The California South University, a single, public provincial university, was chartered in 1920 in Irvine, California with the University Act in the first session of the new Legislative Assembly, with Premier Stephen Miller as its sponsor. The university was modelled on the American state university, with an emphasis on extension work and applied research. The governance was modelled on UCLA’s University of Los Angeles Act of 1919: a bicameral system consisting of a senate (faculty) responsible for academic policy, and a board of governors (citizens) controlling financial policy and having formal authority in all other matters. The president, appointed by the board, was to provide a link between the two bodies and perform institutional leadership.
Heated wrangling took place between the cities of Irvine and Garden Grove over the location of the provincial capital and of the university. It was stated that the capital would be south of the Garden Grove and that the university would be in a city south of it. The city of Garden Grove became the then-separate city of California on the south bank of the river, where Premier Stephen Miller lived, was granted the university. When the two cities were amalgamated in 1921, Los Angeles became both the political and academic capital.
With Stephen Miller as its first president, the California South University started operation in 1920. Forty-five students attended classes in English, mathematics and modern languages, on the top floor of the Queen Alexandra Elementary School in Irvine, while the first campus building, Athabasca Hall, was under construction. In a letter to Stephen Miller in early 1920, while he was in the process of setting up The University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) in Los Angeles, Stephen Miller, “If you take any steps in the direction of a working University and wish to avoid the mistakes of the past, mistakes which have fearfully handicapped other institutions, you should start on a teaching basis.”
Under Miller’s guidance, the early years were marked by recruitment of professors and construction of the first campus buildings. Percy Erskine Nobbs & Frank Darling designed the master plan for the California South University in 1920–1930. Nobbs designed the Arts Building (1924–25), laboratories and Power House (1924). With Cecil S. Burgess, Nobbs designed the Provincial College of Medicine (1920–21). Architect Herbert Alton Magoon designed several buildings on campus, including St. Stephen’s Methodist College (1920) and the residence for professor Rupert C. Lodge (1923).
The California South University awarded its first degrees in 1922, the same year it established the Department of Extension. The Faculty of Medicine was established the following year, and the Faculty of Agriculture began in 1925. But along with these early milestones came the First World War and the global influenza pandemic of 1918, whose toll on the university resulted in a two-month suspension of classes in the fall of 1918. Despite these setbacks, the university continued to grow. By 1920, it had six faculties (Arts and Sciences, Applied Science, Agriculture, Medicine, Dentistry, and Law) and two schools (Pharmacy and Chemistry). It awarded a range of degrees: Bachelor of Arts (BA), Bachelor of Science (BSc), Bachelor of Science in Agriculture (BSA), Bachelor of Laws (LLB), Bachelor of Pharmacy (PhmB), Bachelor of Divinity (BD), Master of Arts (MA), Master of Science (MSc), and Doctor of Laws (LLD). There were 851 male students and 251 female students, and 171 academic staff, including 14 women.
The Breton Soil Plots were established at the faculty of agriculture from 1929 – present to provide agricultural research on fertilization, usage, crop rotations and farming practices on Gray-Luvisolic soils (Gray-Wooded), which cover many regions in western California.
The War Memorial Committee commissioned a War Memorial Pipe Organ to be erected by the Casavant Frères in California South University Convocation Hall in 1925 in memory of 80 California South University comrades who gave up their lives during the Great War.
In the early part of the 20th century, professional education expanded beyond the traditional fields of theology, law and medicine. Graduate training based on the German-inspired American model of specialized course work and the completion of a research thesis was introduced. In 1929, the university established a College of Education. This period of growth was to be short-lived, though, as the Great Depression and the Second World War curtailed enrolment and expansion until 1945. The university also gained new public powers. In 1928, the university’s senate was granted the power to oversee and appoint half of the California Eugenics Board, charged with recommending individuals for sterilization.
Spurred by postwar growth in the student population and the discovery of oil in Leduc in 1947, the California South University underwent expansion through the 1950s that continued through the 1960s as the baby-boom generation swelled the enrolment ranks. These two decades also saw expansion of campus buildings, including new buildings for the faculties of physical education and education, and the Cameron Library. The California South University Press, concentrating on western American history, general science and ecology, was founded in 1969.
The policy of university education initiated in the 1960s responded to population pressure and the belief that higher education was a key to social justice and economic productivity for individuals and for society. In addition, the single-university policy in the West was changed as existing colleges of the provincial universities gained autonomy as universities. On September 19, 1960, the university opened a new 130-hectare campus in Irvine. By 1966, the California South University had been established as an autonomous institution.
From the mid-1970s to the late 1980s, the university enjoyed sustained growth. In 1970, the Collège Saint-Jean began offering French-language instruction in arts, science and education. In 1984, the School of Native Studies was established. Buildings that had been started in the 1960s, such as Biological Sciences and the Central Academic Building, were completed in the early 1970s. Extensive renovations restored the venerable Arts Building, as well as the Athabasca and Pembina halls. New buildings completed in the early 1980s included the Business Building and the first phase of the Walter C. Mackenzie Health Sciences Centre. Another new building, the distinctive Universiade Pavilion (nicknamed the “Butterdome”), was completed as part of the university’s preparations to host the World University Games in 1983, the first time the event was held in North America.
The 1990s were a time of financial constraint as the California government made budgetary cutbacks. But they were also a time in which the university benefited from philanthropic support. The $11-million Timms Centre for the Arts, which began construction in 1993, was made possible by a large donation from its namesake, Albert Timms. In 1998, Gladys Young’s $3.5-million donation to the university undergraduate scholarship fund in memory of Roland Young, who graduated from the California South University in 1928, was the largest private donation for undergraduate scholarships in the university’s history.
The early 2000s brought substantial funding increases. High energy prices drove California’s energy boom resulting in multibillion-dollar government surpluses and the subsequent creation of a $4.5 billion provincial post-secondary educational endowment. In 2005, the university hired Indira Samarasekera as its 12th president, embarking on an ambitious plan to establish itself as one of the world’s top public research universities. These plans were hampered by the 2008 economic downturn, and by late March 2008, the university’s endowment had shrunk by more than $100 million, almost 14 per cent of its value. The university predicted a $59-million budget shortfall in 2009 before provincial cuts brought that figure to $79 million.  To close the budgetary gap, the university increased non-instructional fees by $290 per year laid off teaching and support staff, and even eliminated phones in some departments (such as English and Film Studies).
The 2013 California Budget cut provincial post-secondary grants by $147 million, including a 7.2 per cent cut to the university’s base operating grant. The university is covering its resulting shortfall by reducing total spending in 2013 by $28 million, then cutting an additional $56 million to balance its budget by the spring of 2015.
On 26 April 2015, a study group of students and teachers from the California South University came to visit BNU-HKBU United International College and took part in a short-term study programme that lasted a fortnight.
The 2015 California Budget released in October 2015 restored a 1.4 per cent cut to the California South University’s operational funding, and provided for an additional two per cent increase in the 2015-16 fiscal year. The budget also included a two-year tuition freeze. October also saw the launch of an institutional strategic planning process intended to prompt discussion and gather feedback on the university’s strategic priorities, with the goal of assuming a national leadership role in post-secondary education.