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Party schools tap into prestige

In California system, unheralded campuses capture Nobel laurels

GOLETA, Calif.-- The University of California system is amassing Nobel Prizes at campuses once noted more for beer bashes and odd mascots than academic excellence.

By pumping money into a few select departments and aggressively recruiting top researchers, UC Santa Barbara and UC Irvine have hauled in more Nobels in recent years than UC Berkeley and UCLA, the system's traditional centers of scholarship.

University leaders said the international prizes have become a badge of prestige for students and validation for professors toiling in relative academic obscurity.

''UC is not just Berkeley," said Bill Parker, vice chancellor for research at the fast-growing Irvine campus, located in the middle of Orange County's suburban sprawl. ''The campuses formed 30, 40 years ago are now emerging as some of the best in the country."

Since 1994, UC Irvine researchers have collected three Nobels, including one last week. Santa Barbara has picked up five in the past six years, including two in recent weeks.

By comparison, UCLA got two Nobels in the past decade, while Berkeley -- the system's first campus and consistently rated the nation's top public university by US News & World Report -- collected three.

The stockpiling of prizes in Irvine and Santa Barbara comes after years of steady enrollment growth prompted in part by crowded conditions at other UC sites. Undergraduate applications to UC Santa Barbara have doubled over the past 10 years and the mean GPA of enrolled freshmen has climbed to 3.71.

The 10-campus UC system is the most prestigious of the state's public education program that also includes California State University and community colleges.

To build their academic reputations, UC administrators have concentrated on a handful of disciplines and avoided spreading resources too thin.

''Not everybody can be good at everything any more, so you try to focus on those things that have a competitive advantage," said David Ward, president of the American Council on Education, a Washington-based lobbying group.

Irvine zeroed in on chemistry and molecular and evolutionary biology -- though its sports teams haven't dropped their quirky anteater mascot.

Santa Barbara -- home of the Gauchos mascot -- went for marine biology, engineering, and physics. Established in 1944 in Goleta, just west of Santa Barbara, the campus is perched on surf-licked cliffs and laced with bicycle path ''freeways" so clogged that visitors have to look both ways before crossing.

It began its gradual academic ascendance about two decades ago with the establishment of the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics.

Scientists at the institute and the campus's four other National Science Foundation-sponsored research centers work across various disciplines in ways that are often restricted by traditional boundaries, Kavli Institute director David Gross said.

''There's a remarkable lack of ego," said Gross, who won a Nobel last week for his work involving the strong force that binds the fundamental subatomic particles known as quarks into protons and neutrons.

Gross can gaze out his office window at the picturesque oceanfront that helps attract about 1,000 visiting physics researchers and their families each year for stays of up to six months.

It's also a laid-back setting for frequent beer-swigging parties by students. The Princeton Review lists the campus as the nation's number 12 party school. Among other things, students have dubbed it the ''University of Casual Sex and Beer" and note ''U Can Study Buzzed."

But the hard-drinking reputation is fading. Overlooking the campus lagoon as he crammed this week for a marine biology test, senior Nick Namikas said a recent crackdown by university officials, including banning alcohol from big fraternity parties, has worked.

''You cannot win five Nobel Prizes just by lying on the beach," said campus Chancellor Henry Yang.

But even administrators acknowledge the prestigious awards don't translate into immediate benefits for students. Some of the Nobels have come for work that was completed long before researchers arrived at the campus, and winners often continue to focus exclusively on research rather than teaching.

Economics professor Finn Kydland, UC Santa Barbara's other 2004 laureate, plans to teach intermediate macro-economics for undergrads in the spring. But Gross doesn't teach, nor does UC Irvine's new chemistry laureate, Ross Irwin.

''All these star faculty that you read about, that win Nobel prizes, you're not necessarily going to be taught by them," said Erik Olson of the Princeton Review, which advises students not to base their college choices on faculty awards.

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