First chancellor of Urbana campus, Jack Peltason, dies at 91

First chancellor of Urbana campus, Jack Peltason, dies at 91

Jack Peltason, a professor who rose to be the first chancellor of the University of Illinois’ Urbana campus and served in turbulent times, died Saturday. He was 91.

He was later president of the University of California system, from 1992 to 1995.

Lou Liay served in several Urbana campus roles, including executive director of the UI Alumni Association from 1983 to 1998. 

He said the former chancellor kept his sense of humor during difficult times.

“This was a time of lots of turmoil and some student leader challenged Jack to a yo-yo contest on the Quad,” Liay recalled. “I think Jack won. He related to students a lot.”

Peltason never lost the common touch.

“To tell you what type of person he was,” Liay said, “we visited him in California when he was head of the whole California system. For some reason, I looked in the phone book and found his number. 

“I said, ‘Jack, why would you have your home phone in the phone book? I know he received many calls of complaints. And he said, ‘Well, if I didn’t, people like you and Mary would not be able to find us.”   

David Eisenman, who worked with Peltason during the Civil Rights movement, called him “a great guy” who “had absolutely the best interests of the students at the time.”

He said the former chancellor was “extremely courageous” in helping set up the Project 500 program to increase the enrollment of low-income students.

The first chancellor was born Aug. 29, 1923. 

In 1951, Peltason joined the faculty of the UI, where he rose to the position of dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences in 1960.

In 1964, he was named University of California-Irvine’s second vice chancellor of academic affairs, but in 1967 returned to Urbana as chancellor, a position he held until 1977.

According to a UI history, President David Dodds Henry initiated the chancellorship system of administration at the UI. At the time, Urbana was by far the biggest campus in the system.

Henry made the chancellor system work because he did not second-guess decisions made by the chancellor, the campus history noted.

During Vietnam War protests, after meeting with Illinois State Police and National Guard troops at the Assembly Hall to quell campus protests, Chancellor Peltason decided to keep the campus open — making it the only major university in the state and one of only three Big Ten schools to stay open, according to The News-Gazette archives.

He also had to deal with the aftermath of the “slush fund” scandal that shattered the football and basketball programs. 

His first academic position was at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., where he taught from 1947 to 1951.

There, he co-authored his classic textbook “Government by the People.”

Sections (2):News, Local