Obama’s address at UC Irvine sparks memories of another time

Students and faculty at UC Irvine campaigned to get President Obama, shown in as commencement speaker.
Students and faculty at UC Irvine campaigned to get President Obama, shown in as commencement speaker.
(Pablo Martinez Monsivais / Associated Press)

As he listens to President Obama speak to the 2014 UC Irvine graduating class during a commencement celebration today at Angel Stadium, James McGaugh said he’ll be reflecting on an academic rite of passage held 50 years ago in “similarly engaging times.”

McGaugh, 82, a professor of neurobiology at UC Irvine, was among those who turned out to watch President Lyndon B. Johnson dedicate the campus on June 20, 1964 in a ceremony attended by about 12,000 people in a makeshift stadium surrounded by undeveloped hills.

Back then, “the nation was engulfed in a very unpopular war in Vietnam, the civil rights movement was in full swing and we were struggling to cope with the recent assassination of President John F. Kennedy,” he recalled.

“During President Johnson’s speech, marksmen were positioned on the roofs of campus buildings still under construction.”


Thirteen years after the 9/11 attacks, pilots will be prevented from flying within 11 miles of Angel Stadium in Anaheim when Obama takes to the dais to deliver his speech before an audience of about 15,000. On a nearby street corner, protesters will be taking aim at the Obama administration’s immigration policies, drone attacks in the Middle East and Pakistan, and invasive surveillance strategies, among other things.

The school’s faculty and students chose Obama to be their commencement speaker and kick off their 50th anniversary celebration.

So far, Obama is not scheduled to speak at any other colleges or universities this year, the White House said.

UC Irvine administrators sent an invitation to the White House last spring and then began asking alumni and students for help in recruiting the president by signing postcards and participating in videos. In one, 7-foot-6 freshman center Mamadou Ndiaye looks directly into the camera while towering over a cardboard cutout of Obama and says: “Mr. President, we should play ball together.”

UC Irvine officials estimate that the total cost of the ceremony at Angel Stadium will be less than $2 million, much of it already earmarked for the 50th anniversary celebration.

Today, McGaugh, a founding director of UC Irvine’s Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory and a noted researcher on the role of hormones and drugs in memory enhancement, will be the only person seated near Obama who witnessed the dedication ceremony.

“I’ve lived long enough to become the only faculty member who is a bookend of sorts,” McGaugh said with chuckle. “UC Irvine went on to become the best university established in the United States in 50 years.”

Twitter: @LouisSahagun