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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 6: The Constitutional Convention of 1878

The University's troubles with its constituencies persisted throughout the 1870s. It was a time of intense political agitation in California, fanned by economic instability, charges of legislative corruption, and headlong population growth. Many believed a new constitution, revised to better reflect the society California had become after thirty years of statehood, would be a constructive step to address the state's ills. In September 1878, delegates met in Sacramento for California's Second Constitutional Convention.

As the convention settled down to work, the University's position was precarious. Some of the earlier charges of mismanagement were revived, and the University was once again attacked by agrarian and labor groups as a bastion of elitism. One proposal was to give the legislature direct authority over the University; another was to elect a majority of the Regents by popular vote. A third was to disband the University entirely and start afresh with an institution devoted exclusively to practical rather than classical education.

But the University had two distinct advantages. The Convention's education committee included two Regents, one of whom—Joseph Winans—was the chair. Winans argued persuasively that a university vulnerable to "sectarian and political designs . . . will never flourish." Just as important, however, was the deep-seated unhappiness with the legislature that prevailed among the delegates. They ultimately decided to entrust the University's fate to its own hands.

By a narrow vote, the University was made a public trust and its autonomy guaranteed under the new State Constitution, approved by the voters on May 17, 1879. Article IX, section 9, gives the Regents "full powers of organization and government, subject only to such Legislative control as may be necessary to insure compliance with the terms of the endowments of the University and the security of its funds." The University is to be "entirely independent of all political or sectarian influence, and kept free therefrom in the appointment of its regents and in the administration of its affairs." The provision bestows upon the University of California a degree of independence shared by few other public institutions in the nation—a fact that had a decisive effect on its future.

By the end of the turbulent 1870s, the University had successfully weathered major threats to its organization and mission, and essentially charted its course. UC would meet its obligations to serve the needs of agriculture and other sectors of the state's growing economy, but it would do so in ways appropriate to a research university and consistent with providing a broad liberal education to its students.





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Last updated 08/15/05.