In Memoriam: Robert P. Biller, 73
In Memoriam: Robert P. Biller, 73
Robert P. Biller, professor emeritus of public administration and a longtime USC administrator, died Aug. 29 at his home in La Cañada, Calif., following a difficult illness. He was 73.
A gifted teacher, collaborative administrator and distinguished dean, Biller had played a key role in USC’s development and growth for the past 25 years.
“Bob Biller was an engaging teacher, scholar and leader whose positive impact on his fellow Trojans and on the life of this university cannot be measured with any conventional yardstick,” said USC President C. L. Max Nikias. “He made significant and innovative contributions in every leadership post he held. The entire university benefited from Bob’s skills as a problem-solver and from his work in advancing USC’s academic mission through cross-disciplinary initiatives and community involvement. He was also an exceptional mentor who took a keen interest in our students and was generous with his guidance and assistance.”
Said Jack Knott, dean of the USC School of Policy, Planning, and Development: “Bob was a great leader at USC and SPPD, and a dear friend and colleague to all of us. He was a consummate scholar who made significant contributions to the field of public administration throughout his lifetime. Above all, he was a gracious man and a true gentleman who cared deeply about all people – our custodians, our leaders and especially our students. He will be greatly missed.”
After receiving a bachelor’s degree in sociology from UCLA in 1959, Biller worked for several years as an administrator at the U.S. Naval Ordinance Test Station in China Lake, Calif. He earned a master’s degree and a doctorate in public administration from USC in 1965 and 1969, respectively. His doctoral work garnered him the Henry Reining Jr. Dissertation Award for the year’s best dissertation in public administration.
Biller’s first academic position was on the faculty of the University of California, Berkeley, where he helped establish the university’s Graduate School of Public Policy and its Experimental Program in Health and Medical Sciences during his decade-long tenure.
In 1976, Biller returned to his alma mater as dean of public administration. Serving as dean until 1982, he elevated the school’s overall quality and raised its first $1 million endowment. At the same time, he took a leadership role in several university-wide committees – including the Deans’ Council and the Budget Advisory Committee – thereby laying the foundation for future work in a wide range of administrative capacities.
As executive vice provost from 1982 to 1988, Biller made far-reaching contributions to the improvement of undergraduate education at USC. He was a key player in the reinstatement of USC’s all-university course catalogue, which resumed production for the 1986-87 academic year following a gap in publication of nearly two decades. Simultaneously, he forged a close relationship between Hebrew Union College and USC, which resulted in the first written agreement for exchanging students and cross-listing courses in both institutions’ catalogues. During the same period, he supervised USC’s reaccreditation by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges. He also helped conceptualize and launch USC’s highest honor, the Presidential Medallion – an award he would receive in 1998.
When USC needed a dean of fine arts in 1987, Biller – who described himself as “basically doing whatever needed doing” – stepped in to fill the vacancy on an interim basis.
From 1988 until 1992, he served as vice president for external affairs, appointed concurrently as dean of admissions and financial aid for the 1988-89 academic year, when then USC president James Zumberge asked him to identify the source of a decline in enrollment. In a single year, Biller was able to reverse the decline by mobilizing several hundred faculty and staff to resolve student-service issues, implement touch-tone registration and provide specialized training for financial aid and registration personnel.
As vice president for external affairs, Biller scored another major victory for USC when he enlisted the support of five other prestigious universities in reversing a politically motivated U.S. Department of Defense award and helped secure a multimillion-dollar grant for advanced photonics research at USC.
After serving as USC’s vice president for undergraduate affairs from September 1992 to June 1993 – responsible for undergraduate recruitment, enrollment, financial aid, retention, graduation and the overall quality of undergraduate education – Biller returned to the School of Public Administration in 1993, taking a yearlong sabbatical before returning to teaching and research.
He later was instrumental in the school’s merger with the School of Urban Planning and Development to form the USC School of Policy, Planning, and Development, and served as interim dean of the new school from 1998 to 2000.
When USC recognized Biller with the Presidential Medallion in 1998, the university called out his service as a “creative and visionary administrator.”
“Playing utility fielder” is how Biller described his wide-ranging involvement.
And even after retiring from full-time status in 2001, Biller remained active in university life. As chair of the California Student Aid Commission, he successfully lobbied, together with then USC president Steven B. Sample, for significant increases in state-supported financial aid for California college students.
Biller was president of the USC Retired Faculty Association from 2005 to 2007 and continued to serve on its board of directors until 2010. He also served as a volunteer associate director and as a member of the executive committee of the USC Emeriti Center from 2005 to 2009.
During the 2007-08 academic year, he served as a member of the Academic Senate’s Faculty Environment Committee and USC’s Committee on Academic Policies and Programs, where he focused on drawing attention to the potential contributions of retirees.
Over the course of his career, Biller was honored by a variety of university organizations, including the Faculty Senate, Student Senate and Phi Kappa Phi. He was elected to Skull and Dagger in 1985, became an honorary member of Blue Key in 1988 and received the USC Faculty Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008.
A past president of the National Association of Schools of Public Administration and a member of the American Society for Public Administration, Biller was elected to membership in the National Academy of Public Administration in 1976. He was elected a fellow of the California Council on Science and Technology in 1997.
He sat on numerous boards, including those of the California Research Universities Network, the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, and the California Master Plan Review Commission.
As a researcher, Biller focused on public policy and the changing context of public management, especially with reference to organizations under conditions of uncertainty. He was widely published in peer-reviewed journals, including the Public Administration Review, Human Relations and Policy Sciences.
Biller also was active as a consultant, working with organizations such as the Ford Foundation, the California State League of Cities, the American Arthritis Foundation and the Papago/T’Hono Nation of Native Americans.
Another area of intense interest for Biller was the Skirball Cultural Center in West Los Angeles, where he volunteered for more than 20 years. He directed the strategic planning effort and developed the programmatic blueprint before the center was constructed, he was appointed chief operating officer from 2001 to 2003 and continued as assistant secretary to the Board of Trustees and consultant to the center’s president from 2003 until the present.
Biller is survived by his wife, Yvonne, son and daughter-in-law Martin and Elisa, and grandchildren Jason Benjamin and Rachel Elizabeth. He was predeceased by his son Kevin Michael.
Biller’s funeral was a private family affair, but USC will host a memorial for him in late October or November.
Donations may be made in Biller’s memory to the USC School of Policy, Planning, and Development, to the Skirball Cultural Center, or to a charity of your choice.