LOS ANGELES — DAVID P. GARDNER, president of the University of California, announced his resignation Nov. 14. He has led one of the largest and most renowned higher education institutions in the world.Citing the death of his wife in February as making it impossible for him to continue, Mr. Gardner said he would stay at his post through difficult negotiations for the 1992-93 university budget and leave office Oct. 1, 1992. His announcement comes one month after a public declaration that due to soaring enrollments and dwindling budgets, the University of California (UC) would for the first time since 1960 not be able to meet its mandate from the state's Master Plan for Higher Education - guaranteed admission to the top eighth of the state's high school graduates. In his eight years as president of the nine-campus system, Gardner overcame widespread student and faculty unrest, restored fiscal health and competitive salaries, and attracted and accommodated soaring enrollments. Gardner also has served as chair of the 1983 Commission on Educational Excellence, which produced the landmark report "Nation at Risk" criticizing American education. He spoke with the Monitor by phone after his announcement. Your colleagues say UC is losing its most visionary advocate as the university faces the most problematic financial future in its history. Two weeks after I was appointed in 1983 the state budget was so bad they were issuing IOUs rather than paychecks and I told my wife, 'I think we've made a big mistake [in coming here].' Within a year, the state's fiscal situation had reversed. One lesson of my tenure is that one need not be fully confident in such dire predictions. Is the state's master plan in serious jeopardy? I've said that if we don't get the $2.4 billion increase we've asked for next year, we can't accept the top eighth academically of the state's high school graduates as that plan stipulates. This year we received a $300 million cutback. There is simply no place to put the students. You froze salaries, cut staff and classes, and imposed a 40 percent tuition increase. What else can be done? We can increase fees for non-California residents. But there needs to be a fundamental change in the way the state and federal government mandate money for social programs. If you put together the health and welfare requirements driven by federal and state law, together with the other parts of state budget that are driven by other state policies and rules, 85 percent of the state budget is locked up. Our share of the state budget that is discretionary continues to shrink. And California continues to fight the biggest state budget deficit in American history? The pie as presently sliced is just not sustainable over time. Beginning in 1988, the state had an explosion of growth at the younger age levels and a proportional shrinkage of tax-paying workers. By 2000, if the trends persist, there will be 0.87 taxpayers for every tax receiver. This along with entitlements to health, welfare, and prisons are the long-term trends that need to be addressed. Otherwise you have the state funding the social programs that result from societal dysfunctions at the expense of those that generate the wealth of the state - roads, transportation, water distribution, colleges and universities, and K-12. Does that mean there should be a long-term rethinking of the way America pays to educate itself? We have tended to become a nation divided more according to our perceived self-interests and single interests than as coherent and cohesive as we should be. This hurts the country, damages public servants' abilities to perform their roles, and dissipates resources. It also fragments political support for the main institutions by which we express our own ambitions and aspirations - by which I mean our schools. How does this manifest itself at the college level? It is increasingly difficult to find people who are interested in the institution as a whole. People see the schools as a means of giving expressions to their own particular interests irrespective of the impact that might have on the rest of what the school does. So these schools get thrown in several directions at once, making it very hard for those trying to take an overview of their work to get support for it in general. Have students of college age benefited from the reforms you said were necessary in "Nation at Risk?" Several governors took our recommendations seriously and made headway in their states - Tennessee, Arkansas, New Jersey. President Reagan made headway in his first term but almost none in his second. But in general, the nation is very much as at risk today as in 1983 for the same basic reasons - overall performance of students in schools, lowered commitments and expectations, and further fragmenting of the school's place of school in society by asking it to take on burdens that should be handled by churches and parents. Any encouraging signs? More and more numbers of young are going into the teaching profession. Education issues have moved up the domestic agenda. The business community is at last seriously interested although they are straitjacketed at the moment. What has been your biggest achievement at UC? Accommodating the dramatic increase of blacks, Hispanics, and Asians while achieving the highest academic standards in our history. Biggest disappointment? We have yet to diversify our professional and graduate school faculties in the same way. I have seen the need for it for years but have not been successful in getting others to deal with it.