Former UC Santa Cruz Chancellor, UC Berkeley Dean Karl Pister Has Died

Karl Pister, former chancellor of UC Santa Cruz, vice president of UC and dean of the College of Engineering at UC Berkeley, died on May 14 at age 96. (Photo credit: Peg Skorpinski)

Karl S. Pister, professor emeritus of engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, and former chancellor of UC Santa Cruz who has devoted more than 70 years to college, higher education, and increasing educational opportunities for kindergarten students until graduate school, died on Saturday, May 14 at his home in Walnut Creek. He was 96.

Pister had a notable career in higher education, starting as a professor of structural engineering and dean of engineering at UC Berkeley and rising to UCSC chancellor and vice president of the University of California. In his eighties, he continued his work that directed education and science, particularly in California.

“Karl was the ultimate academic leader. In every role he has taken on, he has 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 generations of UC students and alumni. He was a wonderful and wise teacher, mentor, supporter and kind friend to me and many others who were fortunate enough to know him during his long and distinguished career. He will be missed.”

Pister championed broad and fair access to UC and strongly advocated that all qualified students should have the opportunity to receive a UC education. After the adoption of California’s Proposition 209 in 1996—which prohibited state agencies from considering race, gender, or ethnicity in admissions and hiring—he was a strong voice to ensure the university maintains vigorous education programs for California’s underrepresented students.

He was also known as a catalyst for collaboration, growing creative and then new partnerships between academic disciplines, educational institutions, government, industry and communities.

In the late 1990s, Pister became the UC’s first vice president for educational outreach, leading his efforts to improve education for underrepresented students in California. Under his leadership, the UC System developed perhaps the most extensive network of college-university collaborations in the nation, working with many underperforming schools to improve outcomes. Thanks to his advocacy, the state budget for this work grew, and the UC also expanded its role in educating K-12 teachers and addressing the head teacher shortage.

A child of school teachers in Stockton

Karl Stark Pister was born in Stockton, California, on June 27, 1925, to two high school teachers. He and his younger brother, Phil, owned 320 acres and a home his family had owned since the mid-1800s. He was valedictorian of his high school class, but when he entered Berkeley in 1942 as a civil engineering student, he took a significant turn.

Kark Pister in robes with a medal

In 1996, at the inception of the campus, Karl Pister was awarded the Berkeley Medal, the university’s highest honor. (Photo credit: Peg Skorpinski)

“I had no educational disadvantage. It was a 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 inspired his work with students throughout his life and led to his fierce advocacy of helping first-generation and underrepresented students on their path to college.

Pister received his BS in Civil Engineering from Berkeley in 1945 while enlisting as an apprentice seaman in the Navy. A week after graduation, he mobilized to complete his naval training and served in Okinawa in the aftermath of World War II. He returned in 1946 for a master’s degree at Berkeley, where he met Rita Olsen — a fellow student working on a teaching degree — at a dance at Hearst Gymnasium. They married in Oakland in 1950 and moved to Illinois for Pister’s doctoral studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

After Pister received his Ph.D. in theoretical and applied mechanics, the couple returned to California in 1952. They settled in Lafayette, where they raised their six children: two sons and four daughters.

That same year, he joined the Civil Engineering Faculty at Berkeley, where he became part of an exceptional group of professors who built Berkeley’s enduring reputation as the world’s leading civil engineering university. He became an international authority on structural mechanics and earthquake engineering, one of the founding fathers of computational mechanics and a pioneer in using computers to analyze the design of buildings, bridges and other structures.

In combination with his teaching and research, he emerged as a campus leader, including as chairman of both the Academic Council with nine campuses and the system-wide Academic Senate in the late 1970s.

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 on issues in engineering education and in shaping science and technology policy at the federal and state levels. As dean, he guided Berkeley’s foremost engineering programs through a period of tremendous evolution, overcoming the challenges posed by dwindling state budgets for the university.

