Promise fulfilled and renewed

Irvine is not going to rest on its laurels, says Michael V. Drake, even the Nobel ones

June 20, 2013

In 1964, at the site dedication for the University of California, Irvine, our founding chancellor, Daniel Aldrich Jr, greeted the 15,000 celebrants with these words: “I have a vision that one day this will be a world-class university.” The state of California needed the new institution to meet the demands of a rapidly growing population and a booming economy based on innovation and technology. Being average would not satisfy those needs. From the start, UC Irvine was designed for excellence.

The focus in those early days was on building programmes around outstanding people in the physical sciences and the humanities. Leading academics from around the US were recruited, excited by the opportunity to create something new. These were scholars with strong track records and great promise – 10 per cent of our founding faculty in the sciences went on to win Nobel prizes.

At the same time, there was an emphasis on fulfilling our mission as a publicly funded state university to provide the best education possible to our students. The quality of the student experience was and remains at the core of what we do.

We opened our doors in 1965. By the 1980s our programmes were well established, so the focus shifted to maintaining sustainable growth in the excellence of our faculty. One of the challenges at that time – as it is today – was the availability of sufficient affordable housing for staff. We needed to develop a community next to the campus specifically for university personnel. This was achieved and has proved a great success in recruitment terms.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Irvine started to reap the rewards of its planning. In 1985, Frederick Reines, founding dean of the School of Physical Sciences, became our first National Medal of Science winner. Ten years later, two members of our founding faculty were awarded Nobel prizes: Reines in physics and F. Sherwood Rowland in chemistry. Both awards were given for research performed at Irvine. And in 1996 the institution was elected to the Association of American Universities, the consortium of the leading research-intensives in the US and Canada.

Our upwards trajectory has continued since then. Francisco Ayala was awarded Irvine’s second National Medal of Science in 2002, and three years later Duncan Luce was presented with our third. In 2004, Irwin Rose was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, our third Nobel accolade in recognition of research conducted here.

Since 2005 we have added programmes in public health, pharmaceutical sciences and nursing science, our School of Education and the first new public law school in California in more than 40 years. Our teaching staff includes a Nobel laureate, two National Medal of Science winners, 22 members of the National Academy of Sciences, seven members of the National Academy of Engineering, five members of the Institute of Medicine, 36 members of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and 39 Guggenheim fellows.

Times Higher Education has named Irvine the number one university in the US, and fifth in the world, under 50 years of age. We are very proud to have earned this recognition, which directly reflects the hard work and dedication of tens of thousands of people over the past five decades, and validates the trust of the people of California that this university would accomplish great things.

But the past is prologue, and looking forward we must meet new challenges. We have to continue to pursue excellence in all that we do while maintaining our access and affordability as a public university. The past few years have been difficult economically for everyone, everywhere, and California is no exception. Fifty years ago the state provided more than 80 per cent of our budget: today the figure is about 10 per cent. We make up the difference with tuition charges and fees, private philanthropy, research overheads and services.

Unlike our more established peers, new universities do not have generations of successful alumni to rely on, nor do they have generous endowments that provide a steady stream of much-needed income. We must be entrepreneurial if we are to succeed; innovation and improvement are our watchwords.

As we fulfil the vision of our founders, our goal is to continue to be one of the world’s premier public higher education institutions. We’re looking forward to the next 50 years of blazing a bold new trail for 21st-century universities.

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