Translating the Past: For These Donors, the Solutions to Today's Challenges May Lie Behind Us

 Photo: Ucla public affairs

Photo: Ucla public affairs

"Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it," goes the famous quote attributed to philosopher and essayist George Santayana.

In fact, given the complexity of today's problems, the following adage might be more apt: "Those who do not learn history and use their insights to promote solutions are doomed to repeat it."

Such is the sentiment behind a $5 million gift to UCLA from longtime supporters Meyer and Renee Luskin. The gift will establish the Luskin Center for History and Policy, the first academic research center on the West Coast devoted to using history to "publish knowledge that promotes solutions to present-day issues."

If you weren't familiar with how crazily siloed academia has become, it might seem surprising that the disciplines of history and public policy don't routinely intersect on today's university campuses. After all, quite a bit of what historians do is to analyze past policy decisions through a rearview mirror. You'd think these scholars and the wonks at policy schools would have much to discuss. Getting them talking is a goal of this new gift.

According to the school, the Luskin Center for History and Policy will be a "pioneer in translating historical research into tangible and accessible sources of knowledge. The center will support policy-oriented projects developed by UCLA history faculty and their colleagues across campus, host visiting scholars and postdoctoral fellows and provide funding for graduate students. It will also sponsor new courses that will train students to analyze historical events and apply their knowledge to current issues."

Unstated in the press release is how timely this gift is, as a new populist president faces criticism that some of his big policy stances—like restricting free trade and questioning multilateral alliances—ignore key lessons of history.  

However, UCLA did offer up a less controversial example of the "influence of historical research" on public action:

In 2015, Zev Yaroslavsky, a former Los Angeles County supervisor and now a senior fellow in history at UCLA, led a project examining the city’s bidding process for the 1984 Olympics. The resulting position paper was distilled into an op-ed published in the Los Angeles Times and contributed to the decision by the Los Angeles City Council to delay a vote on the Olympic bid until all its provisions could be properly debated. 

As we've noted before, history is not a research area that tends to attract tons of major gifts. Not in an era when so many campus donors are infatuated with solving real-world problems, such as curing disease, enabling low-income young people to get a college degree, and better preparing students for STEM jobs.

On the other hand, public policy schools—which are very much in the business of solving real-world problems—have been a magnet for large gifts in recent years, as the world has grown less stable and U.S. politics has become more fractious. Among other things, the Luskin school's move to blend history and policy together bolsters the case that history is more useful than some might think and deserves more donor attention. It also underscores an advantage that campus policy schools have over the big Washington think tanks that vacuum up so many philanthropic dollars in this space: Their ability to connect policy work to other scholarly disciplines, drilling deeper as a result. 

Meyer Luskin, meanwhile, remains very much a real living person—and not just a name on UCLA buildings. At age 91, he remains the chairman, president and CEO of Scope Industries, a Santa Monica-based property management firm. He graduated UCLA in 1949. Luskin and his wife, Renee, who graduated in 1953, are among UCLA’s most generous supporters. In 2011, they donated $100 million—the second-largest gift ever to the campus—to support academic programs and capital improvements. The gift was equally divided between the UCLA School of Public Affairs, which was renamed in their honor, and the UCLA Meyer and Renee Luskin Conference Center, which opened in 2016. 

Luskin's motives, meanwhile, echo the modified quote from Santayana, albeit far less clumsily. "I believe we can use history to better our lives,” he said. "The best way to choose the path to the future is to know the roads that brought us to the present."