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Davis, California

Tuesday, May 21, 2024

UC Davis celebrates 100 years of education

This school year marks the 100th birthday of the farm that grew into one of the world’s leading universities. What began as a small agricultural adjunct to UC Berkeley in 1908 has grown from its initial class of just over 100 to contain over 30,000 students and cover more land than any other school in the University of California system. The year will feature a number of events to mark the occasion, which has required the constant effort of a centennial team.

“We’ve been working in earnest for about a year now,” said Assistant Vice Chancellor Robert Segar, the man in charge of organizing Centennial events.

Some of the events, such as a 6,000 square foot exhibit at the State Fair this year, have already occurred, while others, such as the Fall Festival, are on the way. Fall Festival takes place from Friday, Oct. 10 to Wednesday, Oct. 15 and includes celebrations such as Pajamarino, a tradition started at UC Davis in 1915. Students at the time would sneak out of their dorms and hold a late-night, pajama-clad rally at the Davis train station to welcome alumni back for homecoming weekend.

Although the tradition of Pajamarino began in 1915, UC Davis had existed several years prior, although at this time it was known as the University Farm School. UC Davis’s roots go all the way back into the late 1800s and early 1900s when California experienced the advent of agriculture education initiatives.

In 1905, the state legislature authorized the UC Regents to locate a site and establish a University Farm School. A site was found for the school in 1906, and in 1907 construction began. The first classes, however, were offered in 1908, making the centennial anniversary this year.

The location found for the school was Davisville, California.

“It was a very small town. Obviously the university is going to be the big game in town,” said university archivist John Skarstad.

Davisville would become Davis, and the Farm School would become the University of California, Davis, in 1959.

“It was the very edge of the baby boom. [Baby boomers] were going to be coming in numbers that everyone saw would be overwhelming. Big changes had to happen,” Skarstad said.

Changes like making a University Farm School into a fully-fledged university. University planners, said Skarstad, turned out to be right in their predictions.

“In terms of students, the numbers skyrocket in the 60’s,” he said.

In 1960, there were 2,157 undergraduate students at UC Davis. By the end of the decade there were 9,641. The university was growing in other ways, too. In 1951 the university library had approximately 18,000 volumes. By 1974 there were 1 million books.

“[The numbers] speak to a campus not growing in a linear fashion, but growing in a geometric fashion. It’s like a dandelion; there’s a little stalk and then poom! Explosion. Just amazing,” Skarstad said.

Professor Charles Goldman, who has taught at the university for 50 years, remembers some of the early days of UC Davis.

“I rolled into town in September 1958 straight from finishing my Ph.D. on Alaskan lakes from the University of Michigan, with my wife Shirley and two children Christopher and Margaret [with] all our possessions in the Chevy station wagon and in a canoe on top of the car,” Goldman said in an e-mail interview, recalling his first encounter with Davis.

“There was a blackout when we arrived that night. Not a single light in the whole town. Dust, tumbleweed and newspapers were blowing down Main Street. I thought I had arrived in the Wild West,” said Goldman, a member of the environmental science and policy department.

When he arrived, the school was less than a tenth of its current size.

“There were only 2,500 UC [Davis] students when I joined the zoology department as [an] instructor step one and it was very much an agricultural college. Emil Mrak was chancellor. I immediately loved the small college atmosphere of the smallest campus at the world’s greatest university,” he said.

Perhaps one of the biggest changes to UC Davis since that time is the growth of the university, both in size and stature, Goldman attested.

“Fifty years ago Davis was really the farm. Almost no one east of the Rockies even knew it existed. Now we are a world class campus and Berkeley, UCLA and other campuses as well as Stanford and Scripps share the limelight with UCD. In many ways it is still the world’s greatest university with a bit of the small college atmosphere still intact,” he said.

UC Davis Chancellor Larry Vanderhoef had similar thoughts, expressing amazement at the university’s growth in 100 years.

“When one looks at our origins – a farm school with fewer than 20 students – and where we are now – one of the top universities in the country by every objective measure – it seems to be nothing less than miraculous,” he said. “Great universities are rare, and I’m always amazed at how humble we are about such a significant accomplishment.”

Vanderhoef has been at UC Davis since 1983 and chancellor since 1993. He will step down at the end of this year.

“I did not plan my life around the Centennial year, but I love the fact that it turned out that way,” he said. “Our UC Davis Centennial year will be my 25th year at UC Davis, and my 15th year as Chancellor. Clearly the stars were talking to me.”

The centennial events and occasions, such as the refurbishing of the walkway that bisects the quad, should not cost students anything extra.

“For the most part the Centennial events were things we were going to do anyway,” Vanderhoef said. “We just gave them a Centennial twist or spin. When we did need money, such as in the very special UC Davis exhibit, we used non-state, non-student dollars.”

The centennial year for UC Davis is a milestone that administration officials hope bodes well for the future.

“The Centennial Year is a time to enjoy the then and now – to appreciate where we’ve been and where we’ve come,” Vanderhoef said. “It gives us better focus on what we’ve accomplished and, more importantly, why. It all gives us a good start on a vision for the next 100 years.”


RICHARD PROCTER can be reached at features@californiaaggie.com.

Centennial events – editor’s picks


Homecoming Game – Aggies vs. Southern Utah

Oct. 11, 6 p.m.

Aggie Stadium

centennial homecoming football game! Under the new lights at Aggie
Stadium! With a pregame BBQ at the Rec Pool Lodge! What’s not to like?


Celebrate UC Davis!

Oct. 12, noon to 4 p.m.

Third Street, downtown Davis

The Davis Chamber of Commerce and the city of Davis are throwing the university a birthday party! Spoilers: 100 birthday cakes.


Sale of the Century

Oct. 15, 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.

UC Davis Bookstore

Twenty-five percent off clothing and gifts! Twenty percent off general books! Cover yourself in all kinds of agricultural pride.


Jeffrey Toobin – One Hundred Years: A look inside the Supreme Court

Oct. 10, 8 to 10:30 p.m.

Jackson Hall, Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts

senior legal analyst and staff writer for the New Yorker will be coming
to UC Davis and talking about the Supreme Court. Interspersed in his
presentations will be key moments in UC Davis history.


Picnic Day

Apr. 18, 2009


centennial Picnic Day should be an event worth remembering, I’m sure.
Combined with seeing the centennial homecoming game, attendees will be
the toast of alumni parties.


-Richard Procter


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