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Connections and Friendships: Roger Samuelsen’s Years with the University of California

New to the Oral History Center: Connections and Friendships: Roger Samuelsen’s Years with the University of California

Roger Samuelsen has held a number of key administrative positions for the University of California System. A graduate of UC Berkeley’s School of Law in 1964, Samuelsen was the Director of the UC’s Natural Reserve System from 1974 until 1991. He subsequently served on the Executive Staff to the Site Selection Task Force, which was responsible for recommending to the President and The Regents the site of the tenth campus, and assumed several leadership roles during the early development of UC Merced. Throughout his career, he has maintained a deep involvement in UC Berkeley, and served on multiple boards and committees. He has also served on boards and committees with the Save the Redwoods League, the Lindsay Wildlife Museum, and the Orinda Community Church.

This oral history is, like many of those that are part of the University History series, the continuation of institutional history by means of a life story. Through the life of Roger Samuelsen, we learn about the history of the development of the Natural Reserve System of the University of California; the site selection for the tenth campus of the UC system, UC Merced; and the changing fortunes and evolution of UC Berkeley, his alma mater and an important lifelong focus.

What immediately became apparent as I was preparing for this oral history was the enthusiasm his friends and former colleagues showed for the project. The refrain was that Roger was a key driver in the institutions that he helped to found and develop. As I began to work with Roger, I wanted to understand this particular species of administrator in the UC system. For many years, Roger was the director of the Natural Reserve System, which he shepherded from its initial foundation to encompass dozens of sites across California, preserving and guaranteeing access to unique ecosystems for the benefit of the public, students, and the international scientific community.

What did it take to succeed in roles such as these? Like the organisms in the ecosystems he worked to preserve, Roger fit well into the ecosystem of the University of California. When he graduated from UC Berkeley, Roger was passionate about student life and politics, and was already well developed to lead a purposeful life. After training as a lawyer, he immersed himself in the elements that make up higher education in California: laws, rules, institutions, money, and people, most of all people. This immersion would serve him well in his second career helping to develop the recommendations for the final site of the tenth campus of the University of California – UC Merced.

Both the NRS and the UC Merced site-selection stories turn on the use of land in California. It is difficult to think of a more contentious domain with more numerous stakeholders.  It will become apparent in this oral history that the key to success in managing these contentious spaces was Roger’s passion for the people and nature of California. He developed strong bonds with the people with whom he worked in the course of his career. He grew to share the deeper purpose of the preservation of the diversity of life in these precious ecosystems of California, and the preservation of the diversity of opportunity that the University of California represents. To that end, he has devoted uncounted hours volunteering his time and efforts to strengthen the university by helping to raise funds and administer programs for the university system and even K-12 schools. Since his encounters with Clark Kerr as a young man, Roger has spent his life fostering the furtherance of the democratic ideal of California education.

I am concerned that Roger’s humility and care for others sometimes obscured the extent of his roles in these larger stories. You will note that he readily deflects attention away from himself and toward the work and importance of his friends, family, and colleagues. For Roger, this oral history was in many ways an exercise in the expression of gratitude. But it is also perhaps an example of how he has lived a life very deeply connected to others.

Paul Burnett, Berkeley, CA

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