Office of the Chancellor

Passing of Joan Irvine Smith

Dec. 20, 2019

It is with great sadness that I write to inform you of the passing of Joan Irvine Smith. In the history of our university, few have played a more important or compelling role than she did.

A member of the family that founded the Irvine Ranch, Mrs. Smith was serving as a member of the Irvine Company board of directors when in 1957 the University of California Regents authorized the creation of a new campus in Southern California.  A visionary yet practical woman, she knew that the establishment of a research university on the ranch’s property would do for south Orange County what the establishment of UCLA had done for west Los Angeles.  Leading a coalition of local leaders, and in the face of many competing sites, she succeeded, first, in winning the approval of the site selection committee and then in convincing the Irvine Company to sell 1,000 acres to the University of California for $1.

In the years that followed, Mrs. Smith and her family continued to play a central role in the advancement of UCI. Joan Irvine Smith Hall houses administrative offices, a lecture hall and research labs for the School of Medicine. She made the lead gift to establish the Reeve-Irvine Research Center and made the inaugural gift in support of the creation of the UCI School of Law. And in 2016 she and her son James Irvine Swinden generously donated The Irvine Museum’s world-class collection of California Impressionist art to UCI. She served for many years as a trustee of the UCI Foundation. In 1990 she was recognized with a special – and especially well-deserved – Founders Award by a grateful campus. 

In addition to her role with UCI, Mrs. Smith was an accomplished equestrian of national renown, a determined protector of the environment, and a champion of better governance of charitable foundations.  She co-founded CHOC Children’s Hospital, helped establish the National Water Research Institute, and advanced the art world with three outstanding collections: California Impressionist art, mentioned above; Asian art; and English sporting art. She received many honors, including being the first woman named Orange County’s “Man of the Year” in 1961 for her efforts in support of the establishment of UCI and recognition in the inaugural class of California’s Remarkable Women by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and First Lady Maria Shriver. March 20, 2002 was officially proclaimed “Joan Irvine Smith Day” by Governor Gray Davis.

It is no exaggeration to say that without Joan Irvine Smith there likely would not be a University of California, Irvine. What we are today, and all that we contribute to the world, is due in large part to her far-sightedness, her tenacity, and her generosity. We offer our condolences to the entire Irvine family on their loss. A celebration of her life will be held in the spring on campus.