Karl S. Pister, professor emeritus of engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, and former chancellor of UC Santa Cruz who has devoted more than 70 years to university, higher education, and expanding educational opportunities for students in kindergarten through graduate school. graduate, died Saturday, May 14, at his home in Walnut Creek. He was 96 years old.
Pister has had a remarkable career in higher education, starting as professor of structural engineering and dean of engineering at UC Berkeley and rising to chancellor of UCSC and vice president of the University of California. Well into his 80s, he continued the work that guided the direction of education and science, particularly in California.
“Karl was the quintessential academic leader. In every role he has taken on, he has significantly strengthened the University of California,” said UC President Michael V. Drake, MD. “His work has had a lasting impact on California and across the country, as well as on many generations of UC students and alumni. He was a wonderful and wise teacher, mentor, supporter, and kind friend to me and many others fortunate enough to have known him throughout his long and distinguished career. He will be missed.”
Pister was an advocate of broad and fair access to UC, advocating staunchly that all eligible students have the chance of a UC education. After the passage in 1996 of California’s Proposition 209—which prohibited state institutions from considering race, sex, or ethnicity in admissions and hiring—his voice was strong in ensuring that the university would maintain vigorous outreach programs for California’s underrepresented students. .
He was also known as a catalyst for collaboration, enhancing creativity and, at the time, new partnerships between academic disciplines, educational institutions, government, industry, and communities.
In the late 1990s, Pister became UC’s first vice president of educational outreach, leading its efforts to improve education for underrepresented students in California. Under his direction, the UC system has developed perhaps the most comprehensive network of school-university collaborations in the country, working with many underperforming schools to improve outcomes. Due much to his advocacy, the state budget for this work grew, and UC also expanded its role in educating K-12 teachers and addressing the shortage of school principals.
A son of Stockton School teachers
Karl Stark Pister was born in Stockton, California on June 27, 1925 to two high school teachers. He and his younger brother Phil owned 320 acres and a house that their family had owned since the mid-19th century. He was the valedictorian of the high school class, but entering Berkeley in 1942 as a civil engineering student gave him a significant turn.
“I was not at an educational disadvantage. It was a culture shock,” he said, according to an interview published in California magazine in 2006, when it was named UC Berkeley Alumnus of the Year. He said the experience laid the foundation for his work with students throughout his life and led to his fierce advocacy to help first-generation and underrepresented students on their path to a college degree.
Pister earned his bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from Berkeley in 1945, when he enlisted as an apprentice sailor in the Navy. A week after graduation, he mobilized to complete his training in the Navy and served in Okinawa after World War II. He returned in 1946 for a master’s degree at Berkeley, where he met Rita Olsen – a fellow student who was working on a teaching certificate – at a dance at the Hearst Gymnasium. They were married in 1950 in Oakland and moved to Illinois for Pister’s doctoral studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
After Pister obtained his Ph.D. in theoretical and applied mechanics in 1952, the couple returned to California. They settled in Lafayette, where they raised their six children: two sons and four daughters.
That same year, he joined the faculty of civil engineering at Berkeley, becoming part of an exceptional group of professors who built Berkeley’s enduring reputation as the world’s leading university in civil engineering. He became an international authority on structural mechanics and seismic engineering, one of the founders of the field of computational mechanics, and a pioneer in the use of computers to analyze the design of buildings, bridges, and other structures.
Along with his teaching and research, he emerged as a campus leader, including as chairman of the nine-campus Academic Council and system-wide Academic Senate in the late 1970s.
“The hallmark of Karl Pister’s leadership, at Berkeley and beyond, has always been integrity,” said Berkeley Chancellor Carol T. Christ. “He knew how to bring people together and was committed to looking at all sides of an issue, single-minded in his commitment to doing the right thing.”
Pister’s institutional leadership led to his selection as dean of the Berkeley College of Engineering in 1980. He has become a leading national voice on engineering education issues and science and technology policymaking at the federal and state levels. As dean, he led Berkeley’s top engineering programs during a period of tremendous evolution, meeting the challenges posed by shrinking state budgets for the university.
He promoted interdisciplinary collaboration in critical areas such as manufacturing, environmental engineering, energy and computing; expanded facilities for microelectronics and computer-aided design; and led the planning and fundraising for Soda Hall, a new building for Berkeley’s lauded computer science program.
He also intensified outreach to bring more women and underrepresented minority students into engineering, strengthened ties with industry and alumni, and nurtured a fundraising program that brought $100,000 in philanthropic donations to the College of Engineering at the beginning of his term and $30 million at the end of it a decade later, in 1990.
