At the edge of campus, far removed from Ring Road, stands a promise for change and hope. On May 14, the Sue and Bill Gross Stem Cell Research Center opened its doors to the public for the building’s dedication.
The event, which began at 11 a.m., included speeches by Center Director Peter Donovan, Chancellor Michael Drake and Bill Gross. Gross is the co-founder and co-chief investment officer of the Newport Beach-based PIMCO, one of the world’s largest investment management firms. In 2006, Gross and his wife, Sue, donated $10 million to UCI in support of stem cell research. The $80 million center also received funding from the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) as well as donations from various sources.
“This is more than just bricks and mortar,” James Mazzo, the chair of the UC Irvine Foundation, said. “This is changing lives.”
The Friday morning dedication ceremony was preceded by open, self-guided tours through the first floor of the research center. Visitors were greeted in the lobby by a screen showing a time-lapse video of the building’s construction. Various lab demonstrations within the building included information about limb regeneration, treating spinal cord injuries and safer drug development.
The 10,000-square-foot building is the first major stem cell research center in Southern California.
“Today is a day of celebration,” Donovan said as the dedication event began.
But on the other side of the outdoor ceremony in the sparse parking lot stood about 30 protesters with signs proclaiming, “Arizona’s Racism is UCI’s Racism” and “UCI heals the backs of rats but breaks the backs of workers.”
“Insource ABM!” the group began chanting as early as 10:15 a.m.
The protest was organized by Worker-Student Alliance (WSA), the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) in response to the university’s April 28 e-mail announcing UCI’s decision to insource custodial workers.
Sociology graduate student Raul Perez said that the e-mail was misleading. “They’re only insourcing the positions, not the workers,” he said. He explained that the current workers would be eligible to apply for their jobs again, but there was no guarantee they would be hired back.
“We’re protesting today because Drake will be here,” Irvine Valley College student Eric Kitayama said. Kitayama is also a member of WSA and AFSCME.
Kitayama explained that the group took their protest to USC two weeks ago in order to get Chancellor Drake’s attention, but failed to meet with him.
“The university has agreed to insource ABM workers,” Cathy Lawhon of UCI Communications responded over the phone. What the University would not agree to, she clarified, was the hiring of workers without performing background checks.
As the protesters began their chanting, UCI police officers roped off a designated “free speech area” in the parking lot behind the tents where the outdoor dedication ceremony was taking place. At 10:30 a.m., the protesters formed a picket line. They marched around the parking lot and chanted as police officers continued to tape off the area.
“We have a right to be here,” Perez said. “This shouldn’t be a reason to corral us.”
The protesters continued marching and chanting as the ceremony began at 11 a.m. The cries of “Whose university?” could be heard over fourth-year musical theatre major Skye Bronfenbrenner’s performance of the national anthem.
“The protesters chose an inappropriate venue and time to voice their opinion,” said Puneet Sidhu, third-year undergraduate student. Sidhu was one of several student researchers present at the dedication event.
“They have a right to free speech, and I understand their reasons,” she said, “but it does not create the necessity to scream during the singing of the national anthem.”
Despite the disruption in the parking lot, the dedication event continued as scheduled. Dr. Hans S. Keirstead, co-director of the Sue and Bill Gross Stem Cell Research Center and associate professor at the Reeve-Irvine Research at UCI, presented Sue and Bill Gross with a photo of a new line of stem cells named for the couple: the Subi Line.
The ceremony ended at noon with Chancellor Drake’s promise that the research center would “enable, empower [and] inspire people to make a difference.”
“These are really wonderful steps forward,” Drake said.