A University President's Shot of Reality

Times Staff Writer

Richard Berendzen is an astronomer who came down to earth.

Berendzen, a Harvard-trained scientist who once served as a teaching assistant to astronomer Carl Sagan, is president of American University, the one located in Washington, D.C.--not the one in Beirut, as people frequently assume.

It is not a cloistered, contemplative job. He doesn't spend much time on the curriculum or other scholarly pursuits, including his specialty.

Changing the Image

In fact, when Berendzen talks about his 80-hour-plus weeks, he sometimes gives the impression that he is working anywhere but a university. That's the way he wants it. He is trying to inject a bit of reality into the popular image of what it's like to be a university president, he says. Skyrocketing liability insurance rates, removal of asbestos from campus buildings and fluctuations in the prime rate are more likely to be on the daily agendas of school administrators than eternal verities, he says.

And it's not likely that higher education will ever regain the "bygone day when, somehow, the real world of the economy didn't seem so much upon us," Berendzen said in an interview. "It's just not there. It's not going to be there, not until the end of this century anyway," he continued. "The demographic decline (in available students) will continue until 1995. Meanwhile, the physical plants get older, the need to revise our curriculum and update and upgrade our standards and become more selective is more real than ever."

Berendzen the realist has chronicled what it's like to be a university president these days in a book, "Is My Armor on Straight?" (Adler & Adler, $17.95). It's a diary of the 1983-84 school year, a slice of life that shows the 47-year-old Texan pursuing a Saudi Arabian billionaire for millions, quelling potential trouble over a rock concert, explaining to sweltering students why the air conditioning can't be turned on during an autumn heat wave, surveying the campus for trees to be trimmed or removed and making endless radio and television appearances to pump up the school profile.

The book's title, by the way, is not pure fancy. Berendzen does own a suit of armor, and once, when he was a young, upstart dean, wore it to a meeting with irate faculty. An assistant announced, "The dean will join you and attempt to defend himself," before Berendzen clanked into the room.

Berendzen, who says he hasn't worn a suit of armor in years, was in Los Angeles recently to recruit students and raise money, two perennial pursuits that have made him a partial stranger to his family and a denizen of his office until midnight or later when he's not on the road.

But Berendzen, president of the university since 1980, said his hectic schedule is "just my silly way of doing things" and frequently uses a joke to lighten up the weighty topics a university president must constantly address.

For instance, money and the media are recurring themes in the Berendzen's book and conversation. Both, he maintains, are going to be preoccupations for academics at private and public universities in an era of educational limits. And if his book has any impact, Berendzen said, he hopes it will be to reduce popular misconceptions about higher education.

It's a Business

"A university in 1986 is in many respects a business," he said. "It's got a product, the product may be education but nonetheless, in a very business-like sense, it is a product. Marketing seems very strange in higher education and yet increasingly universities are doing it, including the most prestigious in the country, for the simple reason that we're all competing for the same shrinking pool of people . . . and for the same dollars. We now have the bizarre competition between public institutions and private because many of the publics are now going out and fund-raising and they're going to the same corporations, foundations and individuals that the rest of us are. . . . We have to assure that our alums will get jobs, which means that we have to somehow or other talk to the business and hiring people and get the name of our institution out."

Often enough, Berendzen conceded, he's met by blank stares or worse when he portrays the nitty-gritty of education. Many private citizens, he said, don't understand "the idea of a university administrator as being an administrator, as being a fund-raiser, as being a policy-maker, an arbitrator with students and staff and employees, and architectural person, somebody dealing with lawyers and underground steam lines."

In fact, he said, stereotypes of academia are so strong that some readers of his book have expressed active dislike for it because it didn't match their preconceptions.

" . . . They may not like it because their image of what a university president is is somebody who looks a bit like Calvin Coolidge, has patches on his elbows, puffs on a pipe and talks about Plato, which is interesting but it isn't true in '86, and it wasn't true in '76 or even in '66. . . . I think, frankly, there's a need for a lot of people to be a little better educated about what's happening in education. They just don't understand."

He might get a more understanding response if he described where he works differently, he added.

'Sounds Like a Corporation'

"Suppose I didn't say I'm a university president and I just said, 'We are housing 3,000 people, we are feeding 40,000 or 50,000 a week, we're parking tens of thousands of cars each week, we've got an $80-million budget, we've got a $200-million physical plant, we've got 2,000 employees," he explained. "It sounds different. It then sounds like a corporation. It sounds like being the mayor of a small city."

Whether they're seen as a small cities or educational institutions, universities are going to have to work at developing some kind of image in years to come, Berendzen said.

If nothing else, greater name recognition will prevent the embarrassment Berendzen suffered a few years ago at a fund-raising function in Beverly Hills. "The first question was, 'Now, you're in Beirut, aren't you?' " he recalled.

As president, Berendzen has appeared frequently on national television and radio shows, usually discussing what ails American education. He will even rob himself of much needed rest to make one more appearance on behalf of his school.

'Out Front and Visible'

"One of my goals was to get us better known (when I became president), and the media is one way to do that. It really doesn't matter whether it's a professor or the president or whatever, the public doesn't remember really who it was," he said. "University presidents in 1990 or the year 2000 are going to find it increasingly necessary (to get media attention), whether they themselves are doing it or somebody else, but the institution has to be out front and visible."

No matter what their visibility, Berendzen clearly would prefer universities and colleges to be more oriented toward quality education in the next decade. Degrees have been too easy to get and education has been sought for the wrong reasons, he declared.

"What we did was to develop the notion in our society that if you are a fully worthwhile person, you needed a college degree, not so much for the education and the richness and the breadth (of learning) as for the social standing," he said. "And there has been not only grade inflation, which we have heard a lot about, but also degree inflation. Many jobs that do not in fact require that kind of credentialing now will have as a mandatory requirement credentials that are inappropriate for the job. And it's not just at the bachelor's (degree) level. We've now seen it migrate up to the master's level as well."

But while higher education has a responsibility to give students a better education, that task won't be possible unless respect for learning starts early, he added. "Somehow, we need a course in parenting 101," he said. "We need to really get the notion across that parents should have the courage to turn off the TV set, to read to their children, to say I want to see the homework before it goes to school."

The Midnight Writer

To write his book, Berendzen inflated his days. "It was agony for me," he said. "First of all, my day is unbelievably full, which is probably my own fault. But the only time I had to work on this, particularly since I wanted to keep the matter out of regular work hours, was after midnight. So I would dictate, or sit with my yellow pad from midnight until 1:30, maybe 2. And I did that seven days a week irrespective of whatever else came up, whether I was sick or I had a breakfast meeting at 7 the next day. I couldn't let it slide, or I'd get lost in it."

While Berendzen seems to be unrelenting when it comes to the job at hand, he frequently expresses a wry view about his own career. At one point, he remarked, "I'm not sure what I'll be when I grow up." At another, he noted that his unceasing wooing of potential donors is hardly the stuff of dreams.

"No child at 10 would say, 'I'm going to grow up and become a fund-raiser,' " he said. "If they did, you'd get them psychiatric help."

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