Sixth Chancellor of Santa Cruz
In 1991, UC President David Gardner enlisted the help of his legendary predecessor, Clark Kerr, to recruit Pister as UCSC’s sixth chancellor.
“When Karl became chancellor in 1991, it was a turbulent time for our campus,” said current UC Santa Cruz chancellor Cynthia Larive. “State budget cuts were looming, there were protests over land use, strained relations with the city, and campus consensus seemed out of reach. Karl’s leadership brought us, with his unique commitment to transparency, working together and the kind of problem solving that defines an exceptional engineer. He made a difference on our campus that endures.”
Pister signed in August 1991 for a two-year term as interim chancellor. Within seven months, the faculty successfully pressured UC leaders to erase “interim” from Pister’s title. He went on to serve a full five-year term as chancellor.
As chancellor, Pister embraced UCSC’s experimental tradition and its strong undergraduate teaching program, while working to strengthen its foundations, research enterprise, and growth. He guided the campus through dramatic cuts in state funding for UC, oversaw a 30% increase in research funding, set clearly defined parameters for the development and protection of campus land, and significantly improved city-wear relationships and the campus morale.
He joined other UC Deans in 1995 in issuing a unanimous public statement imploring UC Regents to reverse their stance against affirmative action in admissions, and led UCSC in deepening outreach efforts to underrepresented students. He founded the campus Leadership Opportunity Awards, now named in his honor, which help exceptional but low-income students from 13 community colleges graduate from UCSC.
Pister’s work on the state’s central coast was not limited to the Santa Cruz campus. He contributed to the conversion of Fort Ord at California State University, Monterey Bay; co-founded a consortium of partnerships between UCSC and local K-12 schools; and worked with the Monterey Bay Aquarium to develop research at the Monterey Bay Marine Sanctuary.
Educational Outreach Champion
After his chancellery, Pister continued to focus on equal access to education in the UC President’s Office from 1996 to 2000. He created and led the new UC Educational Extension Office, which devoted itself to these efforts, earning praise for its success. These outreach efforts continue today under UC’s Academic Affairs division.
In the years that followed, he held a number of positions designed to strengthen education, including as chairman of the California Council on Science and Technology, director of the Berkeley Center for Higher Education Studies, founding chairman of the National Education Research Council. in Engineering, and a board member of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, the Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning, and the Monterey Institute of International Studies. He was also a founding trustee and corporate treasurer of the American University of Armenia.
A lifelong Catholic, Pister was also active in church and ecumenical activities, including serving as a board member of the Graduate Theological Union (GTU), a multi-denominational consortium of theological seminaries and centers in the City of Berkeley. He was also regent of the Franciscan School of Theology at the GTU, which awarded him an honorary doctorate of human letters.
Pister’s list of honors is vast. He was a member of the National Academy of Engineering, the highest professional honor for a US engineer, and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. For outstanding contributions to UC and higher education, he received the UC Presidential Medal and, at Berkeley, received the Clark Kerr Award, the Berkeley Medal, and the Berkeley Citation. The American Society for Engineering Education gave him its highest awards for contributions to engineering education and the advancement of underrepresented minority students in engineering. He was twice selected as a Fulbright Scholar and won a number of honors from national engineering societies.
Pister’s wife of 60 years, Rita, passed away in 2011. He is survived by six children – Karl Francis Pister (Roger Renn) of Concord; Tracy Pearse Mulder of Stockton; Anita Pister-Khus of Concord; Jacinta Pister (Richard Whitmore) of Lafayette; Claire Brouwer (Kurt) of Waikoloa Village, Hawaii; and Kristofer Pister (Jennifer) from Orinda — 10 grandchildren, Sarena, Brendan (Lexy), Stark, Ann, Nathaniel, Kaiser (Mary Kate), Elijah, Marie, Veronika and Luke, her great-grandson, Maverick, her brother, Phil Pister from Bishop, California, and her dear friend and partner, Germaine LaBerge of Berkeley.
The family is planning a private funeral. There will be a public funeral service on a date to be announced later.
In lieu of flowers, gifts in her memory can be made for Karl S. and Rita Olsen Pister Graduate Fellowship Fund at Berkeley (UC Berkeley Foundation, 1995 University Ave., Suite 400, Berkeley, CA 94704-1070) or Rita Olsen Pister Scholarship Fund at UCSC (giving.ucsc.edu or UC Santa Cruz Foundation, 1156 High St., Santa Cruz, CA 95064).