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Former Stanford president, renowned chemist Ken Pitzer, dies

Kenneth Pitzer, a respected chemist and educator who served a brief, turbulent tenure as Stanford president during the late 1960s, died of heart failure on Dec. 26 at the age of 83.

Pitzer died at a Berkeley hospital after an illness. He is survived by his wife, Jean, three children and several grandchildren.

Richard Zare, professor of chemistry at Stanford, described Pitzer as "a giant among chemists and among educational leaders." Pitzer's scientific career focused on the broad topic of thermodynamics of molecules and the underlying explanation for a molecule's energy-level structure and heat capacity, Zare said.

As president of Stanford, Pitzer took great strides to improve the quality of undergraduate education and to expand faculty and student participation in university governance.

Pitzer graduated from the California Institute of Technology in 1935 and received his Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of California-Berkeley in 1937. He was 54 years old when he became president of Stanford on Dec. 1, 1968. Before assuming the Stanford presidency, Pitzer taught at Berkeley for 24 years, eventually becoming dean of the College of Chemistry. Then he spent seven years as president of Rice University, where he helped integrate the all-white school, strengthened its humanities and social sciences departments, and oversaw a successful $33 million capital campaign.

Pitzer was appointed Stanford's sixth president after a 17-month search. But the soft-spoken, white-haired man who sought to act as a mediator between conflicting elements resigned amid the widespread campus turmoil during the Vietnam era.

During Pitzer's first days as president, campus radicals held a "Greet Pitzer" week and marched into his office. Such marches, sit-ins and confrontations were still raging when he announced his resignation, effective Sept. 1, on June 25, 1970, 19 months after arriving.

Even before Pitzer came to Stanford, some students protested his appointment. Student body president Denis Hayes expressed "grave reservations" about Pitzer's appointment when it was announced in August 1968, but later said he was convinced "a president can be educated by the students."

Politically, Pitzer had both liberal and conservative elements in his background. He had been a weapons-oriented director of research for the Atomic Energy Commission from 1949 to 1951 and later participated in the hearings that cost physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer his security clearance. He was on the board of the RAND Corporation, a research center then funded by the Defense Department. But he was also a registered Democrat who opposed the draft and thought the Vietnam War was a mistake.

"A lot of the general community and a great majority of the students felt that the war in Vietnam was a mistake," he told Stanford Magazine in September 1995. "In principle, I agreed with them, and I didn't keep that a secret. But it's one thing to hold that view and it's another to mess up the university as a way to get pressure and publicity for it."

Pitzer handled his first Stanford protest by inviting members of the Students for a Democratic Society to step outside and chat with him for an hour. That move was typical of his efforts, largely unsuccessful, to mediate campus disputes without using outside police.

The frequency and level of violent protest on campus escalated steadily, throughout his presidency. Pitzer and his wife frequently visited campus living units for dinner and informal question-and-answer sessions with students. After one of these visits, he was doused with water-soluble paint. Rocks were repeatedly hurled through windows of his campus office and his home was spray painted with slogans.

Despite these disruptions, Pitzer repeatedly affirmed his belief in judicial due process and strongly supported the Stanford Judicial Council, a joint faculty-student disciplinary group. But his tolerance and attempts at compromise were viewed by some students, faculty and alumni ­ radical and conservative alike ­ as signs of weakness.

"There's no question that some people thought I was being unduly patient or tolerant of further discussion than I should have been," Pitzer recalled two years after his resignation in a Stanford Daily interview. But, he continued, "it didn't seem feasible to me to take any course much different than the one we followed."

In April 1969, hundreds of demonstrators occupied the Applied Electronics Laboratory for nine days to protest classified and war-related research. On May 1, demonstrators occupied Encina Hall for 6 1/2 hours and riot police were called to campus for the first time.

The following spring, police were called to campus at least 13 times and made more than 40 arrests. The most serious demonstrations occurred on April 29, 1970, and April 30, following news of the American intervention in Cambodia. Police from as far away as San Francisco were summoned, rocks were thrown, and tear gas was first used on campus during these two nights, which Pitzer described as "tragic." Approximately 65 people, mainly police officers, were hurt.

Tired of spending large amounts of his time in crisis management or police-related activities, Pitzer announced his resignation in June 1970. "After a certain length of time, you suffer some wounds and get a bit tired," he told reporters at a campus press conference discussing his resignation.

During Pitzer's presidency, a new interdisciplinary major was launched in African and Afro-American studies; a massive shift of university teaching resources to the freshman year was implemented, as was a substantial loosening of prescribed courses and major revisions in grading practices; and engineering firms in the vicinity of Stanford were linked to campus by a new university-industry television network for advanced instruction. The university also stopped accepting grants or contracts for classified research and voted to end academic credit for ROTC programs.

Trustees voted to expand membership and make the board more representative of society, professionally, politically, geographically and in age distribution. In the reorganization, they added eight alumni trustees to be elected by Stanford alumni, reserved two spots for faculty members from other institutions, included the Stanford president as an ex officio member, and made a concerted effort to invite students and Stanford faculty to serve on board committees.

The university also severed ties to the Stanford Research Institute, which was founded in 1946 to serve as a nonprofit organization to provide specialized research services to business, industry, foundations and the government.

Following his resignation from Stanford, Pitzer took a year-long sabbatical, then returned to teaching at Berkeley in September 1971. He continued in that capacity until his retirement in 1984.

"Teaching students and helping graduate students learn how to do research was something he loved," his son, Russell Pitzer, told the Houston Chronicle after his father died last month.

In 1950, Pitzer was named by the U.S. Junior Chamber of Commerce as one of the 10 outstanding young men in the nation. Over the course of his career, he produced several landmark papers in the field of hydrocarbons. His basic research in the chemistry of hydrocarbons had applications to the development of high-octane fuels.

Pitzer's first and perhaps most famous paper describes his discovery of the barrier to internal rotation of methyl groups in ethane. "This work has far-reaching significance because such barriers to internal rotation play an important role in establishing the shapes of molecules, such as enzymes and proteins, and the reactions that they undergo," Zare explained. "Pitzer made this discovery a long time ago, and now his work is taught in every organic chemistry textbook."

Pitzer published numerous additional papers on thermodynamic properties of gaseous hydrocarbons, of silver salts and of other heavy metals. His contributions in the field of statistical mechanics are also widely recognized. His investigations helped explain many of the great puzzles facing scientists using the periodic table of elements.

He won many awards during his lifetime, including the National Medal of Science in 1974, the Gold Medal Award of the American Institute of Chemists in 1976 and the $150,000 Welch Award in Chemistry in 1985. In 1991, the UC-Berkeley Academic Senate gave Pitzer its medal of honor, the Clark Kerr Award.


By Marisa Cigarroa

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