The University of California became a “public trust” in 1879 as part of a larger revision of California’s Constitution approved by California voters. The University henceforth gained the exclusive power to operate, control, and administer the University of California, becoming virtually a fourth branch of state government, a "constitutional corporation . . . equal and coordinate with the legislature, the judiciary and the executive. It was a watershed moment in the history of California’s land-grant public university, fundamentally shaping the state’s subsequent development of the nations, and the world’s, first coherent approach to building a mass higher education system. Status as a public trust set UC on a spectacular course, helping it to create an internal academic culture and drive to meet the socioeconomic needs of the state relatively free of the often contentious political interventions found in many other states. UC emerged as one of the most productive and prestigious university systems in the world. Yet over the past six or so decades, the unusual status of the university’s governing board has been on occasions a source of frustration for lawmakers who have wanted to be more directly involved in controlling and formulating university policy, from admissions practices and tuition, to how funds are raised and spent, what academic programs UC should or should not provide, and proposals to revise the membership and authority of the Regents. The following provides an historical account of how and why the University of California gained this unusual level of autonomy. In essence, and in the context of 1870s California, delegates to the state’s second and last constitutional convention in 1878 heard the complaints of UC’s president Daniel Coit Gilman shortly before he left in frustration to become the head of Johns Hopkins University, and chose to protect it from further “legislative control and popular clamor.” Ultimately, the delegates and the voters chose the university’s lay board with a representative mix of Californians and lawmakers, the Regents, over the legislature as the best way to organize and promote UC.
April 1, 2015
Research and Occasional Papers Series (ROPS)
HOW AND WHY THE UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA GOT ITS AUTONOMY by John Aubrey Douglass CSHE.4.15 (April 2015)