UCLA Medal Presentation to Meyer & Renee LuskinSpeech
Good evening. Welcome to this wonderful event. You will hear from lots of fascinating and brilliant people tonight, but I’m proud to say that I get the best job of the evening, because I have the great honor of awarding the UCLA Medal to Meyer and Renee Luskin.
Anyone trying to understand the essence of this institution should speak to this extraordinary couple. Because what drives Meyer and Renee is precisely what drives UCLA: A desire to solve society’s biggest challenges and to create opportunity for all through education and research.
For as long as I’ve had the pleasure of knowing the Luskins, they have always credited UCLA with giving them their start and they have dedicated their lives to making sure others have those opportunities.
Meyer and Renee were both the children of immigrants. Renee’s mother came to the U.S. from Poland and her father from Russia, when they were both children. Her family moved to L.A. from Boston and she enrolled at Fairfax High School.
Meyer’s parents came from Eastern Europe and settled in Boyle Heights. His father was a plumber, who insisted Meyer get an education so he could learn to make a living “with his head, rather than his back.”
Meyer and Renee eventually came to UCLA, both becoming first-generation college students. After a year on campus, Meyer left UCLA to serve in World War II. After two years in the Air Force, he returned in 1946 to complete his education — just like the many veterans who continue to pursue degrees at UCLA after serving their country.
At the time, UCLA cost $29 a semester — a lot of money in the 1940s. Thankfully, Meyer received a scholarship to help cover the cost
His entrepreneurial spirit began even as a student. Meyer sold special pants to UCLA coaches, with reinforced belt loops to hold stop watches, and, in the summers, he sold watermelons he had chopped up with ice.
Meyer and Renee both dove into their UCLA experiences. Meyer joined the boxing team and Renee worked on the yearbook.
They graduated UCLA four years apart — Meyer in Economics and Renee in Sociology — so they did not meet on campus. Instead, they met on a blind date, set up by a mutual friend.
After graduation, Renee pursued social work at USC and Meyer got his MBA from Stanford and became a stockbroker.
But they were both unsatisfied. Renee, on an internship, questioned how much her work checking on families’ household income, to determine whether they could still receive public assistance, was really helping people.
Meyer, as a stockbroker, worried that the commission he earned for every transaction — regardless of whether it benefitted his clients — was not really helping them.
So they both stopped what they were doing.
I think this moment — very early in their careers, and as young people without a lot of money — says a lot about the types of people Meyer and Renee are. They could not be satisfied and happy with jobs that they did not feel were contributing to the greater good.
Meyer went on to start his own investment counseling business — where his commission was tied to the success of his client’s portfolio.
But Meyer found what would later become his greatest success through what was initially a bad investment in an oil company.
The company was almost insolvent and Meyer went in with a plan to diversify their business, changing the name to Scope Industries. It would go on to become a big success — all because Meyer was willing to take a risk.
I think this is an important lesson for our students — and all of us, really — to never let our fear of failure stop us from taking risks.
Scope Industries had a novel concept: Make use of the food waste from bakeries or snack food companies, clean it and turn it into animal feed.
Scope was also founded in the early 1960s, a time when making the most of available resources through recycling was still a very novel concept. Today, as climate change poses a mounting threat to humanity, this has become a very NECESSARY concept.
Over the years, Scope Industries grew more and more successful and, 35 years ago, Meyer and Renee made their first gift to UCLA.
That support and partnership with this institution only deepened in the years that followed.
Meyer and Renee have provided decades of leadership to UCLA, serving on countless boards, including those of the UCLA Foundation, the Center for the Art of Performance, and the Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center — to name but a few.
Meyer and Renee are also a couple with a very deep commitment to social justice.
Renee once observed that as wonderful as it is to see financial support for the hard sciences, more must be done to support research in the social sciences, that fosters healthy communities.
As she once asked: “How do you have people learn to live together if they don’t have those resources?”
The answer to that question, of course, was their support for what became the Luskin School of Public Affairs in 2011.
Today, the impressive faculty and alumni of the Luskin School are actively engaged with important issues ranging from drug policy to prison reform and economic development to transportation.
Part of establishing a healthy society, of course, means bringing people together — to share knowledge, explore new ideas, and gain perspectives outside their comfort zone. For years, we dreamed of having a place to convene academics and the community, to enhance UCLA’s role as a destination for solving society’s biggest problems.
Today we gather in this magnificent conference center, where on any given day breakthroughs are being made not only in meeting rooms, but over meals — or even sharing a bottle of wine under the stars.
The Meyer and Renee Luskin Conference Center is an important and unique asset not only for UC, but for all of academia that I know will benefit Bruins up through UCLA’s Bicentennial — and beyond!
Meyer and Renee’s impact on the UCLA community can be found in so many places:
The Luskin Center for Innovation, the Legal Ethics program at our Law School, the Luskin Lecture for Thought Leadership and the new Luskin Center for History and Policy.
Their impact is much broader, however, and takes in all of Los Angeles and beyond. The Alliance Renee and Meyer Luskin Academy near Inglewood has prepared hundreds of students for college. They have also supported the LA Philharmonic, theatre programs and so many other causes that support creativity, innovation and opportunity.
In trying to find words that embody what the Luskins mean to UCLA, and to understand what UCLA means to them, I was struck by something Meyer once said in an interview:
“You get the best society when you get the best people in society to give their best, but you don’t always know where the best people are,” he says, because sometimes the best minds haven’t had the same opportunities as others. But, he added: “If you have social justice, that mind gets a chance to flower. And look at how much one great mind can do for society.”
Meyer and Renee have long credited UCLA for much of their success. Today, we credit the Luskins for so much that UCLA has been able to achieve. That is why I am immensely proud to invite them up to receive our highest honor — the UCLA Medal.
Before I award the medal, I’d like to read aloud this citation, which says:
MEYER & RENEE LUSKIN
As dedicated Bruins, longtime community leaders and visionary philanthropists, you have dedicated yourselves to the betterment of our world through advancing education and supporting a healthy society where everyone has a chance to contribute. Your appreciation for the opportunities provided to you upon graduating UCLA have led to extraordinary opportunities for others, particularly through your support of the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, the Luskin Center for Innovation and the Alliance Renee and Meyer Luskin Academy in South Los Angeles. Your entrepreneurial spirit and a vision for recycling and repurposing available resources led to a pioneering and highly successful business, Scope Industries — a prosperity borne of hard work that you have so generously shared with many others. You are also catalysts for convening people around important issues that require collaboration, a vision realized with the creation of the UCLA Meyer and Renee Luskin Conference Center and the Luskin Lecture for Thought Leadership. For your unwavering commitment to our university, our city, our world and all those who join you in your mission to promote a healthy, compassionate and thoughtful society, we proudly bestow upon you the UCLA Medal. Given at UCLA this twenty-ninth day of May, two thousand and nineteen.