The UCI Medal was established in 1984 by Chancellor Jack W. Peltason to recognize persons, both from the university and the community, whose dedication and generosity have significantly contributed to the spirit and vision of UCI. Honorary degrees have not been awarded by the University of California since 1970, and the Medal was designed to substitute as the highest honor bestowed by UCI to an individual. The UCI Foundation, a non-profit corporation established in 1967, manages private donations on behalf of UCI and also oversees the annual awarding of the UCI Medal.
The first medal was awarded to founding Chancellor Daniel Aldrich in 1984. Three years lapsed before the medal was presented again. Since 1987 the medal has been awarded yearly.
The two-sided design of the medal combines the academic tradition of the University of California with the vitality of the UCI campus. The front reflects the unique circular plan of the campus, depicting the vertical façade of Langson Library imposed against the sun, which is symbolic of light and learning. The eucalyptus and coral tree leaves represent the more than 11,000 native and exotic trees that make up Aldrich Park, the central core of the campus. The medal was designed and cast by noted Southern California artist and sculptress Inez Owings. The verso of the medal carries the seal of the University of California with its motto "Let There Be Light."