University of California president Richard Atkinson last month pushed the issue of affirmative action to the brink of open warfare with his own board of regents.
A highly public squabble over his right to slow the retreat from the university's attempts to redress the imbalance against ethnic minorities and women has ended in a temporary truce. The board demanded that Atkinson, a widely respected former chancellor of the UC San Diego campus, appear to explain why he had blocked their retreat from affirmative action. Members relented when he sent a conciliatory letter.
But the confrontation has left experts talking about a government crisis at the leading United States research university. It may be a prelude to similar power struggles and growing political interference in the running of other public colleges.
"The real issue is who is in charge - university faculty members and administrators used to having their own way in a cosy collegiate system, or political appointees on boards pushing their own education goals," said Patrick Callan, director of the California Higher Education Policy Center.
UC board members voted last July to ban the use of sex and race as criteria in hiring and admissions, meaning an end to affirmative action programmes intended to help women and minorities. They upheld the decision in a unruly meeting in San Francisco protected from demonstrators by 250 law officers.
They were infuriated when Atkinson said, without consulting them, that he would postpone the new policy for undergraduates for more than two years. They called a special meeting to review his action, but backed off when he agreed in a letter he had a "legal and moral" obligation to follow their ruling.
The drive to impose the ban was led by outspoken Ward Connerly, one of several board members appointed by Republican governor Pete Wilson. Conservatives say that affirmative action, once intended to level the playing field, now skews it unfairly. Connerly also heads the campaign for a California ballot proposal to ban affirmative action in the state.
It is not the first time that a conservative California governor has clashed with the head of UC, with nine campuses and 163,000 students. Ronald Reagan's claim that former president Clark Kerr was being soft on student protesters led to his firing.
This time faculty members have invited an outside professional panel to assess whether the regents overstepped the mark. While the California constitution gives them wide powers, it also demands that the university shall be "entirely independent of all political or sectarian influence". UC may still use "supplemental criteria" in admissions that would tend to favour ethnic minorities.
But two other states with large minority populations also have ambitious Republican governors making overtly political appointments to university boards - George Pataki in New York and George Bush in Texas. In Arizona there is also interest in following California's example.
In Virginia, Charles Cunningham, the director of voter education for the conservative Christian Coalition, was appointed to the board of James Madison University by conservative governor George Allen. Board members like Cunningham, with a clear ideological or religious agenda, may lead a trend towards a style of university government that mirrors developments in the running of US corporations.