Robert Birgeneau, chancellor of UC Berkeley, and Carlos Garcia, San Francisco schools superintendent, assumed their roles pledging to be agents of change, knowing they would encounter skepticism and resistance.
Neither could imagine the extent to which budget cuts and a hostile political climate would complicate his ambitions. Yet these two leaders, each of whom announced his retirement this week, proved up to the challenge.
In fact, Birgeneau faced a call for his resignation or firing - from former UC Regent Ward Connerly - even before he was officially inaugurated as chancellor in 2005. Connerly, author of the Prop. 209 ban on affirmative action, was angered by the new chancellor's expressed determination to do something about the underrepresentation of African Americans and Latinos at the flagship university.
Birgeneau created outreach programs to promote a more diverse student body within the constraints of Prop. 209. An emphasis on financial aid helped attract highly qualified students from lower-income families: About 40 percent of Berkeley undergraduates now pay no tuition. Perhaps his most revolutionary move was the establishment of the Middle Class Access Plan that will limit parental contribution to 15 percent of family incomes between $80,000 and $140,000.
Birgeneau decried what he saw as the state's unwise disinvestment in higher education, but it did not dampen his resolve to maintain Berkeley's status as a world-class research and teaching university. His aggressive fundraising efforts, fiscal management and strategic vision helped maintain UC Berkeley's status as a destination for top students and faculty.
Carlos Garcia had a much different, but no less daunting, challenge in the San Francisco schools when he took command of the troubled district in 2007. He arrived with energy and charisma, and a call for everyone - teachers, parents, administrators, school board members - to rally behind a few distinct goals. One of those priorities was closing a seemingly intractable achievement gap that was leaving behind black and Latino students.
Test scores rose, the achievement gap narrowed, the school board drama dissipated and the district's image improved markedly.
These two men showed how assertive, attentive leadership can make a difference in education at any level, and even in the most treacherous of times.