Longtime UCLA Professor Jan Reiff, who was a beloved teacher and colleague and one of the people most responsible for helping lead the campus into the era of technological instruction, died unexpectedly on May 4 at her home in Los Angeles. She was 71.
At the time of her death, Reiff was serving as a member of UCLA’s COVID-19 Response and Recovery Task Force and as special assistant for online teaching and learning to Chancellor Gene Block and Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Emily Carter.
“Jan was a kind and generous person, a trusted adviser to me and other leaders across UCLA, and a devoted, beloved member of our community. She served the campus selflessly in many ways over the course of nearly three decades here,” Carter said. “Jan was also bold in her thinking about how we create effective learning environments for our students, most recently leading UCLA’s online education efforts. She played a central role in helping our faculty and other instructors navigate the switch to virtual teaching during the pandemic.”
Reiff, who was a professor of history and statistics, joined the faculty in 1992. In a nod to her deep love of the history of cities, she taught a popular course for freshmen that took them all along Sunset Boulevard to learn about the history of both the famous street and Los Angeles. Also, during her decades on campus, Reiff was a consistent and vocal leader for good university governance and pedagogical innovation.
Reiff served in many UCLA Academic Senate roles including: chair (2013-14), chair of the committee on teaching (2011-2012), executive board at-large member (2009-2011) and graduate council chair (2007-2009), among others. As chair, Reiff helped lead initial faculty efforts to adopt a requirement that all undergraduate students in the UCLA College complete a course focused on diversity. The requirement was ultimately approved in 2015.
“Jan’s leadership style was always one of warmth, generosity, kindness and humility, gently gaining consensus to advance our campus, and unwavering from the high road,” said Shane White, current chair of the Academic Senate and a professor in the school of dentistry. “Jan was beloved by the great many friends she made all over our campus.”
Her colleagues chose Reiff for the Academic Senate’s Distinguished Teaching Award in 2009, because of her creative and highly effective ideas about how to reform education. Both students and professors admired her ambitious multimedia presentations and her use of Hypercities — a historical mapping tool and website developed at UCLA — that allowed students to download their research findings about historic neighborhoods in her class about Los Angeles.
“Jan worked tirelessly to support teaching excellence at UCLA for many years,” said Adrienne Lavine, associate vice provost for the Center for the Advancement of Teaching and a professor of mechanical engineering. “She had a clear vision for online and technology-enhanced teaching at UCLA. The structures she built to realize that vision, such as the online teaching and learning group and the learning management system transition project, and especially the talented people she recruited to enable that vision, will ensure that her legacy lives on at UCLA.
“She had also been an extraordinary force in guiding our campus through the pandemic,” Lavine continued. “She was doing so many different jobs simultaneously that I truly believe it will take at least three people to pick up her recent roles, and even then they will not have the breadth of knowledge and experience she had.”
Reiff was born in the small town of Sterling, Illinois on Nov. 2, 1949. The first in her family to attend college, she completed her undergraduate studies in history at Northwestern University, a change from her original plan to pursue medicine. Reiff was fascinated by Chicago’s energy and diversity, so she endeavored to unearth the histories — and explore the ongoing evolutions — of the Midwestern metropolis and other cities.
Next, Reiff headed to the University of Washington, where she earned her doctorate in 1981. She worked at Chicago’s Newberry Library, Northwestern University, Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, and as a Fulbright Senior Scholar at Universität Bremen in Germany before joining the UCLA faculty.
When Reiff arrived in Westwood, she was already armed with research and expertise in cities — how they form, change through history and function within a global context. One of Reiff’s signature works was 2004’s “Encyclopedia of Chicago,” which she co-authored with James Grossman and Ann Durkin Keating. The encyclopedia earned Reiff an award from the American Association of Publishers and a commendation from the City of Chicago.
In the classroom, Reiff was a visionary who sought to unlock technology’s potential to expand educational opportunities. For years, Reiff’s teaching arsenal included digital and multimedia tools. For more than a decade, she had been heavily involved in the innovative and popular UCLA cluster program, which takes a yearlong, cross-disciplinary approach to general education for freshmen.
“Jan had been part of two different clusters: ‘America in the ’60s’ as well as the cluster she started and ran, ‘L.A.: The Cluster.’ Jan embodied the values of the cluster with her devotion to teaching and understanding of the value of general education,” said Anthony Friscia, the cluster program’s director and associate adjunct professor of integrative biology and physiology. “She will be sorely missed by our program, in addition to the teaching community at UCLA as a whole.”
To Muriel McClendon, associate professor of history, Reiff was more than a colleague — she was a mentor.
“Jan was generous in every way — personally, intellectually and professionally,” McClendon said. “She left every place she went in better shape than she found it. She had such wonderful visions for what UCLA could be and did everything she could to see them realized. And she stood up for what was right — always.”
Scott Waugh, history professor and former executive vice chancellor and provost, said: “Jan’s sudden and unexpected passing is a tragic loss for her family and friends and for all her colleagues at UCLA. Hired for her skills in quantitative history and the application of computers to historical research, Jan generously used those talents to help create a better online teaching environment for the entire campus. She cared deeply about teaching and about student learning, and she helped countless faculty adopt digital and online teaching methods. That background proved invaluable in helping UCLA cope with the challenges of the COVID pandemic. I loved working with Jan and will miss her deeply, as will all the faculty, students and staff who knew her.”