By Mary Braswell
In a landmark year for UCLA, the celebration may be loudest in the northwest corner of campus, home to the Luskin School of Public Affairs.
This year marks both the university’s centennial and the Luskin School’s silver anniversary — a quarter-century dedicated to advancing the public good through teaching, research, advocacy and innovation.
It’s clearly a time to party, and a record 620 students, alumni, faculty, staff and friends answered the call in September, gathering at the annual Block Party to raise a toast to UCLA Luskin. But it’s also a time to reflect on lessons from an initially rocky union and, most importantly, to create a roadmap for the future.
As 2020 dawns, Dean Gary Segura is confident that a collaborative spirit among the three pillars of planning, policymaking and social welfare will invigorate UCLA Luskin and extend its reach into the community, nation and world.
“What ties us together as a School is our focus on human well-being, broadly conceived,” Segura said. “The Luskin faculty have received Ph.D.s from 14 different fields of study. Our disciplines may encourage us to focus on well-being at the individual, family, community, metropolitan, polity or even global levels of analysis. But what we share in common is the conviction that social fabrics and social institutions are best when they facilitate human security, dignity and opportunity.”
In the three years since Segura’s arrival, the School has seen remarkable growth. A signature achievement is the creation of an undergraduate major in public affairs, which melds critical thinking, experiential learning, research methodology and a public service ethos. More than 250 students have already come on board.
The undergraduate curriculum draws in faculty from every UCLA Luskin program, all with the common goal of providing a holistic, transdisciplinary public affairs education. As part of that effort, explorations are underway for an additional degree: the executive master’s in public affairs, designed to equip professionals and public servants to step into leadership positions.
Expanding knowledge is at the core, fueled by the scholarship of faculty and a wide range of research centers. In just over two years, UCLA Luskin has launched several new ventures:
• Latino Policy and Politics Initiative combines policy analysis with civic engagement, and recently received $2.5 million in support from the California Legislature.
• International Development and Policy Outreach focuses on research aimed at empowering women and children around the world.
• Latin American Cities Initiative, commonly known as Ciudades, builds ties among planners and policymakers across the Americas.
This year, they will be joined by the Hub for Health Innovation, Policy and Practice, which conducts research to improve community health, particularly among the LGBTQ population and other marginalized groups. In addition, the School expects to launch a global policy initiative to foster safe and welcoming schools and communities to demonstrate that good science can be used to better the lives of students around the world.
The schools initiative will be directed by Professor Ron Avi Astor, an internationally recognized expert on school safety and violence, who joined the faculty in Social Welfare this academic year. His appointment is part of an effort by Segura to broaden the faculty’s expertise and diversity. Of the 19 faculty appointments Segura has made, 14 are women and 12 are people of color.
“Our School is now one of the most diverse and interdisciplinary units in the University of California system,” Segura said. “We are growing in a way that reflects the state’s diverse and dynamic population, and this makes us profoundly well-positioned to engage, educate and contribute to the world around us.”
That commitment to reach beyond the campus was underscored in April 2019 at the first Luskin Summit, a cross-sector conference bringing public officials, civic leaders, philanthropists and other advocates together with UCLA Luskin’s faculty — all in pursuit of a “Livable L.A.”
The summit, which officially launched the School’s 25th anniversary celebration, will return to campus April 22 under the unifying theme “A Call to Action.” Participants will search for solutions to problems centering on housing, immigration, health, education and — fittingly, as the summit will take place on Earth Day — sustainability.
The legacy of doing good reaches far past the quarter-century mark, of course. Social Welfare’s graduate program dates to 1947. Urban planning at UCLA launched in 1969 in conjunction with architecture. A newly created public policy program was added in 1994, in what many viewed at the time as a shotgun marriage.
The new School of Public Policy and Social Research emerged in an era of reckoning triggered by post-recession budget cutbacks. Among other belt-tightening measures to contend with a loss of tens of millions of dollars in state support, UCLA decided to reconfigure all of its professional schools.
The early years were unsettled, as three disparate entities forged their identity under one roof. Many people believed the merger damaged the stature of respected programs and UCLA overall. Some questioned the motives of university leadership, and others were determined to preserve their departments as singular entities rather than seeking a cohesive whole.
“It wasn’t a happy transition,” said Allan Heskin, an urban planning professor at the time. “They didn’t take a vote and ask us.”
Longtime staff member Marsha Brown B.A. ’70 said that the late professor John Friedmann was the urban planning department chair at the time. He asked Brown to take a walk with him. “And he said, ‘They are going to be splitting urban planning and architecture and forming a new school.’ It was shocking.”
The move was very controversial. “People were really very upset about it and writing letters of protest,” she said.
“Quite frankly, a lot of us were really fairly strongly alienated by the decision,” alumnus Jeffry Carpenter recalled. “There was a superficial presumption on the part of university administration that there was some sort of linkage or relationship there that they imagined should exist. It is not so much of a relationship because the actual practice tends to be very, very different.”
Gerry Laviña, director of social welfare field education at UCLA Luskin, also had a front-row seat for the School’s difficult birth.
“There was a lot of anger among both faculty and students,” recalled Laviña, who earned his master’s in social welfare in 1988, then joined the field faculty in 1993. “What would this mean for our MSW? Would we be seen as lesser than?”
But he added, “What started out as a forced venture became a beautiful outcome.”
Over the years, resentments have faded, faculty from different disciplines have increasingly sought to learn from one another, and students have benefited from a wider array of cross-departmental resources.
“We know relationships, organizations, people need time to grow and come together as one,” Laviña said. “I don’t know if we’re fully there yet, but we’re so much better than we were even five years ago. I look forward to the next five years and beyond.”
Throughout the early years, there was one consensus: Very few cared for the new school’s name or awkward acronym, SPPSR. They lived with it until being rechristened in September 2004 as the UCLA School of Public Affairs. In 2011, the current name — the Meyer and Renee Luskin School of Public Affairs — came along with a transformative gift of $50 million that brought the resources and ambition to launch a period of expansion and innovation.
At the Block Party, benefactor Renee Luskin reflected on the journey.
“I want to express how much it means to Meyer and myself to be connected to such an outstanding school here at UCLA,” she said, thanking the faculty, staff, students and advisors for their unflagging passion and dedication. “As they say,” she concluded, “we’ve come a long way, baby.”