Legendary professor Alan Cerf, who taught thousands over six decades, passes away

Prof. Alan Cerf teaching in Barrows Hall in 1979.

Accounting Professor Alan Robert Cerf, who taught more than 13,000 students over 62 years at Berkeley-Haas, died August 24, of natural causes at his home in Piedmont. He was 93.

Cerf, BS 44, began his academic career at UC Berkeley in 1956. His research focused mainly on taxation and auditing. Decades after many of his peers had retired, Cerf was still teaching a taxation class to 60 Berkeley-Haas undergraduates last year.

Alan Cerf
Prof. Alan Cerf

Over the course of his Berkeley-Haas career, Cerf held prestigious positions and received several key honors. He served as chairman of the school’s Accounting Group from 1978 to 1982. Cerf was the first director of UC Berkeley’s San Francisco MBA Program, staffed by business school faculty. In 1984, he received the Faculty Excellence Award for Teaching and Research from the California CPA Foundation.

In April 2011, Cerf was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award for distinguished contributions to the Haas accounting program. “I figured out the other day that I’ve taught 13,440 students,” Cerf said at the event, held at the Claremont Hotel.

A strong believer that exercise was a key to a long, healthy life, Cerf was known for assigning a student to lead his classes in a quick round of calisthenics. It was that enthusiasm, energy, and enjoyment for teaching that impressed both students and the faculty.

Adj. Prof. Nora Silver, faculty director of the Center for Social Sector Leadership at Haas, recalled Cerf’s warmth toward her when she joined the school in 2003. “I was a new instructor down the hall from him and he never failed to stop and say hello,” she said. “He’d see me come in from exercising and he gave me an ‘Atta boy—you’ve got to take care of yourself.’ He was just so warm, encouraging and positive, and that just made a difference for me.”

“They were all students of Alan’s”

Prof. Xiao Jun Zhang, chair of the Accounting Group, who has been at Haas since 1998, called Cerf a true legend who taught generations of students with kindness and high teaching standards. Zhang recalled attending meetings of the Berkeley-Haas Center for Financial Reporting and Management with Cerf, who was surrounded by former students.

“What truly impressed me at these meetings was that there were senior partners who were retiring from one of the Big Four accounting firms along with Alan’s undergraduate students who were just entering the profession,” he said. “They were all students of Alan’s.”

During his decades at Berkeley, Cerf was at the forefront of many changes: In interviews, he noted the growth in the number of female students from a conspicuous few in class to many; the expansion of the business school from the College of Commerce during his undergraduate days; and the addition of new programs like the evening MBA, of which Cerf was the first director. In business education, Cerf saw a shift away from studying specialized areas such as accounting and marketing to a broader managerial approach to business education.

“An extraordinary lifetime of contribution”

For his 90th birthday, the Haas community surprised Cerf with a birthday party in the Wells Fargo Room. At the time, Dean Rich Lyons said: “This is an extraordinary lifetime of contribution not just to this institution but to so many people’s lives. He’s advanced the careers and made better lives for an awful lot of our students.”

Alumnus Paul Reshke, BS 82, a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers, credited Cerf with shifting the direction of his career 32 years ago. He had already landed a job at a big accounting firm when he decided to take Cerf’s tax class during senior year. “Little did I know that class would put a seed in my head, and within five months of starting I moved out of auditing and transferred to tax and ended up making it my career,” Reshke said.

Alan Cerf's surprise 90th birthday party at Haas.
Prof. Alan Cerf’s surprise 90th birthday party at Haas.

Cerf was born in 1924, to Arthur and Addie Zander Cerf in San Francisco. He graduated from George Washington High School in 1941. In 1944, he graduated from the UC Berkeley, earning his degree when the business school was called the College of Commerce and the dean was E.T. Grether.

Cerf served in the US Navy during World War II. When the war ended, Cerf returned to Harvard, where he earned his MBA in 1947. He then worked at an accounting firm and later at his father’s haberdashery. He received his PhD in economics from Stanford University in 1952.

Cerf and his wife, Lila, were married for almost 66 years. Lila was his soulmate, his “sweetheart,” the love of his life, according to the family.

“He was an affectionate father, rare for a man of his generation,” his son Bob Cerf said. “His children and grandchildren could see the love he had for them in his eyes and in his hugs. They could sense his love by the way he listened when he called to check in.”

Cerf was predeceased by his brother, Arthur Cerf MD, who also passed away at 93, as did their father, Arthur Cerf. Cerf is survived by his loving and devoted wife, Lila Spitzer Cerf, his sons Robert, Douglas, Jeffery, Richard, and daughter, Nancy. His grandchildren Elizabeth (Brett) Cerf Weliever, Robert (Rick) Cerf, Warren (Bart) Cerf, Jonathan (Jake) Cerf, Cody Cerf, Ryan Cerf, Emily Cerf, Natalie Cerf, Colbie Atlas, Brynn Atlas and Justin Atlas and his great-grandchildren Grady and Elizabeth (Blakely) Weliever and Elizabeth (Ellie) Cerf. Nieces and nephews Lawrence Cerf, Suzanne Cerf Colvin, Daniel Cerf; and grand-nephews Matt and Michael Colvin and Jordan, Bradley and Josh Cerf; and great-grand-nephews Lev and Shai Colvin.

In lieu of flowers, please make donations in Cerf’s memory to the Haas School of Business or to UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital.

Haas School of Business
Student Excellence and Support
1995 University Ave., Suite 400
Berkeley, CA 94704-1070

(Note: “In memory of Alan Cerf” in memo line)

Gifts can also be made online or by calling 510-643-9789.

UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospitals Foundation
P.O. Box 45339
San Francisco, CA 94145-0339

(Note: “In memory of Alan Cerf” in memo line)

Gifts can also be made online or by calling 877-499-UCSF.

The family is holding a celebration to honor Cerf’s life Sunday, Sept. 24, 2017 from 1:30-3:30pm at Sequoyah Country Club, 4550 Heafey Road in Oakland. The family welcomes all who would like to attend.