Everyone calls him Willie, but behind the self-effacing façade is a serious academic who has led the largest school at UCI for two decades.

William R. Schonfeld — called the “Dean of Deans” by his fans — is retiring as dean of the School of Social Sciences after 20 years.

During his tenure he has not only earned several honors, but the respect and admiration of his colleagues, faculty and staff, a devotion evidenced by the fact that every department chair in the school nominated him for this year’s Lauds & Laurels Extraordinarius Award, which he received May 9.

When Schonfeld arrived in Irvine from the East Coast in 1970, he knew this was no place like home.

“At first I felt that I had arrived in an extraterrestrial polity —it had no resemblance to any reality that I had known,” he says. “I thought this is a crazy place, this is science fiction.”

What seduced him in time was the idea of building a school from scratch. Everything was ahead for UCI and the future loomed promising. The interdisciplinary possibilities of the social sciences at UCI captured his intellect and imagination.

“You didn’t have dead wood because you didn’t have much wood at all,” he says. “There were no constraints about what you taught so you were free to roam into any area that you were interested in and in social sciences, the possibilities were endless.”

A Phi Beta Kappa graduate of New York University in 1964, Schonfeld received his graduate training and Ph.D. in politics from Princeton University in 1970. That year he joined the UCI faculty in the School of Social Sciences as an assistant professor of political science. He was promoted to full professor in 1981 and became dean in 1982.

Schonfeld has served under every chancellor in the history of the campus. More than 30 years after the start of his academic administrative career at UCI, he is widely regarded as one of the most distinguished administrators — and the longest serving administrator in the school’s history.

Schonfeld has always been iconoclastic and famous for his candor. He doesn’t mince words.

“I don’t think I’ve been a cookie cutter sort of person,” he says. “And self-censorship is not my style. I’ve always thought that the filter between my brain and tongue is underdeveloped.”

Schonfeld’s colleagues would agree.

Yes, he speaks the truth, said Mark Petracca, chair of political science, who authored the Extraordinarius nomination letter. “It is not an overstatement to suggest that Schonfeld has become a living legend on the UCI campus.”

“For nearly 30 years I have observed his contributions to the campus community with amazement and great admiration,” says James Danziger, professor of political science. “My amazement has been generated by his remarkable and sustained energy and commitment to create a first-rate university with strong ties to the local community and the broader professional world.”

“I came to appreciate his wit and wisdom,” Jack Peltason, former UC president and former UCI chancellor, wrote in his nomination letter. “He is a strong personality: articulate and with a presence big enough to fill the room. But a feature of his leadership that I have noted and appreciated the most is that he has been most generous in acknowledging and focusing attention on the contributions of others rather than claiming any for himself.”

Today the School of Social Sciences has more members of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences than any other school at UCI. About 40 percent of UCI’s graduates graduate from the school and in the last decade many top-ranked faculty have been recruited, including Frank Bean, David Snow, Barbara Dosher, Calvin Morrill, Penelope Maddy and George Sperling, among others.

Even though the School of Social Sciences is the largest school on campus, faculty and department chairs say it has a cozy, intimate feel, largely due to Schonfeld’s management style. Not to say that all the years have been smooth sailing. The early nineties saw budget cutbacks and retrenchment. The mid 1990s is often viewed as the dark days for many reasons. But throughout the good years and bad, the school seemed to stay on even keel.

“Even in the tight budget years, we had a sense of community that we were all in the same boat,” says Schonfeld. “But the boat metaphor is a dangerous one because some might think that to stay afloat, some departments or faculty should be thrown out to keep the boat lighter.

“Rather, you have to have a commitment to intellectual pluralism and a very realistic understanding that it takes many different talents to sustain high standards. It’s easy to generate turmoil or to make a mess of things. What’s hard is to keep outstanding staff and faculty when things do need to be cut. And we have kept and recruited outstanding faculty and staff in the School of Social Sciences.”

Schonfeld will be returning to teaching, although he never really left the classroom. Throughout his deanship he has taught an introduction to political science course and co-taught a campuswide honors course.

Along with his wit and candor, Schonfeld is known for his commitment to UCI and the School of Social Sciences.

“I have always identified myself as a member of the UCI community, specifically the School of Social Sciences,” he says. “I could never imagine myself any other place. It’s been my life.”