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Something New Under the Los Angeles Sun: UCLA’s Early Years, 1919-1938


Here we argue that UCLA’s first two decades show it to be a unique historical case: it was a state normal school that quickly became a research university, not just a teaching college, a branch campus quickly achieving parity with its parent institution, the first elite research university comprised of a large majority of women students, the first major public research university founded in the twentieth century, the first public/private partnership, even if silent, to plan a public university alongside a private commercial village or college town, and one of the first colleges to be used as a prime filming site for Hollywood film studios using it to portray a typical American college. Unlike most, if not all, histories of specific universities, much of the study is devoted to the broader historical education context in which UCLA is embedded, and therefore, the popular new public high schools in Los Angeles, UCLA’s predecessors and later competitors in the private sector such as Caltech, USC, Pomona, Occidental, and new junior (later, community) colleges are discussed and examined here. This study is not limited to the standard academic schedule and is not restricted to UCLA’s campus, but also concerns the 1918 flu pandemic, rise of summer session programs, and shows the silent real estate development partnership between public and private sector actors when UCLA moved to its new campus in Westwood.

UCLA moved its campus in the 1920s from a few miles north of USC on Vermont Avenue all the way to then pastoral Westwood. Its historical identity was fixed then, as a flagship public university set in the city, but not really of the city. (USC, conversely, embraced its role as the city's university during this period, even though a private institution). Neighboring Westwood Village was the first privately planned college town, nestled among the tony neighborhoods of Bel Air to the north and Holmby Hills to the east. Located in such an exclusive area, UCLA was from the start a difficult environment for students of color and students coming from low-income backgrounds, but still offered great opportunities to many Southern Californians who had until then lacked a local public sector choice for college, and later, for graduate school. UCLA’s early institutional saga was cast in power and prestige, with the ambitions of its faculty and students matching those of its rapidly growing host city.

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