Charles E. Young, UCLA chancellor emeritus, celebrated his 90th birthday on Dec. 30. Young has lived in Sonoma, California, for the past decade, but visits the campus in Westwood at least annually. UCLA Newsroom asked Young to reflect on his years of leadership and the trajectory of UCLA and the University of California system.

Charles E. Young became chancellor of UCLA on Sept. 1, 1968. He was then 36 years old, the youngest chancellor ever appointed at any UC campus. His tenure of 29 years made him one of the longest-serving leaders in American higher education.

The UCLA of 1968 had yet to celebrate its 50th anniversary. The Inverted Fountain was brand new. Some students lived in the four high-rise residence halls, but most were commuters. There were around 19,000 undergraduates enrolled — compared to about 24,000 when Young retired in 1997. The rate of growth has not abated; today there are more than 32,000 undergraduates.

“I said when I was first selected, my primary goal would be to raise the quality of UCLA by hiring better and better professors, and doing a better and better job of educating the students,” Young said.

At the beginning of his tenure, the U.S. News & World Report college rankings did not yet exist. In the 1998 edition, UCLA was ranked fifth among public universities. Since 2018, UCLA has been the number one public university in that ranking. UCLA also shines in international rankings such as the U.K.-based Times Higher Education World University Rankings.

Young is also proud of how much more diverse the student body has become.

“UCLA is a better university today than it was before we became diverse,” he said. “Any student at UCLA today has a better chance of learning what they ought to learn than they would have before.” The year before Young took office, the percentage of minority students at UCLA was estimated at 12%. Today more than two-thirds of UCLA undergraduates are Asian American, Latino, Black or American Indian — plus students hail from more than 80 different countries.

Young reminisced about some of the outstanding people he worked with, including Franklin Murphy, who he succeeded as chancellor.

“I was a disciple at Franklin Murphy’s feet. I learned a lot,” he said. “Throughout my 29 years as chancellor, we had a group of people who worked together, played together.”

He remembered lively discussions and people who followed through on decisions. “It was an experience I would not have dreamed possible.”

Despite challenges UCLA and other public universities in California have faced, Young said he’s optimistic about the future. “It’s amazing that the leadership of the campus and of the university has been able to maintain and, I think, increase the quality of the institution despite serious problems which confront it.” 

After Young retired at the end of the 1997 academic year, the University Research Library was renamed the Charles E. Young Research Library. The tribute meant a great deal to him. “The library is the heart of the university,” Young said.

Circle Drive was also renamed Charles E. Young Drive. “In 2008 or 2009, I taught a course in political science and public policy,” Young recalls. “One of students said, ‘Are you the guy named after that street?’” Young explained to the student that “it works the other way around.”

Young’s association with the University of California began at UC Riverside, where in 1954–55 he was the first person to be elected student body president. He earned his master’s degree and doctorate from UCLA, and served as one of the key staff for UC President Clark Kerr on the formulation of the California Master Plan for Higher Education.

Young had this advice for new students: “Work hard. Get involved in as many things as you can do successfully, without diverting yourself from your major goal. And have fun.”