The Power of Positive Change


By Jack Feuer

Published May 10, 2019 5:29 PM

A public university exists not only to impart knowledge, but also to apply that knowledge to make a better world. For 100 years, UCLA has done just that.

A public university does not exist solely to educate its students. It also puts knowledge into action and takes scholarship to the streets. In fact, “a public university has a unique obligation to do this,” says former Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky ’71, M.A. ’72, director of the Los Angeles Initiative at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs.

Impact. That is the true measure of any public university. At UCLA, making the world a better place is more than an obligation. It is a mission. And has been for 100 years.

Those Who Teach Can Also Do

“For 100 years, UCLA’s students, teachers and staff have used their knowledge and creativity to improve our city and world,” notes Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. “From pioneering the Internet to producing leaders like Mayor Tom Bradley, UCLA has always helped to write the story of Los Angeles.”

That change-agent university has been a century in the making. It was launched in 1919 as a small commuter college, but even then, there was an emphasis on service as defined by the practical application of knowledge.

Most of the 1,338 students who enrolled in September 1919, after all, were studying to be high school teachers. The first degree the university awarded was Bachelor of Education. And it didn’t take long for the unstoppable Bruin spirit to produce research in service to the community — psychologist and faculty member Grace Fernald opened the first U.S. clinic for remedial reading in 1921.

The campus on Vermont Avenue was too small, however, so students and alumni canvassed to build support for a new location. Fittingly, it was the public — the people of Los Angeles, Santa Monica, Beverly Hills and Venice — who voted for bonds to fund a new campus, in Westwood.

“It is not finished yet, and there is much dust and confusion about it,” wrote director Ernest Carroll Moore when the new campus opened its doors in 1929. “It remains for us to live in these houses of aspiration and of work.”

Be the Change

Over the next few decades, UCLA evolved into the engine of positive change that it is today. For example, the university was a pioneer in brain mapping, sent the first message over what would become the Internet and designed some of the earliest space suits (and claim alumni among some of the very first American astronauts).

North Campus had its breakthroughs, as well. As famed UCLA professor and music director Peter Sellars observes, “The arts provide a safe zone of radical inclusivity and experimentation which can unlock some of the most intractable issues, individuals and communities, and create flexibility, possibility and imaginative openings and partnerships that were previously unthinkable.”

After World War II, the determination to build a new and better world sparked new academic units: the schools of engineering, law, medicine and nursing, and the Department of Social Welfare. The Library acquired its millionth volume, and UCLA Medical Center introduced its unique blend of healing and innovation with the opening in 1955 of what the press called the nation’s “first atomic era hospital.” (This would be followed a half-century later, after a major renovation and relocation, by the nation’s “first digital era hospital.”) And the focus on community remained front and center. Even education was seen as a way of making a better world.

“UCLA charged me $29 a semester when I started,” recalls businessman and philanthropist Meyer Luskin ’49, “and when I got back from the service after World War II, it was still quite low. So the university got a great return on their investment, and so did society, because the same was done for thousands of young people who lived in the lowest socioeconomic districts of the city and state. It raised their lives and they, in turn, have contributed to their communities.”

Top Down

For 10 decades, a series of extraordinary leaders has supported UCLA’s role in society. Franklin D. Murphy, whose namesake sculpture garden is a campus icon, was chancellor for most of the 1960s and one of Los Angeles’ greatest cultural leaders. Among a long and extraordinary list of accomplishments, Murphy wrote the plan that would eventually become the Getty Center.

In a commencement speech in 1966, Murphy said, “We must be in the library, but we also must be in Watts. We must be in the laboratory, but we also must be on the moon. We will be in the lecture rooms, but we will also be in the operating rooms. Without apology, indeed with undisturbed and, I hope, growing commitment, we will serve the world of pure scholarship and the world of man and his problems, and both with distinction.”

Murphy was succeeded by Charles E. Young M.A. ’57, Ph.D. ’60, who led the university for the balance of the century and, among other accomplishments, oversaw the creation of UCLA’s four ethnic studies centers, whose scholarship is more vital than ever in today’s fractious moment in U.S. history. Following Young was Albert Carnesale, whose UCLA in L.A. initiative took scholarship to the streets, where it could change lives. Today, Chancellor Gene Block has led an intensified effort to align with and improve the city and its communities.

By the People

Impact is made by people, and UCLA’s 500,000 alumni continue to pursue the university’s mission with passion and success. Aided by the UCLA Alumni Association, alumni volunteers and networks play a critical role in providing scholarships, bringing Bruin communities closer around the world and acting as ambassadors of UCLA in all sectors of society.

Wherever you go on campus, this ideal of service is ever-present. At the Hammer Museum, for example, director Ann Philbin says, “Our 300 public programs per year are a significant part of the Hammer’s program — presenting everything from conversations about racial and gender equality to deep dives into gerrymandering and voter suppression, as well as poetry readings, films, dance and much more.”

Today, UCLA is poised — and willing — to take an even more active role in imagining and then creating a better world, starting with the multicultural dynamo right outside its door.

“Los Angeles is in the middle of an incredible phase in its history,” says Casey Wasserman ’96, civic leader, entrepreneur and philanthropist. “The quantity, caliber and scale of change is extraordinary. That means that challenges are getting more complex, and UCLA, with its breadth and depth, has an extraordinary opportunity to partner with L.A. so that both achieve their full potential over the next 100 years.”



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