Richard C. Atkinson
17th President of the
University of California
In office
Preceded byJack W. Peltason
Succeeded byRobert C. Dynes
Fifth Chancellor of the
University of California San Diego
In office
Preceded byWilliam D. McElroy
Succeeded byRobert C. Dynes
5th Director of the National Science Foundation
In office
PresidentJimmy Carter
Preceded byGuyford Stever
Succeeded byJohn Brooks Slaughter
Personal details
Richard Chatham Atkinson

(1929-03-19) March 19, 1929 (age 94)
Oak Park, Illinois, U.S.
SpouseRita Atkinson
Alma materUniversity of Chicago
Indiana University
ProfessionPsychologist and cognitive scientist, professor, administrator
InstitutionsStanford University
UC San Diego
University of California
AwardsE. L. Thorndike Award (1980)
Revelle Medal (1995)[1]
APA Award for Lifetime Contributions to Psychology (2002)
Clark Kerr Award (2018)
Academic background
ThesisAn analysis of rote serial position effects in terms of a statistical model (1955)
Doctoral advisorCletus J. Burke
Academic work
InstitutionsStanford University
UC San Diego
University of California
Doctoral studentsRichard Shiffrin

Richard Chatham Atkinson[2] (born March 19, 1929) is an American professor of psychology and cognitive science and an academic administrator.[3] He is president emeritus of the University of California system, former chancellor of the University of California, San Diego, and former director of the National Science Foundation.[4][5]



Atkinson began his academic career during the 1960s as a professor of psychology at Stanford University, where he worked with Patrick Suppes on experiments to use computers for teaching math and reading to young children in Palo Alto elementary schools.[6] In 1975, Atkinson's career transitioned from research to administration when he was appointed as Director of the National Science Foundation. He later served as Chancellor of the University of California San Diego, and President of the University of California system.[7]

Atkinson is recognized for his scientific, academic, and administrative accomplishments. He has been elected to the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Medicine, the National Academy of Education (NAEd), the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Society. He is past president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, former chair of the Association of American Universities and the recipient of many honorary degrees. Named in his honor are a mountain in Antarctica, and Atkinson Hall, the home of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology at UC San Diego.[7]


After earning his bachelor's degree at the University of Chicago and his Ph.D. in experimental psychology and mathematics at Indiana University Bloomington,[8] Atkinson joined the faculty at Stanford University in 1956. Except for a three-year interval at UCLA, he served as professor of psychology at Stanford from 1956 to 1975. His research on mathematical models of human memory and cognition led to additional appointments in the School of Engineering, the School of Education, the Applied Mathematics and Statistics Laboratories, and the Institute for Mathematical Studies in the Social Sciences.[7]

National Science Foundation

Atkinson was nominated by U.S. President Jimmy Carter to be director of the National Science Foundation (1975–1980).[9] He made history by negotiating the first memorandum of understanding between the United States and the People's Republic of China, which opened the door for major scientific and academic exchanges between the two nations.[7]

Recognizing that research grant clustering among America's top universities negatively impacted the NSF's ability to gain broad-based support in Congress, Atkinson initiated a program called the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (known today as the "Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research"). The program aimed to broaden the geographical distribution of research grants by providing universities in states that received few research grants with advice to help them develop more competitive grant applications.[7]

UC System

When Atkinson left NSF in 1980, he became chancellor of the University of California, San Diego (UCSD). During his 15-year tenure as chancellor, he led the university through its biggest growth period and UCSD rose to "top five" status in acquiring federal research funding.[7] Atkinson encouraged technology transfer and active involvement with industry; especially with small, high-technology companies, such as Bien Logic, that were forming around San Diego in the 1980s and 1990s. In 1985, the UC San Diego Extension began running the self-sustaining UCSD CONNECT program. It was successful in helping aspiring entrepreneurs in high-technology fields find information, funding, and practical support for crucial projects such as business plan development, marketing, and attracting capital. It was an advocate on public policy issues that affected business. UC San Diego's faculty, research, and commitment to industry-university partnerships were major factors in transforming the San Diego region into a world leader in technology-based industries. Atkinson's role in this transformation was noted in a recent study of research universities and their impact on the genesis of high-technology centers.[10]

