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  • Amanda Rubalcava

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  • Amanda Rubalcava

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Rita and Richard Atkinson

Richard and Rita Atkinson have committed nearly $7 million to establish and endow a physician assistant education program at UC San Diego. (Courtesy photo)

Rita and Richard Atkinson Give Nearly $7 Million to Establish Physician Assistant Education Program at UC San Diego

Former University of California San Diego Chancellor and UC President Emeritus Richard Atkinson and Rita Atkinson have committed to give nearly $7 million via a charitable trust to establish and endow the Richard C. and Rita L. Atkinson UC San Diego Physician Assistant Education Program. The gift, which contributes to the Campaign for UC San Diego, is contingent on the establishment of a physician assistant education program at UC San Diego if approved by the University of California.

“This is a very thoughtful and generous gift from the University’s dear friends, Richard and Rita Atkinson,” said UC President Michael V. Drake, M.D. “As UC President Emeritus, former UC San Diego Chancellor and a generous philanthropist, Richard Atkinson’s contributions to the University have been profound. Richard and Rita Atkinson—an accomplished scientist, Associate to the President, and benefactor herself—are exemplary University citizens. Their service has made the University stronger, their impact is felt to this day. Their visionary leadership on behalf of medical education at UC San Diego will resonate for years to come.”

Expanding the physician assistant pipeline

“This generous investment from the Atkinson family will allow UC San Diego to expand access to health care by meeting the growing need for more medical professionals locally and statewide,” said UC San Diego Chancellor Pradeep K. Khosla. “The university has been increasing its research and education efforts in the field of public health over the past several years, and this transformative gift brings UC San Diego one step closer toward our commitment and vision of creating a healthier world.”

The physician assistant education program, which is expected to be based out of the UC San Diego School of Medicine, will train the next generation of health care professionals to serve the local region and beyond. The program is intended to expand the pipeline of students interested in exploring this career path while also addressing the rising demand for the employment of physician assistants (PAs). Approval and accreditation by the UC system could take two years.

The impact of the gift is well timed and much needed: Data from the Association of American Medical Colleges predicts that the expected shortage of physicians in the country could reach up to 120,000 by 2030. Innovative and compassionate PAs trained by UC San Diego’s highly specialized faculty can help fill this gap.

“We are immensely grateful to Rita and Richard Atkinson for their generosity toward helping students discover and explore the physician assistant career path,” said Steven R. Garfin, M.D., interim dean of the UC San Diego School of Medicine. “As the region’s only medical school, we are dedicated to providing cutting-edge resources and education to our students as we continue our successful history of graduating outstanding health professionals. Through the support of this gift, the new program will help our students develop as leaders devoted to providing quality care for all.”

Four decades of lasting impact

Richard Atkinson.

Before becoming the 17th president of the University of California, Richard Atkinson served as the chancellor of UC San Diego from 1980 to 1995. (Courtesy photo)

The announcement of this program coincides with the celebration of 40 years since Richard Atkinson first joined the UC San Diego community. Before becoming the 17th president of the University of California, Atkinson served as the chancellor of UC San Diego from 1980 to 1995. Since then, the Atkinson family has demonstrated a commitment to maintaining and enhancing UC San Diego’s world-renowned standards of excellence in teaching, research and public service. With their commitment to establish and endow the Richard C. and Rita L. Atkinson UC San Diego Physician Assistant Education Program, the Atkinsons build upon their history in serving the university through leadership and philanthropic contributions.

Over their lifetime, the Atkinsons have contributed upwards of $20 million towards supporting UC San Diego, with major areas of giving such as the Rady School of Management, Moores Cancer Center and fellowships for graduate students. The family has endowed academic chairs including the Epstein/Atkinson Endowed Chair in Management Leadership within the Rady School of Management, and the Atkinson Family Chair which supports researchers in cognitive science, psychology and neuroscience. Richard Atkinson has also served as a member of the UC San Diego Foundation Board of Trustees, the Campaign for UC San Diego Leadership Cabinet, Biological Sciences Dean’s Leadership Council and the Health Board of Advisors, amongst others.

In his service as an educator, administrator and philanthropist, Richard Atkinson has consistently emphasized the advancement of medicine and patient care. As chancellor, he rallied for support in building a major hospital on campus, even including funds for this as part of the campus’ first official fundraising campaign. The development of Thornton Hospital (now Thornton Pavilion, part of Jacobs Medical Center) paved the path for the outstanding academic medical center that exists today.

Leading UC San Diego and University of California

Atkinson, a professor of psychology and cognitive science, served as former director of the National Science Foundation and past president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science before being named UC San Diego Chancellor in 1980. During his tenure, the campus elevated in size and distinction, gaining widespread recognition as one of the nation’s leading research universities.

Beyond a commitment to recruiting and retaining excellent faculty at the forefront of their fields, student enrollment at UC San Diego doubled to about 18,000 students with Atkinson at the helm. He also ushered in the construction of new campus buildings and academic programs, such as the establishment of the Division of Engineering (later renamed the Jacobs School of Engineering), the Division of Social Sciences and the communication department (the first in the UC system). The university’s growth in academic stature led to UC San Diego’s membership in the prestigious Association of American Universities (1982), alongside recognition by the National Research Council as among the top ten best research and graduate programs the nation (1995).

As the fifth chancellor of UC San Diego, Atkinson also made large strides toward building a bridge between the university, the city and businesses in the region. He encouraged technology transfer and active industry collaboration, fostering strong ties between neighboring high-technology companies. Under his leadership, the UCSD CONNECT program was launched to help connect life science and technology entrepreneurs with support and information such as preparing business plans and attracting capital. The caliber of UC San Diego faculty, groundbreaking research and industry-university partnerships all contributed to the university’s position as a key technology generator and economic engine in San Diego

In his role as University of California president, Atkinson was at the forefront of national reforms in college admissions testing. He proposed that the UC system eliminate traditional aptitude-style SAT tests, ultimately leading to major changes in the SAT such as the requirement of a writing component. Further, following the UC Regents vote to end affirmative action, he fronted new approaches to admissions and outreach to ensure that the UC student body would continue to reflect the diversity of the state. He worked to expand partnerships with K-12 schools, particularly those serving academically disadvantaged students. Through championing inclusivity, fairness and a comprehensive review of student achievement within admissions, he worked to ensure high-achieving minority students would find a welcoming home at a UC campus.

Atkinson also placed an emphasis on technology and sought out to expand engineering across the UC system. In 1997, he committed the UC to increase enrollments of students pursuing engineering and computer science by 50%. A proponent of innovative research as a driver of California’s economy, Atkinson also established the Industry-University Cooperative Research Program (IUCRP) to support the development of new products and technologies. Further, in alignment with his efforts in shaping UC San Diego into an epicenter for entrepreneurship, he implemented technology transfer offices at each UC campus during his tenure as UC President.

Private support, including this gift from Richard and Rita Atkinson, contribute to the Campaign for UC San Diego—a university-wide comprehensive fundraising effort concluding in 2022. Alongside UC San Diego’s philanthropic partners, the university is continuing its nontraditional path toward revolutionary ideas, unexpected answers, lifesaving discoveries and planet-changing impact. To learn more, visit Campaign for UC San Diego.

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