Snatching Saroyan

How Stanford University aced out UC Berkeley and acquired the million-dollar archives of San Francisco's most prolific author, William Saroyan -- without paying a dime

The Bancroft had patiently curated the Saroyan papers, and was ready to take the next step. The foundation did not respond. The foundation had other plans.

Some of those plans were suggested in a memo dated Nov. 6, 1995, that Stanford Head Librarian Michael Keller sent Stanford President Gerhard Casper. In the memo, Keller referred to the university as an "institutional curator of culture" that "will produce some collection decisions which some will regard as controversial ... I am mindful as well that some decisions we make together deemed controversial now will seem prescient, foresightful, prophetic later."

He then promised Casper that the library would "stay alert for 'targets of opportunity,' " adding that discussions had already begun "regarding the William Saroyan Archive."

In fact, Keller and Saroyan Foundation President Robert Setrakian met and forged an agreement, signed on Nov. 22. It stated specifically that the foundation would move all of its Saroyan papers from Berkeley to Stanford. Stanford would accept the papers, on specific terms. The university would establish a William Saroyan Curatorship in American and British Literature. Stanford would establish and maintain an International William Saroyan Writer's Prize. And if university officials agreed to do those things, the collection's transfer to Stanford would be permanent.

At a foundation meeting the following month, the trustees listened as Setrakian reported the proposed terms, which included the transfer of all commercial rights and copyrights related to the Saroyan collection. In other words, the foundation would transfer ownership of the $1.6 million collection to Stanford -- and receive no money in return. The board approved the agreement, and further requested that Stanford alumnus Setrakian be nominated as the university's first honorary curator of the William Saroyan Archive.

The paper trail that would justify the transfer was begun months in advance. A petition was prepared to obtain Superior Court approval of the transfer to Stanford, "to the extent it might be considered inconsistent with the terms of the will of William Saroyan." A judge signed the petition. The foundation also obtained a letter from Attorney General Dan Lungren, avowing that he had "no objection to the proposed agreement" between the foundation and Stanford.

Then, on April 4, 1996, Bancroft Library Director Charles Faulhaber opened a letter to him from the Saroyan Foundation, signed by Robert Setrakian. This was no routine missive; this was a bomb. The carefully crafted one-page letter opened up in complimentary and congratulatory terms, but in the middle, Setrakian suddenly and coldly requested the library's cooperation in transferring all the Saroyan papers and materials to Stanford. Faulhaber would be contacted directly to "arrange for pick-up." Attached was the signed Superior Court order approving the agreement between the foundation and Stanford.

To say the transfer shocked the Bancroft Library is to put things mildly. The Bancroft was known worldwide as the home of the Saroyan papers. Saroyan's materials had been on deposit at UC Berkeley for as long as most could remember. Since the 1960s, the library had stored, cataloged, and provided reference and photocopy service for portions of the collection. The staff had devoted two entire years to processing it. Unlike Stanford, it was Berkeley that had an Armenian studies program and a William Saroyan chair, funded by the Saroyan Foundation. And the universities shared a joint library borrowing system.

Faulhaber wrote the foundation, expressing surprise and saying he was "perplexed" that Setrakian and company were not willing to discuss the transfer with Bancroft officials before acting. The following month, UC Berkeley attorney James Holst wrote the state Deputy Attorney General's Office, addressing and disputing each item in the court petition approving the transfer. Holst asked the Attorney General's Office to consider a rehearing on the transfer of the collection. Such a rehearing, he suggested, could enable the court to determine the matter with a full understanding of the facts.

The letter was written in polite legalese, but underneath were tough allegations. Holst was suggesting that foundation trustees may have deliberately withheld information from the court and the Attorney General's Office, in order to downplay the Bancroft's relationship with the Saroyan papers and hasten their transfer to Stanford. He also warned of a potential conflict of interest; the foundation's president was to be working with Stanford as an honorary curator, possibly receiving compensation.

The war of words was on.
Seven days later, the same office received a rebuttal letter from Alan Nichols, attorney for the Saroyan Foundation, accusing Berkeley of stalling on delivery of the papers, and claiming UC was making statements in the press that "attempted to embarrass the Foundation and its officers." Nichols (also, coincidentally, the chairman of the Associates of the Stanford University Libraries) listed other instances when Berkeley supposedly had failed to treat the foundation properly. He warned that the attorney general should not be suckered into supporting Berkeley's "ill-founded attack," and concluded smugly: "There are enough problems in state law enforcement without initiating a new Big Game of Cal versus Stanford."

The following week, Bancroft President Faulhaber fired back with a press release that said, "Cultural property is not a football."

The Bancroft subsequently received a letter from the Attorney General's Office, acknowledging that there had been "an arguable lack of consideration or courtesy" in regard to the transfer of the Saroyan collection, but stating the sudden action by Stanford "does not equal breach of trust or malfeasance."

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