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Chapter 13: President Sproul
Robert Gordon Sproul, described by Time magazine as "a Californian both by birth and inclination," became the first native son and alumnus of the University to serve as its President. He was to guide its fortunes longer than any of his predecessors (or successors to date)—through three cataclysmic decades that included the Depression, World War II, and the birth of the atomic bomb. And he was to see the University attain world renown for scientific achievement in a period when the body of scientific knowledge began to expand at a rate unprecedented in history.
A graduate of the Berkeley campus with a degree in civil engineering, Sproul was hired to fill a position in the Berkeley cashier's office vacated by a clerk who had run off with some University funds. Sproul became Vice President and Controller at the age of thirty-four. In addition, he served as Secretary of the Regents. As an undergraduate at the University, he had been active in student affairs and athletics; as President, he demonstrated an intuitive grasp of the problems of the undergraduate.
Few could match his phenomenal energy or his charisma as a speaker. None exceeded him in skill at winning over legislative critics and converting them into staunch allies of the University.
When President Sproul assumed office in 1930, UC had become the first major university in the country to transform itself into a multicampus institution. The problem of maintaining unity of purpose and spirit among the diverse segments had assumed major proportions. For many years, President Sproul spent about half of his time at Berkeley, a third at Los Angeles, and the rest among the other campuses. In 1936, he and his family transferred their main residence to Los Angeles for a year. At the annual football contest between Berkeley and UCLA, President Sproul would sit on the Cal side until half-time, and then stride across the field, escorted by the student band, to the Bruin side for the remainder of the game.
From the beginning, President Sproul hammered away at a single theme. The University of California must be able to compete for the top faculty members—not merely with other universities in California but with the leading institutions in the country. His powers of persuasion in the legislature were such that UC was able to match, in salaries and in the facilities for teaching and research, the best that eastern universities could offer. Over the years, he attracted a brilliant array of talent in virtually every branch of learning.
A spectacular example is Sproul's decision to persuade Ernest O. Lawrence to resist the blandishments of a rival university that had promised him funds for the expensive equipment he needed to further his pathbreaking research in high-energy physics. Sproul agreed to match the offer, and Lawrence stayed at Berkeley. In 1929 Lawrence invented the cyclotron, the first of a succession of atom smashers, in recognition of which he was awarded the Nobel Prize ten years later. The war in Europe kept him from attending the Nobel ceremonies, but he was honored with a celebration in Berkeley and a party in San Francisco that included a cake shaped like his cyclotron.
The brilliant and charismatic Lawrence was a transformational figure both in the University and in the larger world of science. His fame brought national renown to the University (his Nobel Prize was UC's first) as the admiring and the curious flocked to meet "the man who smashes atoms." At a time when most researchers pursued their scientific interests in isolation, he had the bold idea of organizing scientists into teams that crossed disciplinary boundaries, creating an enormous gain in investigative power. The success of Lawrence's interdisciplinary approach ultimately shaped the way science was conducted worldwide.
Today the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory is known not only for its work in high-energy physics but for advances in many scientific disciplines. No other laboratory of its scale is as closely integrated with a university; the intellectual stimulation faculty and students bring contributes to solving problems of national and international significance.
The University's contribution to national defense began in the late 1930s. With the advent of World War II, every campus became a center of research and training. Thousands of members of the academic community were granted leave to engage in war work, to join the armed forces, or to devote full time to scientific research. Under the University War Training Program, the campuses and University Extension undertook the technical training of manpower for California war industries. Vitally needed research went into the improvement of nutrition for the civilian and military population, into medicine and public health, and into the social and physical sciences. Out of this effort came major breakthroughs, notably in the health and physical sciences.
The University's most far-reaching contribution to the war effort was its involvement in the Manhattan Project. The UC-operated Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory produced the first atomic bombs, whose use hastened the end of the war in the Pacific but also came as a shocking revelation of humanity's power to destroy. Sproul's vigorous optimism remained unshaken. "After all," he said, "the greatest human power in the world today is not the atomic bomb. The human mind that conceived the bomb is a greater power by far, and the university which is the citadel of that mind is still a mighty fortress on which we may rely for the perpetuity of a society of free men."9
In 1949 the Soviet Union detonated an atomic bomb, a milestone event that led to the founding of a second nuclear weapons laboratory three years later in Livermore to broaden U.S. expertise and keep American science abreast of future discoveries. Both laboratories played critical roles in defense and nuclear deterrence during the ensuing decades. Both are now among the world's premier science centers. Since the end of the Cold War in the 1980s, they have expanded their focus to include nondefense research important to the nation, including work on environmental issues, exploration of the human genome, and laser fusion energy.
9. Robert Gordon Sproul, remarks during annual alumni tour, 1950.
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Last updated 09/29/05.