October 23, 2023

Charles Young, a University of California icon, dies at 91

The legendary, longtime UCLA chancellor was UC Riverside's first class president

Author: J.D. Warren
October 23, 2023

Charles E. “Chuck” Young, who was for 29 years a UCLA chancellor, began his ascent to a legendary, lifelong career in leadership as class president for UC Riverside’s first cohort of students, “The Pioneer Class,” in the 1950s.

Charles E. Young / Credit: UCLA

Young, recalled as a decisive, impactful leader who helped steer the University of California system to prominence, died Oct. 22 at 91 years old.

Young was born Dec. 30, 1931, in San Bernardino, California. At 16, he joined the Air National Guard, and several years later, while a student at San Bernardino Valley College, he served in Japan during the Korean War. After finishing his studies at San Bernardino, the young, married veteran enrolled at just-opened UC Riverside.

When UC Riverside started in 1954 as a public liberal arts college, Young was one of 127 students on a campus with 65 faculty members and five buildings.

Running against two others for class president in 1954, Young wrote to his classmates: “I am convinced that the student body of this college is capable of laying the foundations that are needed if this organization which we are now founding is to be lasting.”

In photographs from his UCR days, he looks the part of a young man set to conquer the world. He sports curly sprigs of slick black hair, rolled shirtsleeves, and a Silver Screen-worthy square jaw.

Presidential candidates Joe Pitruzzello, Vaughn Blankenship, and Young.

“We felt like we were out in pioneer land, in the wilderness, starting a new civilization,” Young said in a 2018 video made by UCR. UCR, he said, “has served as a great foundation for whatever I’ve been able to do since then.”

Young earned his bachelor’s degree in 1955. After UCR, he earned a master’s in 1957 and a doctorate in 1960, both in political science at UCLA. In 1968, at age 36, Young was named chancellor of UCLA, still the youngest chancellor ever appointed in the University of California system.

In his time at UCLA, it transformed from a regional institution to a world-class research university. When Young became chancellor, the campus had 19,000 undergraduates, one endowed faculty chair and an annual operating budget of about $170 million; by the end of his tenure, the undergraduate student body had grown by 5,000, there were 120 endowed chairs and the budget had risen to almost $2 billion.

“He was tireless in many respects,” said John Sandbrook, a longtime colleague. “He was a ‘walk the floor’ type of CEO and would walk, unannounced and unplanned, into meetings and offices and just start observing and participating.”

“If I see something that needs to be done, it has to be done,” Young said in the 2018 UCR video. “And who else is going to do it?”

Young holding bagpipes at an early UCR rally.

In an interview in 2020, Young reflected on a mentor, UCR’s first provost, Gordon Watkins. Young described Watkins as “gentle, very gentle, but very clearly in charge. He recruited good people and let the people do their job. I took that as part of my own methodology.”

But, as he said, Young was only partly a Gordon Watkins-style leader.

“Hiring good people was a major tenet of Chuck's style, but I would never call him ‘gentle,’” said Sandbrook, who was Young’s assistant from the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s. “The words/phrases that folks are using are ‘tornado,’ ‘force of nature,’ etc. He was always in charge.”

UCLA’s Charles E. Young Research Library bears his name, as do the campus’s main internal roadway and the Grand Salon in Kerckhoff Hall. In 1986, UCLA established the Charles E. Young Humanitarian Award to recognize and encourage students who are committed to public service.

Two years after retiring as UCLA chancellor, Young joined the University of Florida, serving as president from 1999 to 2003. From 2004 to 2006, he was president of the Qatar Foundation, then the CEO of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art from 2008 to 2010. By then in his mid-80s, Young served as superintendent of the Sonoma Valley School District during the 2016–17 school year.

In October 2018, UCR named Young, who was its first Alumni Association president, the recipient of the UCR Medallion “in recognition of extraordinary service, dedication, and leadership in the field of education.”

Young and classmates in a UCR yearbook photo.

“Although known widely for almost three decades as UCLA’s chancellor, Dr. Young never forgot his Inland Empire roots,” said Kim Wilcox, UCR’s chancellor. “He felt enormous pride at having started his journey on what was then the fledgling campus in Riverside.”

His storied career carried him far from his beginnings as a young, married war veteran at UCR. But in the past 15 years, after returning from Qatar, he re-engaged with UCR and its Pioneer Class reunions. The last Pioneer Class reunion was held this past spring. Young was unable to attend, but recorded a video for his classmates to view.

In the video, Young reflected on the expanse of sidewalk with the names of Pioneer Class members, inscribed by their own hands. The sidewalk, originally outside the physical education building, now sits in the HUB Courtyard, the inscriptions as crisp as they were nearly 70 years ago. Young summoned other events from UCR’s first year, including the creation of the Big C atop Box Springs Mountain, and the high-spirited debate over the eventual Highlander nickname UCR would adopt.

“Despite the fact these events occurred about 68 years ago, they are very much on my mind today,” he said in the video, recorded in March 2023. “We were a special group in a special setting.”

“I have had a wonderful time doing mostly what I loved to do,” he said of his life post-UCR. “And none of it was possible without that experience as a UCR student.”

Young is survived by his second wife, Judy, who he married in 2002; his son, Charles Young Jr.; his stepdaughter Lisa Rendic; his stepson Christopher Hillman, seven grandchildren, two step-grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren. He was predeceased by his wife of 51 years, Sue K. Young, and his daughter, Elizabeth.

Portions of this story are from a UCLA Newsroom news obituary that details Young's accomplishments at UCLA.

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