It’s hard to imagine a truer Bruin than retired administrator and adjunct professor Tom Lifka, who has devoted his life to UCLA.
“Tom Lifka has always been more than a treasured friend to UCLA, the division of social sciences and the department of history — he’s been a true inspiration to countless members of our community,” said Abel Valenzuela, interim dean of social sciences. “His impact is as far-reaching, transformative and profound as his remarkable example and generosity.”
This year, Lifka finalized a bequest intent to benefit the UCLA Department of History through his estate to establish a $4 million endowed graduate fellowship, one of the largest of its kind in the history of the university’s division of social sciences.
Future recipients of the Thomas E. Lifka Graduate Fellowship in History will be empowered to study Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Russia or other nations formerly part of the Soviet Union. Or, if they prefer, they can study U.S. national, foreign or diplomatic policy.
“I remember how much it meant to me to receive both admission and significant fellowships when I was doing my Ph.D., so it’s very satisfying to me to be able to do that for others,” Lifka said. “Particularly at a time when recruiting people to pursue graduate degrees in history is not the easiest, I hope that having a good source of funding will encourage good people to follow this path. Whatever careers they end up following, having people trained in the way historians think — following evidence carefully balanced — is crucial for solving many of today’s problems.”
This gift is very much in line with Lifka’s lifetime dedication to UCLA, where he built a nearly 30-year administrative career. The associate vice chancellor for student academic services at the time of his retirement in 2011, Lifka also served as a UCLA adjunct professor of history and helped lead efforts to make the campus more LGBTQ-friendly. He currently sits on the UCLA Department of History Board of Advisors.
In addition, Lifka established the Thomas E. Lifka Chair in History — currently held by Kelly Lytle Hernández — and the Thomas E. Lifka Dissertation Prize. The division of social sciences recently honored him by creating the Thomas E. Lifka Staff Excellence Award and naming him its first recipient.
“The entire experience, of course, reinforces my life’s great gratification in becoming an active part of the UCLA community over 40 years ago,” Lifka said when he received the honor.
And the feeling has always been mutual.
“Fittingly for his field of scholarship, Tom Lifka is no stranger to making history — the immeasurable difference he has made in the lives of UCLA community members in history and beyond will be felt for generations,” said Kevin Terraciano, professor and department chair of history. “We are so thankful for his visionary kindness and exemplary integrity.”
A Renaissance man and polymath, Lifka earned a bachelor’s degree in history from Northwestern University, and then his master’s and doctoral degrees from Harvard University. He’s also an accomplished amateur painter and a longtime volunteer docent at both the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Holocaust Museum LA, where he lectures on Holocaust history. He has also taught at the University of Southern California and Northwestern, but he sees something very special in his Bruin roots.
“I was fortunate to pursue a career at UCLA, and I feel a great sense of indebtedness. I firmly believe when people are in a position to do so, they should give their money away,” Lifka said. “I never thought I’d be in that position myself, so it’s highly satisfying to be able to give back.”