Howard Gillman
UC Irvine Chancellor Howard Gillman Steve Zylius / UC Irvine

When UC Irvine Chancellor Howard Gillman speaks Tuesday, March 31, at his investiture ceremony at the Irvine Barclay Theatre, he’ll have a story to tell that resonates with many Anteaters.

Like 52 percent of UCI’s 5,440 freshmen, Gillman is the first in his family to pursue a four-year college degree.

He understands the power of higher education to transform lives and that drives his agenda as UCI’s sixth chancellor.

“Human beings only reach their full potential when they are broadly educated and … exposed to the best that has ever been thought, created or discovered,” he tells students.

A life changed by UC

Gillman is a prime example of how a University of California education can open doors – and minds.

“Every opportunity I’ve ever had in life was made possible because the people of California built the greatest public research university system in the world,” he says. “My parents never went to college. We didn’t have a lot of money. When I decided to go to UCLA, we couldn’t afford for me to live in the dorms, so I commuted from [our home in] North Hollywood.”

“I worked at Sears and places like that just to pay my way through college. So I feel like I’m the exact kind of person for whom the UC system was made,” says Gillman, who earned bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in political science at UCLA. “You build public research universities so people with the sort of background I had have a chance to make a big contribution.”

He’ll get a chance to make a major contribution as chancellor, and one of Gillman’s priorities is to ensure that students from all backgrounds have the same access to higher education he had.

“One reason we’re underscoring the success of a diverse and first-generation student body in our mission is that I’ve lived it,” he says. “And I have a lot of friends who’ve lived it, who grew up in the type of neighborhood I grew up in.”

Impressive resume

A scholar and teacher, Gillman joined UCI as provost and executive vice chancellor in June 2013 after serving as dean of USC’s Dana & David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts & Sciences (more:

A year later, when Chancellor Michael V. Drake left to become president of The Ohio State University, Gillman was named UCI’s interim chancellor. He landed the top post in September after a national search that drew 405 applicants. The investiture ceremony on March 31 formalizes the appointment.

“Howard Gillman is an excellent choice for UC Irvine’s chancellor,” says Mary Gilly, chair of the UC Academic Senate, faculty representative to the UC Board of Regents, and professor of marketing at UCI’s Paul Merage School of Business. “He’s proven that he values excellence in research, inclusiveness in community, and commitment to undergraduate and graduate education.

“His enthusiasm for the Irvine campus is contagious, as he has reached out to external constituencies for support and involvement. He’s truly a UC person at his core, embracing the tradition of shared governance to the benefit of the Irvine campus and the UC system.”

Expanding his horizons

For Gillman, the pursuit of knowledge began when he was a kid in the San Fernando Valley and continues to this day.

“I’m an avid reader,” he says. “Since I was 11 or 12, I’ve had a subscription to The New Yorker. What I fight to find time to do is immerse myself in literature and poetry and short stories. There’s always a book on my nightstand.”

On the wall of his Aldrich Hall office hangs a painting of butterflies and moths created by his wife, Ellen Ruskin-Gillman, Ph.D. It’s an homage to Pale Fire, by Vladimir Nabokov, one of his favorite authors.

“It’s the book that, for me, best captures the pleasures of illumination when you study literature,” Gillman says.

He often sounds like an English professor due to his love of books, but he was actually a professor of political science, history and law at USC. He is also an expert on constitutional studies and judicial politics and has authored or co-authored seven books and dozens of articles.

Inquiring minds

As chancellor, Gillman hopes to instill a passion for learning in UCI students. Education, he notes, is not just about earning a bigger paycheck.

“It’s about a value that has no price tag: personal growth, a satisfying of intellectual curiosity, a broader way of seeing the world and, ultimately, giving back to it,” he says.

At convocation, Gillman challenged students to venture outside their “bubble of familiar views” and strive to uphold UCI’s ideals of “inquiry, discovery, creative expression and community engagement.” (See complete transcript.)

“Don’t just stay within the comfortable confines of a particular field of study. Embrace a spirit of exploration,” he told them.

“If you think of yourself as inclined toward math and science, then make it a point to take courses in the humanities and arts. If you have a passion for dance, literature or art history, be sure to get some real exposure to the scientific method and contemporary understandings of the workings of the natural world,” Gillman said. “If you do this right … the rewards will be lifelong.”

He should know: His own rewards from a UC education are many, from the pleasure of reading a good book to the gratification of running a great university.