DAVID Pierpont Gardner was born to the position. At least, that is what many of his former colleagues now say - particularly those who worked with him 20 years ago when he had an administrative post at the University of California's surfside campus in Santa Barbara while juggling his off-duty hours between his young family and work on a doctorate in education.
Even then, it seemed only a question of time to the rest of the staff (this reporter was then a part of that staff) until this tall, thin, quiet, modest man - with big, booming ideas - would rise to the top.
The University of California was in Dr. Gardner's blood. He was born in Berkeley in the shadow of UC's mother campus, took his master's work in political science in that East Bay community, and served as director of the university's alumni before assuming the post of statewide vice-president. A decade as president of the University of Utah was the only interruption to Gardner's ''Cal'' career.
The inevitable came last summer, when David Gardner, who had just gained national prominence as chairman of the National Commission on Excellence in Education (NCEE), took over the reins as 15th president of the University of California, the largest public higher education complex in the United States. Formal installation will come at Charter Day exercises on April 12.
In a wide-ranging interview in his Berkeley office, we talked about his goal to restore the recently beleaguered ''1,000-mile campus'' to its former place in the sun. This nine-site, 139,000-student institution, which many regard as the epitome of academia, embraces such world renowned schools as Berkeley and UCLA and spans the state with diverse scholastic specialties ranging from agricultural studies at Davis's ''cow campus'' to oceanographic research on the Pacific shores at San Diego and Santa Barbara.
In the short run, Dr. Gardner wants to restore UC's fiscal well-being - which after decades of almost unparalleled excellence started to deteriorate in the 1960s under then GOP Gov. Ronald Reagan's ''cut, trim, and squeeze'' budget policies. The fiscal fortunes continued on a downward trend through the return-to-the-basics regime of Reagan's Democratic successor, Edmund G. Brown Jr.
In the long run, David Gardner is devoted to improving the quality of schooling for all Americans - in order to keep the nation competitive in its learning and research skills.
Gardner's down-the-road goals for UC seem to dovetail with what he sees as broader needs in education in America - quality curricula, better teachers' salaries, upgraded learning facilities, more educational access for minorities, and a higher level of fiscal support for all students.
Just a year ago, NCEE, under chairman Gardner's leadership, issued an ''Open letter to the American people'' decrying educational mediocrity and warning that the US's economic, cultural, and spiritual role in the world was being threatened by lax standards and misguided priorities in the schools.
Gardner sees UC's mission as partly one of setting exemplary educational standards. But he admits that without adequate public monies ''nothing else will matter.'' And he has spent his first months on the job lobbying California Gov. George Deukmejian and state lawmakers for such support.
Early signs are amazingly positive. The governor's 1984-85 budget, to the surprise of many, provides $1.4 billion for university operations, including long-sought-after faculty salary hikes; $36 million for polishing up UC's physical plants and learning facilities; and $7 million for student financial aid and affirmative action programs. If approved later this spring by state lawmakers, this would constitute a $241 million increase, or 10 percent jump, over present spending.
Although Gardner warns that ''more than one year is needed to restore the health of the university,'' he applauds this funding proposal as a definite sign of a reversal of 15 years of fiscal retrenchment for the university. Gardner hopes the conservative governor's overtures to higher education will mark a new era of ''harmony.''
Gardner says that many of UC's economic problems in past years resulted from political infighting among the campuses as well as sharp controversy with state elected leaders. (Shortly after Ronald Reagan was installed as governor in 1967, he was instrumental in the firing of then-university president Clark Kerr. Dr. Kerr was embroiled in a nationally spotlighted battle with the conservative governor over tuition, student dissidents, and what some saw as ''left wing'' campus activity.)
Strained relations between the statehouse and the university continued even after Mr. Reagan's departure from Sacramento. And this mammouth educational network, which for decades had been considered a state treasure, was seen by some as a political liability. Now, however, Gardner's aim is to mold a ''house united rather than a house divided.'' To this end, the new UC president has been visiting the system's far-flung campuses and talking to local chancellors, faculty, and students about their needs - generally playing the role of goodwill ambassador to the system.
Among the tougher jobs facing Gardner will be to help provide adequate student aid to pay rising education costs and to open the UC door wider to women and minorities.
Burgeoning costs are becoming a major factor in determining the learning directions young people take today, Gardner points out. And he is alarmed by this.
''The trend is just now becoming apparent,'' he says. ''It has an impact on the decision people make to enter one field as against another.'' For instance, students are leaning toward fields where their immediate income after college is relatively high - in order to repay their student loans. ''We have fewer people going into teaching, social work, and the arts, where the prospect of repaying a debt is not especially an encouraging one,'' Gardner says.
The obvious answer, the UC president adds, is ''to try to keep the cost of attending universities and colleges down, rather than allowing them to drift up.''
However, the University of California's fees, along with those of other schools, have dramatically increased in the past few years. Though still relatively low compared with costs at many comparable private colleges, UC resident students now pay $1,300 a year. Those living away from campus tack on an additional $3,000 for housing. Students who are not residents of California must pay at least $7,000 in costs (including campus housing) per year.
The governor's upcoming budget would help UC hold the line on ''instructional'' fees (the University of California scrupulously avoids the term ''tuition.'') But Gardner admits that there is not now a way to harness student costs unless inflation is kept in tow.
In addition to costs, the major challenge to California higher education during the next few years will be to accommodate minority youth - mainly Hispanics and blacks. Gardner says the university has an ethical responsibility along these lines. ''There's (also) a strategic need for the University of California to be successful in this area,'' he adds.
''The pool of young people who will be moving through the (California) schools is increasingly composed of minority youth. Thus the pool from which we will be drawing our freshman students by the year 2000 will be 50 percent minority.''
UC now is retooling its affirmative action programs to pave the way for increased minority enrollments. A recent internal university report indicates that Chicanos, blacks, and American Indians are significantly underrepresented at the undergraduate level. In graduate programs, women along with Filipinos and other Asians are underenrolled.
President Gardner is especially concerned about Hispanic youth - 45 percent of whom currently fail to finish high school in California. He says it is essential that his university work with the state's two other tiers of higher education, the state colleges and the two-year schools, to help upgrade elementary and high school learning for the burgeoning Hispanic population.