Perspective: UCI Then & Now

By Ramona Agrela

Associate Chancellor


As we approach the University of California, Irvine’s 50th anniversary, our institution is already acknowledged worldwide as equal to, or better than, many universities three or four times our age. But like a young person crossing the threshold into adulthood, this milestone marks a point in history where UC Irvine can confidently say we know who we are and what we are about.

When 1,598 students enrolled on the brand new Irvine campus in 1965, there were five academic divisions (arts, humanities, physical sciences, biological sciences and social sciences) and two professional schools (engineering and business) positioned in a ring to promote the exchange of ideas across the disciplines.

Over the years, this literal and figurative ring has been enriched by the addition of schools for medicine, social ecology, information and computer science and — most recently — law. The law school, first envisioned by the campus’s founders, took more than 40 years to come to fruition. But once it opened its doors in 2008, it quickly exceeded our already high expectations. The American Bar Association granted provisional accreditation at the earliest possible time. Quantitative comparisons of the law school in areas like faculty productivity, federal clerkships secured by students and yield rates place the school among the top 20 nationally. Furthermore, the school is already earning acclaim for providing real-world legal experience to students and providing pro-bono legal assistance to disadvantaged communities.

Physical growth, of course, accompanied the academic growth. In 1965, the campus had just eight buildings — distinctive for their brutalist architecture set amid Irvine’s hilly ranchland. Today, we have 550 buildings but strive to live as lightly on the land as we did in the early days. Our new construction projects incorporate energy efficiency measures that have earned two Leadership in Ene rgy and Environmental Design (LEED) Platinum and eight LEED Gold awards from the U.S. Green Building Council — statistics that put us on par with the nation’s greenest campuses. We hope that our founders would look proudly not only on the campus’ development, but on our environmental stewardship.

Driving the campus’s progress, always, has been its people.  Founding Chancellor Dan Aldrich knew this would be the case and left the space between buildings unpaved to allow the students, staff and faculty to lay paths with their own footsteps. They did so, not only across the campus, but throughout our community and around the world.

In the beginning, established administrators and rising academic stars flocked to the new campus. They flourished in an intellectually rigorous environment that fostered cross-disciplinary collaborations. Over the decades, their talent, hard work and commitment yielded Nobel Prizes, National Medals of Science, the Templeton Prize and many other prizes and honors in disciplines across the campus. Their innovations contributed to everything from air quality and Alzheimer’s treatments to literary theory and the arts. They proved that UC Irvine is a place where world-class research can be — and is – done.

But above all, UC Irvine has proven to be a place that provides a life-changing education to students.  In 1966, 14 graduates could call UC Irvine their alma mater. Our alumni ranks have swelled to 130,000 and grow by nearly 8,000 annually. Our students have enriched the world in countless ways, winning Olympic medals and Pulitzer Prizes, developing the HTTP Internet protocol, founding companies, becoming judges and doctors and Broadway stars. Our students have dug wells in Uganda, treated patients in rural Mexico, helped foster peace in Israel and Palestine, prevented environmental degradation in Sierra Leone and supported disadvantaged high school students in Orange County.  All around us, lives are improved thanks to UC Irvine students.

Our challenge in the next 50 years will be to continue raising the level of excellence at UC Irvine despite profound shifts in federal and state support. We must ensure that the promise of a world-class education remains within reach for anyone and everyone who demonstrates the hard work and talent to succeed in our globally competitive society. UC Irvine needs to do this to keep the promise made by Clark Kerr in his master plan for higher education, not only for the people of California, but as a model for institutions all around the world. If history is any indication, we can rest assured that UC Irvine will succeed and thrive despite the challenges, thanks to the perseverance and values of its people. People who are — and know themselves to be — inspired, empowered and determined to make a difference.


Ramona Agrela is the Associate Chancellor of UC Irvine. She can be reached at