Today he is a nationally renowned scholar, administrator, and legal mind, but in 1963 UT president Bill Powers was just another wide-eyed college freshman hitting the books at the University of California, Berkeley, as the tumult of the antiwar protest movement swirled outside his dorm. “[Berkeley] just opened up the world to me,” he says, “and exposed me to ideas and experiences that I never dreamed about in high school.”
Now Berkeley has named Powers as its 2014 Alumnus of the Year—an honor he now shares with writer Joan Didion, former U.S. Treasury secretary W. Michael Blumenthal, and former U.S. Defense secretary Robert McNamara, among other luminaries.
The award’s timing is hard to miss: it comes during a year in which UT System regents and University leaders frequently clashed, and rumors swirled that Powers’ job might be on the line.
The Alcalde caught up with Powers to talk about this latest accolade and what his undergraduate education means to him.
You’ve won a lot of honors in your career. What’s distinct about this one?
We all have a special place in our hearts for our alma mater. University experiences really do change our lives. It’s where we meet friends, sometimes spouses, and make lifelong career choices.
You know, every time we have a distinguished alumnus award or a presidential citation here on the campus, you can see the same reaction in our awardees. We think of them as accomplished people, but they remember themselves as young, naïve undergraduates showing up on the campus their freshman year. And I feel that same kind of thing for myself. It’s a real blessing.
It’s been a really challenging year for you and for UT and the higher education debate. What does it mean to get this award this year in particular?
Well, there’s a lot going on. To be candid about it, I think part of the award is for what I’ve been doing over the last two or three years in shaping and supporting higher education in our country. So yes, it’s very meaningful.
How did your time at Berkeley shape the leader you are today?
I was there in the mid-’60s. That was the Free Speech movement at Berkeley, a very interesting time. I was a decent student in high school, but I wasn’t very worldly or sophisticated. And very much like our students here, I went to my state flagship and it just opened up the world to me.
It exposed me to ideas and experiences that I never dreamed about in high school, and I think that is the foundation for living a useful and meaningful life. Cal did for me what I’ve seen UT do for tens of thousands of students while I’ve been here.
Your undergraduate major was chemistry. Are there ways in which your chemistry education has applied to your career in law and administration?
Well, I don’t mix chemicals very often! Let me say that while I had a BA in chemistry, I took a lot of history and math and physics and had the kind of very well-rounded education that I believe serves people well. I was not a chemistry major because I wanted to be a chemist.
I was born almost nine months to the day after the end of World War II. And at that time, things were very different—the world was opening up in front of us. The economy was opening up. Unlike my students today, we did not have to spend a lot of time in college worrying about what am I going to major in so I can get a job. We just studied what we were interested in or frankly, kind of fell into. Chemistry was just interesting and I’m glad I majored in it. It does help me understand the science side of our campus as well.
Looking across your career, what are some of the accomplishments of which you’re the most proud?
Raising my five children. They’re all out of the house now and doing well. I’m proud of doing the Enron investigation in a way that was much more than we thought we were getting into. Our team did that with integrity and told the truth.
I’ve been blessed to have some accomplishments in the areas that are so important to who I am—teaching, scholarship, administration, helping to energize the undergraduate experience. I’m proud that I was in the Navy for three years. And I’m very proud of what we’ve done with the undergraduate curriculum here.
Photo by Marsha Miller.