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At UCLA, he's forever Young

The former longtime chancellor comes out of retirement (again) to teach a course on the American presidency.

October 24, 2008|Larry Gordon | Gordon is a Times staff writer.

To many students at UCLA, Charles E. Young is a building or a street, not a breathing, teaching human being.

After all, two prominent features of the Westwood campus are the Charles E. Young Research Library and Charles E. Young Drive, both named for the charismatic chancellor who led UCLA for nearly 30 years until he retired in 1997.

But to the surprise of some young people, the real-life Young is back at UCLA these days, teaching an undergraduate class on the American presidency and the current election.

The first full course that Young has taught in more than 40 years, it marks a complete circle from the time he left UCLA and later became president of the University of Florida and then of a higher education foundation in the Persian Gulf state of Qatar.

Now, the man who helped transform UCLA into a world-class research university spends a dozen hours each week preparing for his three-hour course, which carries students from George Washington to George W. Bush and on into next month's presidential contest.

To the 34 students who landed much-coveted seats in his weekly class, Young lectures on such topics as Theodore Roosevelt's reforms and why John McCain admires them, and on Franklin Roosevelt's actions during the Great Depression and the lessons they hold for the current financial mess.

Young, 76, said he sometimes has to remind himself of his students' youth and that they may not follow his shorthand references to historical figures. So he tries to blend history and today's headlines in a way "that is going to make sense to the kids."

"I thought to do just the current election would have insufficient substance and get to be just a bull session," Young said during an interview in his modest office at the UCLA School of Public Affairs. "I thought it would be more instructive for people to understand how we got where we are today in terms of presidential elections."

For its first sessions, his course sweeps from the nation's founding to contemporary politics, leaving time for frequent discussions of the presidential race between McCain and Barack Obama. Next month, it will focus fully on the election and policy challenges for the winner.

Young disclosed his support for Obama to students early on but said he tries to keep lectures neutral.

"In a course like this, you are better off if you spell out who you are, what you are and what your biases are, so the students don't have to guess," said Young, who earned a political science doctorate from UCLA in 1960 and then, at 36, became the youngest chancellor in UC history.

Some students did not know who Young was when they signed up for the political science class. Seeing the library and street name, others assumed he was dead and that their professor might be a younger Young, possibly his son. Now, they seem delighted to have as their teacher the man credited with hugely increasing UCLA's fundraising and academic prestige.

Matt Murphy, a sophomore majoring in political science and economics, said he enrolled because of the topic's timeliness and to fulfill a requirement, not because of Young, of whom he was vaguely aware. It has become his favorite class. "I pretty much struck gold getting a class about this presidential election and getting to be taught by someone who I now know has had such an amazing impact on this university," Murphy said.

Since Young held top executive positions, he has more insights into politics and presidential decision-making than "a typical professor," Murphy added. "He knows the pressure of being the sole leader of an institution, as opposed to just being a member of it."

As he lectures, the 6-foot-3-inch Young still cuts the imposing figure that enhanced his aura of authority as UCLA chancellor. But his hair and eyebrows now are white and his craggy face is lined. And his manner with students seems gentle, a much softer version of the take-charge, sometimes brash persona he once projected to politicians and UC regents.

In Monday's lecture, he marched from Theodore Roosevelt to Dwight Eisenhower, concentrating on activist presidents, their use of media and their campaign styles. Of Woodrow Wilson, who had been president of Princeton University, Young quipped: "He was a good speaker, unlike a lot of academics."

Young told his students about himself, noting that he was born during Herbert Hoover's presidency and the Depression. "You know what's happening now and know the consequences are very great," he said of the financial crisis. "But that ain't nothing compared to then."

In response to a student's question about socialism, he briefly touched on his support in the 1960s for the right of the radical Angela Davis to teach philosophy at UCLA when UC regents and then-Gov. Ronald Reagan tried to fire her.

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