'Balancing Wheel' on Board : Elinor Heller, UC Regents Chairman in 1970s, Dies

Times Staff Writer

Elinor R. Heller, a subdued voice for moderation during her tenure as a University of California regent and the first woman to become chairman of that august body, is dead of cancer.

Mrs. Heller, who forged many of the compromises effected by the regents during the stormy years of the Free Speech Movement and the ensuing controversy that plagued the UC system, was 82 and died Saturday at Stanford Hospital near her rambling Spanish-style home in Atherton, set amid 15 acres of gardens and trees south of San Francisco.

Named Regent in 1961

Named to the Board of Regents in 1961 by Gov. Edmund G. (Pat) Brown to serve out the term of her husband, who died that year, she was on the board until 1976 and was named chairman in 1975.

She refused to be called "chairwoman" or "chairperson," pointing out that while she believed in "equal access" for women, the regents' bylaws call for a "chairman" and anything else would "be reaching for something that just doesn't exist."

Her husband, a successful investment broker, was a regent from 1942 to 1958 and again from 1960 until his death. Elinor Raas, daughter of a successful milliner, met him when she was still in high school and they married after she graduated from Mills College in 1925.

He had been one of only six board members to oppose a state loyalty oath for UC faculty members during the Red scare decade of the 1950s. His widow came to the board with liberal credentials, having served on the Democratic National Committee from 1944 to 1952 and as an ardent supporter of presidential aspirant Adlai Stevenson.

But as issues began to split the board, she often confounded both liberals and conservatives.

She took a temperate, rather than a philosophical, approach to many university problems, effecting the compromise that allowed Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver to teach at UC Berkeley as a lecturer rather than a professor.

Former UC President Clark Kerr, whose ouster by then-Gov. Ronald Reagan she opposed, once called her "the balancing wheel in the center" of the board.

She saw herself as "moderately liberal" in a 1975 interview with The Times and was one of only six of the 24 regents to vote against the firing of Community Party member Angela Davis, who was hired in 1969 to teach philosophy at UCLA.

She was credited with being instrumental in the selection of David S. Saxon as university president after his adroit handling of the Davis affair. (Saxon had been a vice chancellor at UCLA.)

Mrs. Heller became chairman because a Democratic administration had taken over in Sacramento. She soon discovered that Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. could be as tough on UC's proposed budgets as his predecessor, Reagan.

But when the system was facing the loss of 3,000 students because of monetary restrictions, she said, "You simply have to readjust."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World