He promoted interdisciplinary collaboration in key areas such as manufacturing, environmental engineering, energy and computer science; extensive facilities for microelectronics and computer aided design; and oversaw planning and fundraising for Soda Hall, a new building for Berkeley’s acclaimed computer science program.

He also expanded outreach to bring more women and underrepresented minority students into engineering, strengthened ties with industry and alumni, nurtured a burgeoning fundraising program that raised $100,000 in philanthropic donations to the College of Engineering at the start of his term, and $30 million to its end a decade later, in 1990.

The Sixth Chancellor of Santa Cruz

In 1991, UC President David Gardner enlisted the help of his legendary predecessor, Clark Kerr, to recruit Pister as UCSC’s sixth chancellor.

black and white portrait of Pister

Karl Pister in 1988, when he was dean of Berkeley’s College of Engineering. (Photo credit: Jane Scherr)

“When Karl became Chancellor in 1991, it was a turbulent time for our campus,” said current UC Santa Cruz Chancellor Cynthia Larive. “Government budget cuts were imminent, there were protests over land use, tense relations with the city and consensus on campus seemed unattainable. Karl’s leadership got us through it, with his signature dedication to transparency, collaboration and the kind of problem solving that characterizes an exceptional engineer. He made a lasting difference on our campus.”

Pister signed on for a two-year term as interim chancellor in August 1991. Within seven months, the faculty successfully lobbied UC leaders to erase “interim” from Pister’s title. He then served a full five-year term as chancellor.

As Chancellor, Pister embraced UCSC’s experimental tradition and its strong undergraduate education program as he worked to strengthen grassroots, research enterprise, and growth. He led the campus through drastic cuts in state funding at UC, oversaw a 30% increase in research funding, established clearly defined parameters for the development and protection of campus land, and improved relations with the urban clothing as well as reducing of campus morality.

He joined other UC chancellors in 1995 by issuing a unanimous public statement pleading with UC Regents to reverse their stance against affirmative action on admissions, and he led UCSC in deepening outreach efforts to underrepresented students. . He founded the campus Leadership Opportunity Awards, now named in his honor, which help outstanding but impoverished students from 13 community colleges take the plunge to earn their degrees at UCSC.

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

Champion of Educational Outreach

After his chancellorship, Pister continued to focus on equal access to education at the UC Office of the President from 1996 to 2000. He created and led the new UC Office of Educational Outreach, which devoted itself to these efforts and received credit for its success. These outreach efforts continue today under the UC Department of Academic Affairs.

In the years that followed, he held numerous positions focused on strengthening education, including chairman of the California Council for Science and Technology, director of Berkeley’s Center for Studies in Higher Education, founding chairman of the National Research Council’s Board on Engineering Education, and a 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 one of the founders and treasurer of the American University of Armenia.

A Catholic throughout his life, Pister was also active in church and ecumenical activities, including serving on the board of the Graduate Theological Union (GTU), a multi-denominational consortium of seminaries and centers for theological studies in the city of Berkeley. He was also regent of the GTU’s Franciscan School of Theology, which awarded him an honorary doctorate of humane letters.

Pister’s honors list is huge. He was a member of the National Academy of Engineering, the highest professional honor for an American engineer, and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. For outstanding contributions to UC and higher education, he was awarded the UC’s Presidential Medal, and at Berkeley, he received the Clark Kerr Award, the Berkeley Medal, and the Berkeley Citation. The American Society for Engineering Education awarded him top honors for contributions to engineering education and advancing underrepresented minority students in engineering. He was twice selected as a Fulbright Scholar, and he has won a series of awards from national engineering societies.

Pister’s wife of 60, Rita, died in 2011. He leaves behind 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) from 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 from Bishop, California, and his dear friend and partner, Germaine LaBerge of Berkeley.

The family plans a private funeral. A public memorial service will be held on a date to be determined.

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


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