Lt. Gov. Gray Davis, saying he is appalled by the secretive process used to select a new president for the University of California, said Wednesday that he will call for reforms when the UC Board of Regents meets Friday.
Davis, who is a member of the board, said he will probably support the nominee chosen by the board's search committee to head the nine-campus system: UC San Diego Chancellor Richard C. Atkinson.
But Davis and a number of other regents say they are dissatisfied with the current process that puts forth only one candidate for the full board to approve.
"I reject the notion of the majority of the regents being handed a done deal," said Davis, who said that in the future he wants search committees to recommend at least two finalists for the full board to consider. "My hope is that we can put together a process that allows the wisdom and experience of all the regents to come into play."
Davis was among several regents reached Wednesday who said they expected Atkinson to be approved Friday when the board votes in San Francisco. But Davis said that if any regent makes a motion to consider another candidate as well, he will support that effort.
"It's the first step to opening up this unduly secretive process," Davis said, adding that such a move would be positive "even though my inclination is to support Atkinson. It would allow for more debate and . . . for a more judicious choice."
Davis' comments came, however, as several regents said there was little possibility that any member of the board would present a counterproposal. Regent Ward Connerly said he was planning to ask the search committee "some very tough questions" about how it made its choice. But he said he had no plans to propose an alternative.
"I think very highly of Dick Atkinson," he said. "But I also think it is important that the search committee convince us of the wisdom of their decision. . . . They need to prove to us that this is the right candidate."
On Wednesday, The Times reported that a few weeks before the search committee nominated Atkinson, it had rejected him by a vote of 7 to 1. Sources said the committee was more impressed by UC Davis Chancellor Larry N. Vanderhoef.
But when a group of regents who are not on the search committee appeared to be mobilizing in support of a third candidate, UC Berkeley Chancellor Chang-Lin Tien, sources said members of the committee began to worry. If the pro-Tien camp forced a split vote, sources said, search committee members feared that they would be overruled if they nominated Vanderhoef.
Atkinson, an internationally respected experimental psychologist who once served as director of the National Science Foundation, was seen as better able to lure Tien supporters into his corner.
Gov. Pete Wilson, who is also a voting member of the regents, also played a crucial role. A source close to the governor said Wednesday that Wilson had been a supporter of Atkinson because of his 15-year track record at UCSD, his broad experience and his fund-raising abilities.
"Of the people on the table, he was probably the best person for the job," the source said.
UC President Jack W. Peltason, who has served for nearly three years, steps down Oct. 1.
Regent William T. Bagley lamented that while he had no independent knowledge of how the search committee made its decision, press accounts made the process sound like "third-grade politics."
Regent Velma Montoya agreed.
"A lot of us are very concerned about the process. We wonder when we submit the names of candidates whether they're truly being evaluated," she said. "It's very difficult to feel left out . . . and have to learn from the newspapers what's really going on."
Regent Ralph Carmona said he felt strongly that the full board should be able to consider a list of as many as five candidates. But Carmona, Montoya and Bagley all said that, barring any unforeseen developments, they planned to support Atkinson.
Regent Frank W. Clark Jr. said: "I don't feel Atkinson's nomination is in jeopardy at all. And I have the greatest admiration for him."
Atkinson has gotten high marks for being responsive to the faculty. According to Regent Daniel Simmons, when the search committee's faculty advisory panel considered the nine sitting chancellors, Atkinson was its top pick to become UC's 17th president.
But he is less popular with students. The University of California Student Assn. issued a statement Wednesday urging regents to postpone their decision until Atkinson can be more fully scrutinized.
"As chancellor, Atkinson ignored student concerns, made decisions in secret and ruled in an imperial fashion," said Steve Dubb, graduate president of UCSD. "As president, Atkinson will need to make a 180-degree turn. . . ."