Former UCSC Chancellor Karl S. Pister dies at age 96

Karl Pister
Karl Pister at the 1991 Fall Convocation in the Quarry Amphitheater.

Former UC Santa Cruz Chancellor Karl S. Pister, who devoted more than 70 years to the University of California, to higher education, and to expanding educational opportunities for students from kindergarten to graduate school, died on Saturday, May 14, at his home in Walnut Creek. He was 96 years old.

Pister had a remarkable career in higher education, starting as a structural engineering professor and dean of engineering at UC Berkeley and rising to UC Santa Cruz chancellor and UC vice president. Well into his 80s, he continued work that guided the direction of education and science, particularly in California.

“Karl was the quintessential academic leader. In each role he undertook, he significantly strengthened the University of California,” said UC President Michael V. Drake, MD. “His work has had a lasting impact in 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 know him over his long and distinguished career. He will be missed.”

Pister was a champion of broad and fair access to the University of California and a staunch advocate for ensuring that all qualified students had the chance for a UC education. After the 1996 passage of California’s Proposition 209—which prohibited state institutions from considering race, sex or ethnicity in admissions and hiring—his was a strong voice in assuring that the university maintain vigorous outreach programs to California’s underrepresented students.

He was also known as a catalyst for collaboration, growing creative partnerships among disciplines, educational institutions, government, industry, and communities to advance education at all levels.

As chancellor of UC Santa Cruz from 1991 to 1996, Pister embraced the experimental tradition of UC Santa Cruz and its strong undergraduate teaching, while working to strengthen its foundations, research enterprise, and growth. He steered the campus through the dramatic cuts in state funding for UC, oversaw a 30% increase in research funding, established clearly defined parameters for the development and protection of campus land, and significantly improved town-gown cooperation.

“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, tense relations with the city, and consensus on campus seemed out of reach. Karl’s leadership brought us through, with his signature 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 joined other UC chancellors in 1995 in issuing a unanimous public statement imploring the UC Regents to reverse their stance against affirmative action in admissions, and he led UC Santa Cruz in deepening outreach efforts. He founded the campus’s Leadership Opportunity Awards, now named in his honor, that help outstanding but low-income students from 13 community colleges make the jump to earn their degrees at UC Santa Cruz.

In 2000, Pister became the University of California’s first Vice President for Educational Outreach, leading UC efforts to improve education for underrepresented students in California. Under his direction, the university developed perhaps the most comprehensive network of school-university collaborations in the nation, working with many low-performing schools to improve outcomes. Owing much to his advocacy, the state budget for this work grew, and the university also expanded its role in educating K-12 teachers and addressing the shortage of school principals.

A child of Stockton school teachers

Karl Stark Pister was born in Stockton, Calif., the son of two high school teachers. He and his younger brother, Phil, had the run of 320 acres and a house his family had owned since the mid-1800s. He was valedictorian of his high school class, but entering UC Berkeley as a civil engineering student threw him a significant curve.

“I wasn’t educationally disadvantaged. It was cultural shock,” he said, according to an interview published in California magazine in 2006 when he was named UC Berkeley Alumnus of the Year. He said the experience informed his work with students throughout his life, and led to his fierce advocacy for assisting first-generation and underrepresented students on their path to a college degree.

Pister earned his B.S. in civil engineering at Berkeley in 1945, interrupting his studies for service in the Navy during the final year of World War II, when he served at Okinawa, Japan. He returned 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 in 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 earned 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 in civil engineering at Berkeley. He became an international authority on structural mechanics and earthquake engineering, a founding father of the field of computational mechanics, and a pioneer in using computers to analyze the design of buildings, bridges, and other structures.

Coupled with his teaching and research, he emerged as a campus leader, including chairing the nine-campus Academic Council of the UC Academic Senate in the late 1970s and serving as the faculty representative to the UC Board of Regents.

Pister’s institutional leadership led to his selection as dean of the College of Engineering at Berkeley in 1980. He became a leading voice nationally in issues in engineering education and in shaping science and technology policy at the federal and state levels. As dean, he led Berkeley’s top-ranked engineering programs through a period of tremendous evolution, weathering the challenges posed by diminishing state budgets for the university.

In 1991, UC president David P. Gardner enlisted the help of his legendary predecessor, Clark Kerr, to recruit Pister as UC Santa Cruz’s sixth chancellor. Pister signed on in August 1991 for a two-year term as interim chancellor. Within seven months, the faculty, once doubters, successfully lobbied UC leaders to erase “interim” from his title. He went on to serve a full five-year term as chancellor.

Pister’s work on the central coast was not limited to the Santa Cruz campus. He contributed to the conversion of Fort Ord into the California State University, Monterey Bay campus, co-founded a consortium of partnerships between UC Santa Cruz and local K-12 schools, and worked with the Monterey Bay Aquarium to develop research in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.

After his chancellorship, Pister continued to focus on equal access to education at the UC president’s office from 1996 to 2000. He created and led the new UC Office of Educational Outreach devoted to these efforts, earning accolades for its success.

In the years that followed, he held a dizzying array of positions aimed at strengthening education, including chair of the California Council for Science and Technology, director of UC Berkeley’s Center for Studies in Higher Education, founding chair of the Board on Engineering Education of the National Research Council, and 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 service as a member of the board of the Graduate Theological Union, a multi-denominational Berkeley consortium of seminaries and centers for theological studies. He was also a Regent of Berkeley’s Franciscan School of Theology, which awarded him an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters.

Pister’s list of honors is vast. He was a member of the National Academy of Engineering, the highest professional honor for a U.S. engineer, and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. For extraordinary contributions to the University of California and higher education, he received UC’s Presidential Medal, Clark Kerr Award, Berkeley Medal and Berkeley Citation. The American Society for Engineering Education gave him its highest awards for contributions to engineering education and advancing minorities in engineering. He was twice selected as a Fulbright Scholar, and he won a raft of honors from national engineering societies.

Pister’s wife of 60 years, Rita, passed away in 2011. He is survived by their 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) of Orinda—10 grandchildren, Sarena, Brendan (Lexy), Stark, Ann, Nathaniel, Kaiser (Mary Kate), Elijah, Marie, Veronika, and Luke; his great grandson, Maverick; his brother, Phil Pister of Bishop, Calif.; and his dear friend and partner, Germaine LaBerge of Berkeley.

The family is planning a private funeral. A public memorial service will be held at a date to be announced later.

In lieu of flowers, gifts in his memory may be made to either the Karl S. and Rita Olsen Pister Graduate Fellowship Fund at UC Berkeley (UC Berkeley Foundation, 1995 University Ave., Suite 400, Berkeley, CA 94704-1070) or to the Rita Olsen Pister Scholarship Fund at UC Santa Cruz ( or UC Santa Cruz Foundation, 1156 High St., Santa Cruz, CA 95064).