UCOP > A Brief History of the University of California > Time's Noblest Offspring >

The University of California: What Makes It Unique?

Mind Before Mines

Land and a Charter

The University

President Gilman

The Constitutional Convention of 1878

Early Benefactors

Growth for the Twentieth Century


Chapter 1: The University of California: What Makes It Unique?

Although the ministers, legislators, and entrepreneurs who labored to create the University looked eastward as far as Yale and even Oxford for their models, California's isolated geography and pioneering culture meant that the University of California would be different. The state had no long-standing tradition of private colleges and universities; it became an active and enthusiastic builder of public educational institutions early on.

The financial struggles of the young university notwithstanding, California went on to develop one of the nation's first organized and integrated systems of public higher education, its first network of community colleges, and its first multicampus research university-the University of California. Amid budget crises, political upheavals, and regional turf wars, a steady force propelling higher education forward was the California conviction, articulated most clearly by the Progressives early in the twentieth century, that education is a potent force in reshaping society and promoting prosperity. More than any other Americans, Californians believed in public education and were willing to pay for it. California's wealth, flowing first from its gold-laden mountains and rich agricultural valleys and later from the entrepreneurial talent of its citizens, gave the state the resources to pursue its dream of universal education.

Indispensable as they are, conviction and dollars alone would not have built a great university. The University of California's rise to eminence was the result of other fortunate circumstances besides the zeal of Californians for their land-grant institution. Among them must be counted UC's constitutional autonomy, which makes UC the legal equivalent of a fourth branch of state government. Though autonomy has never meant freedom from outside influence, at critical times it has been a strong shield against political winds.

The universitywide Academic Senate-the body that represents the faculty in the governance of UC-has long been among the most powerful in American higher education. Its insistence on rigorous peer review of faculty achievements, and its central role in governing the University, have ensured the primacy of academic quality and academic values. The presence of a universitywide senate, in addition to the senates on each campus, engenders a sense of unity in a huge and decentralized academic enterprise.

The organization of California higher education into a tripartite system under the 1960 Master Plan has freed each of the public segments-the California Community Colleges, the California State University (CSU), and UC-to concentrate on cultivating its own particular set of students as well as pursuing excellence in its assigned mission.

And UC's character as a multicampus system has been of overriding importance in its evolution. The University began as a single campus but became ten, a process that at times beat against the tide of opinion within and outside the UC community. The forced marriage of UC Berkeley and UC Los Angeles (UCLA) in the 1920s was the first step toward a confederation of research universities that differ from each other in many ways, yet are the same in several crucial respects. Every campus shares the same mandate for teaching, research, and public service and the same responsibility for demanding high academic standards. Unity of mission distinguishes UC from most other American multicampus systems. It has promoted competition and cooperation among the campuses, and that has in turn encouraged ambitious aspirations and high performance.

Every UC President since Robert Gordon Sproul has been forced to deal with the tension between the Office of the President and the campuses, and in the process to develop a perspective on the right balance between centralization and decentralization, oversight and independence. This dynamic tension has, in turn, required the University's leaders to rethink periodically what the University is and what it could be.

UC began as a small regional institution with big ideas about its future. Today it belongs not only to the society that created it but to the world, as one of just a handful of truly great universities. The University will always bear an indissoluble relationship to the State of California, however, because it is both a symbol and an engine of opportunity, that aspiration at the heart of the California dream.

No one has expressed this more eloquently than author and UC alumna Joan Didion. The University, she said, "seems to me more and more to be California's highest, most articulate idea of itself, the most coherent-perhaps the only coherent-expression of the California possibility."



The College of California in Oakland gave impetus to the creation of the University of California by offering to transfer all of its lands, buildings, and books to the state in 1867.

Drawing by William Fain.


Copyright © 2005
The Regents of the University of California. All rights reserved.
Last updated 08/15/05.