Alumni Profile

Charles E. Young ’55

The former UCLA chancellor and 2018 UCR Medallion winner reflects on his days as a Highlander and career in higher education.

By Jessica Weber


When Charles E. Young first arrived at UC Riverside in the spring of 1954, the campus consisted of little more than a handful of buildings, some of which were still under construction.

“We felt like we were out in pioneer land in the wilderness, starting a new civilization,” said the 86-year-old Young, a member of the inaugural class of 127 students. “The concept of UCR at the time impressed me greatly and still does to this day.”

Young was soon elected as UCR’s first student-body president. He worked with the administration and Provost Gordon Watkins to establish student organizations and athletics, and took part in selecting the Highlander name. He even helped lay the iconic “C” atop Box Springs Mountain.

Born in Highland, California, in 1931, Young attended San Bernardino High School, where he played football and performed in school plays. After serving two years in the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War, Young attended San Bernardino Valley College before transferring to the newly formed UCR, where he graduated with honors and a bachelor’s degree in political science in 1955.

Young later earned a master’s degree and doctorate in political science from UCLA. As a staff member under Clark Kerr, who served as University of California president from 1958–67, Young helped create the Master Plan for Higher Education in California before returning to UCLA to serve in various executive roles under then-Chancellor Franklin D. Murphy, and as a professor of political science. Young was later named Murphy’s successor, making him the nation’s youngest head of a major university, at the age of 36.

Young served as UCLA chancellor from 1968–97. Under his leadership, UCLA experienced rapid growth in funding, faculty, and enrollment, and became one of the nation’s top research institutions. Young was a vocal supporter of affirmative action, recruitment of minority faculty, and the establishment of ethnic studies centers. During his tenure, UCLA saw a sharp rise in enrollment of ethnic minorities — from 23 percent to nearly 60 percent — but not without resistance, including from Sacramento.

“People said, ‘You’re going to reduce the quality if you let all these people in,’ and I said, ‘No, we’re not.’ Every student who is educated at UCLA, when we had become the kind of diverse university we should be, is better educated than before we were diverse.”

While Young retired as chancellor in 1997, his career in higher education never stopped. He served as president of the University of Florida from 1999 to 2003, and then as president of the Qatar Foundation, an organization focused on educational and scientific initiatives, from 2004–06.

In 2008, Young was approached by entrepreneur and philanthropist Eli Broad about becoming CEO of The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, known as MOCA, which was facing significant financial hardship in the wake of the recession. At 77, Young took on the new challenge and served in the role for two years.

Young in 1955 (UCR Tartan/1955)

“An art museum is like anything else,” he said. “You’ve got to make it work. You’ve got to bring people together. You’ve got to have them working together, and you’ve got to make decisions that make sense and that people will put into effect. It wasn’t easy. But I don’t think I’ve ever done the easy thing.”

Young eventually moved to Sonoma to retire, but it wasn’t long before he was called into public service yet again. In 2017, he was named interim superintendent of the Sonoma Valley Unified School District following the abrupt resignation of the previous superintendent. Appointed to a one-year term, Young was charged with rebuilding community trust and stabilizing finances.

Young has never forgotten his Highlander roots, and he credits UCR with giving him the leadership skills to succeed throughout 50-plus years in higher education.

“I got a great education, and I got a lot of experience working with other people,” he said. “It’s really just a memory of wonderful people, wonderful friends, a great learning environment, and the feeling of building something. How lucky I was to come along at just the time that UCR was opening and be a part of that initial group.”

Young received the UCR Medallion in 2018 in recognition of his extraordinary service, dedication, and leadership in the field of education, and for his enduring support of UCR and the community.