroke of luck as a young partner in a law firm in 1980, Mendelson incorporated the fledgling company Amgen (and would later work on every major deal the company undertook in its first 10 years). Today, Amgen is one of the biggest biopharmaceutical companies in the world.

(As the story goes, Mendelson was the only young partner who did not go out to lunch the day a senior partner at the firm was looking for someone to incorporate a new biotech startup. It was also a miracle of time and space: The early ’80s marked the dawn of the genetic engineering revolution, with the Bay Area as its epicenter. Cetus, the very first biotechnology company, was formed by UC Berkeley professor and Nobel laureate Don Glaser and others.)

A San Francisco native, Mendelson is still hard at work helping young startups in the life sciences area. He’s driven, he says, by the opportunity to help cutting-edge companies find medicines to improve the human condition.

“There aren’t too many lawyers who want to keep practicing law at 71 years old,” he says. “But I still get turned on by getting to help a new company whose mission is to try to cure cancer or Alzheimer’s disease.

“It gives a reason for what I do.”

Beyond his work for the Library Board, Mendelson is also on the Board of Trustees of the UC Berkeley Foundation and the Board of Advisors for the College of Chemistry.

For Mendelson, that work has brought him even closer to the campus that both grounded him and propelled him to law school and beyond. His involvement at Berkeley has added a dimension to life that he “truly treasures,” he says — mostly because of the friendships he has made across campus.

“Like anything in life, if you put in effort and time and so forth, you wind up getting more out of the experience than you actually give.”