In 1995, Atkinson became the University of California system's 17th president, a position he held until 2003. During this period, Atkinson initiated national reforms in college admissions testing and spearheaded new approaches to admissions and outreach in the post-affirmative action era.[7]

Perry lawsuit

Atkinson's early years at UCSD were rocked by a scandal when a former Harvard instructor, Lee H. Perry, represented by attorney Marvin Mitchelson, sued him in San Diego Superior Court.[11] Perry claimed that she had an intimate relationship with Atkinson for about a year, which resulted in a pregnancy. Although Perry wanted the baby, she stated that Atkinson persuaded her to get an abortion, promising that he would impregnate her again at a more convenient time in the next year. After that promise had not been fulfilled, Perry decided to bring suit for intentional infliction of emotional distress, fraud, and deceit.

Atkinson denied everything. Before trial, the Superior Court granted Atkinson's motion for summary judgment on the fraud and deceit claim as initially filed, and his demurrer to the claim as amended. In 1986, the case proceeded to trial on the emotional distress claim. After three days, Atkinson settled for $250,000[12] without admitting liability, but Perry reserved the right to appeal on the fraud and deceit claim. On September 25, 1987, the Court of Appeal affirmed the dismissal of that claim. The Supreme Court of California denied Perry's petition for review on January 7, 1988, which effectively ended the case.[13]

Personal life and legacy

In 2005, the unnamed Sixth College at UCSD moved to name the college in his honor. Around April 27, 2005, UCSD students were notified that Atkinson had withdrawn his name from further consideration as the future namesake of Sixth College. The decision was an abrupt surprise as Atkinson only a week earlier had told The San Diego Union-Tribune he would be "honored if the name were approved".[14]

Atkinson met his future wife Rita, a psychologist, while attending Indiana University. They were married until her death on Christmas Day, 2020.[15]

Selected bibliography

Chapters in books

Journal articles


  1. ^ "The Revelle Medal".
  2. ^ "Book of Members, 1780-2010: Chapter A" (PDF). American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 27 April 2011.
  3. ^ Welcome
  4. ^ Biography
  5. ^ Biography
  6. ^ Pelfrey, Patricia A. (2012). Entrepreneurial President: Richard Atkinson and the University of California, 1995–2003. Berkeley: University of California Press. p. 21. ISBN 9780520952218. Retrieved 14 October 2020.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g "Biography: Dr. Richard C. Atkinson". National Science Foundation. Retrieved 25 December 2023.
  8. ^ Atkinson, Richard Chatham (1955). An analysis of rote serial position effects in terms of a statistical model (Ph.D.). Indiana University. OCLC 32147313 – via ProQuest.
  9. ^ "National Science Foundation Nomination of Richard C. Atkinson To Be Director" (Press release). The Whitehouse. April 21, 1977. Retrieved 2009-02-03.
  10. ^ Raymond Smilor, Niall O'Donnell, Gregory Stein and Robert S. Welborn, III, "The Research University and the Development of High-Technology Centers in the United States," Economic Development Quarterly, Vol. 21, No.3, August 2007, pp. 203–222
  11. ^ "Whitewashed history".
  12. ^ Scott, Janny (1986-02-04). "Atkinson, Former Lover Settle Suit : UCSD Chancellor Admits No Guilt; to Pay up to $275,000". Los Angeles Times.
  13. ^ "Perry v Atkinson". Retrieved 25 February 2015.
  14. ^ Eleanor Yang, "Naming of UCSD school sparks dispute; Sixth College should honor a noted Latino, some say", The San Diego Union-Tribune, April 18, 2005.
  15. ^ "La Jolla scholar-philanthropist Rita Atkinson dies at 91".

Further reading

Government offices Preceded byGuyford Stever Director of the National Science Foundation May 1977–June 1980 Succeeded byJohn B. Slaughter Academic offices Preceded byWilliam D. McElroy Chancellor of the University of California San Diego 1980–1995 Succeeded byRobert C. Dynes Preceded byJack W. Peltason President of the University of California 1995–2003 Succeeded byRobert C. Dynes