As a young academic, Richard Atkinson, PhD, "always sort of looked down on administrators," he recalls.

Little did he dream he'd become one himself--albeit one who bucks the system.

"I never had any intentions of going the administrative route," says Atkinson, who went from a five-year stint at the National Science Foundation (NSF) to chancellor of the University of California (UC), San Diego for 15 years to his current post heading California's state university system. "I was always focused on being a full-time faculty member and spending my life as an academic. In a sense, I drifted into these positions," he says.

The youthful 73-year-old has made a major mark in all of the posts he's held, gaining national and international recognition as a brilliant, thoughtful and independent-minded university and foundation leader, and as a seminal memory and education researcher.

"He's had a rather stellar career in about three different areas," says long-time colleague Gordon Bower, PhD, A.R. Lang Chair and Professor of Psychology at Stanford University. One as a behavioral scientist working in memory models--his contributions there live on 35 years later. Another has been as NSF director and president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, where he argued forcibly for basic research, in particular for social science and psychology. And the third as chancellor of UC San Diego, and then as president of the entire UC system.

"In short," says Bower, "he's a phenomenon."

Throughout his career, Atkinson has been well-known for championing progressive and politically risky causes with impeccable data-based arguments and a charismatic and diplomatic personal style.

The most recent is his proposal to eliminate traditional aptitude-style SAT tests as admissions criteria to the UC system and replace them with what Atkinson considers fairer and more comprehensive measures of a student's achievements and potential. As with virtually all his other life accomplishments, he's hitting a homer with this one too: In March, the College Board announced its decision to revamp the main SAT test, the SAT I, partly in response to Atkinson's criticism.

"He's been involved in a number of controversies," says Bower, "and he hasn't backed away from taking positions of leadership in any of them."

'Renaissance in nature'

For these accomplishments and more, Atkinson will receive APA's most prestigious award--the APA Award for Outstanding Lifetime Contributions to Psychology--which he'll accept at APA's 2002 Annual Convention in Chicago.

The award differs from other APA achievement awards in that it broadly represents the field of psychology rather than focusing on specific areas of expertise and is usually given in the latter part of a person's illustrious career.

"It's limited to the handful of giants in the field whose contributions are broad, pervasive and help to define the discipline," says APA Chief Executive Officer Raymond D. Fowler, PhD. "The award recipients are, in a phrase, legends in their own time." Past recipients include psychologists who are household names for anyone who has taken Psych 101: from B.F. Skinner, PhD, to Neal Miller, PhD, to Anne Anastasi, PhD.

The recipients are picked at the discretion of the current APA president: Philip G. Zimbardo, PhD, chose Atkinson because his "contributions are renaissance in nature," the Stanford University psychology professor says. "I selected Richard Atkinson based on his many contributions to psychology across a range of activities and domains."

Atkinson's other accomplishments include:

  • Championing and helping to operationalize high-tech communication in academe, including via a system-wide campus digital library at the University of California system.

  • Pioneering the trend toward electronic publishing by helping to publish one of the first online scientific journals.

  • Designing computer-education programs for children and testing them in low-income communities.

  • Co-authoring with his wife, psychologist Rita Atkinson, PhD, a lauded best-selling college psychology textbook, "Hilgard's Introduction to Psychology," now in its 13th edition.

To add icing to the cake, he's actually had a mountain in Antarctica named after him by NSF to recognize his work organizing international research programs on the icy continent.

"It seems almost obscene for one man to have done all of this," comments Robert Perloff, PhD, Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of Business Administration and Psychology at the University of Pittsburgh, who's helping to write Atkinson's award citation. "Here's a distinguished, creative and highly productive psychological scientist who was working to understand the very core of behavior--memory, learning and perception--and who went beyond that and responded to a call for science to step up to the plate to help humankind."

When Atkinson accepts his award in August, he'll celebrate yet another life achievement--his 50th wedding anniversary--with Rita Atkinson, whom he describes as a wonderful companion and colleague. "Just about everything we've done," Atkinson says, "has been a joint enterprise."

More battles to pursue

Lifetime achievement awards notwithstanding, Atkinson is still squarely involved in his role as an intellectual and academic leader, a fact highlighted by his decision to spearhead the national dialogue on the SAT.

"He's signing up for more work at a time when many people have long since retired to the golf course," says Bower. "Dick doesn't play golf," he adds with a laugh. "He runs."

Indeed, as University of California president, he has had a chance to apply all of his skills--psychological, scientific, educational, leadership and diplomatic--to issues both important to the nation's future and reflecting his personal passions. A key example is technology. Atkinson has devoted significant portions of his research and writing to developing educational technologies. He's created a prototype for commercial computer-aided instruction and argues extensively for the benefits of using computer technology in research. He's played a pivotal role in creating electronic journals.

And, given his strong bent toward serving the public welfare, he adamantly asserts that technology is good only to the extent that it serves people and communities.

"The nation faces tremendous problems--deteriorating inner cities, homelessness, degradation of the environment," Atkinson wrote in a recent issue of Issues in Science and Technology. "How are we going to deal with these problems?"

To Atkinson, the answer is investing in research and technology and giving students the tools to be part of that.

His arguments about the SAT are, in fact, partly linked to these issues. Atkinson wants to give talented, hard-working students from all backgrounds access to a top-notch educational system. They deserve it based on their talents and efforts, he argues, and society will benefit from a greater number of educated citizens, in particular those who become savvy scientists and researchers. To this end, Atkinson favors a comprehensive range of admissions criteria that look at students' achievements rather than their scores on aptitude-type tests.

Because he's a good psychologist, Atkinson's SAT argument also contains a strong research-based component. The SAT I simply isn't a good predictor of student performance, Atkinson maintains. A data analysis of thousands of students who attended the UC system shows that high school grades and the SAT II exams--which measure students' mastery of class material rather than aptitude--are better predictors of first-year college grades than the aptitude-based SAT I.

"In other words," Atkinson said in a recent talk, "the SAT I adds virtually nothing to our ability to predict freshman college grades."

For a variety of reasons, psychology is well-positioned to contribute to the rapid changes taking place in academe and research, he believes. "Psychology is one of those fields that really provides a bridge between many different areas of activity," Atkinson says.

Because of psychology's multifaceted and detailed look at human life, "I see the role of psychology as being increasingly important in the future of research," especially in interdisciplinary research, he says.

In fact, anyone looking for a job might do well to visit one or more of his system's campuses, he says.

"We're going to have huge problem at UC hiring the number of faculty we're going to need," he says. "The job market across the board is going to be very good, and I think the job market will be particularly good for PhDs in psychology."

Tori DeAngelis is a writer in Syracuse, N.Y.