Staff stars help San Diego lift-off

July 19, 1996

Thirty-five years after its founding, the University of California, San Diego, is one of the top research universities in the United States. In 1995, it was ranked tenth in the country on the quality of its graduate programmes, the thrusting newcomer just behind Princeton and Harvard, and one of only two public universities -the other is UC Berkeley - to make the top ten.

The UCSD boasts five Nobel laureates on its faculty (the figure has been as high as eight). An economic force, it has helped reshape the city of San Diego from a one-time navy town into a high-tech hot zone on the Pacific coast and the country's sixth-biggest city. It will host the Republican Party convention this summer .

There are an estimated 500 firms in the vicinity of the campus, drawing on its research work, and with 18,000 students and a half billion dollar payroll, it boasts of being the region's fourth biggest employer. It seems an extraordinary achievement for a university campus so young that its original chancellor is still alive.

"I don't think anybody did as well as we did. I really don't. We are the only school started in this century that is up there," said mathematics professor Pat Ledden. After a brief stint at the University of Liverpool in the 1960s, he is still angered by the word "red brick", with its derogatory overtones of the old looking down at the new.

The question is how did UCSD pull it off?

UCSD was born in the shock of Sputnik, when Americans were aghast at the technological progress of their Cold War rival, and came of age during the space race. One of its early technical achievements was the analysis of "moon rocks" collected by the Apollo missions.

It benefited heavily from Pentagon research cash flowing into southern California's defence industry. It was also located in a rapidly growing state with a strong commitment to higher education that would produce one of the best public systems in the country.

Its campus, built from nothing on an abandoned second world war military base, boasts a stunning ocean view. Faculty were lured from places like Wisconsin and Michigan, the story goes, by walking them along the Pacific beaches in mid-winter.

San Diego is still rated one of the most liveable cities in the US, but in the late 1950s it was able to give 1,000 acres of land outside the city at La Jolla to establish the university. There was space around it for associated industry to develop, a key factor in its success, says former chancellor Bill McGill.

But UCSD is also described as an object lesson in building research universities from the top down. Founder Roger Revelle made the decision to launch it as a graduate school laden with recognised talent. It opened its doors to graduates in 1960, to undergraduates four years later. A neighbouring campus in the University of California's system, UC Irvine, went the traditional route of building from the bottom up, picking out rising assistant professors to grow within its faculty. But for a long time Irvine has lagged behind.

"When you want to develop rapidly and to be seen to do something quite successful early, you build from the top down," said Mr McGill.

In 1995, 14,846 undergraduate students enrolled at UCSD and 3,478 in advanced degree programmes including medicine. The late Mr Revelle was director of the prestigious Scripps Institution of Oceanography, which would be incorporated into the campus in 1960 and set the standards of academic quality. In interviews he described his attempt to built up a "critical mass" in each department of people who would lure both graduate students and research dollars. He recruited top names in the sciences, who in turn were given the freedom to fill their own departments - legendary figures such as Harold Urey, the 65-year-old chemist who won the Nobel prize in 1934 for his discovery of deuterim and who had retired from the University of Chicago.

The first seven faculty hired for the chemistry department were all members of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences. Mr Revelle broke with rampant sexism in academia in 1960 when he offered a full paid professorship to Maria Goeppert Meyer, a physicist who had worked on the Manhattan Project. She won the Nobel prize in 1963. What outsiders soon saw was a flood of talent descending on La Jolla.

Also breaking with academic tradition, it was scientists who often recruited in the humanities field. San Diego, though best known for biotechnology, boasts a strong political science department and a school of international relations. Physicist Herbert York, the university's first chancellor, tells the story of being dispatched to Columbus, Ohio, in a blizzard to recruit the faculty who would form the basis of the literature department.

Professor Ledden, in one measure of the university's flexibility, teaches a class in James Joyce, a life-long intellectual hobby far removed from mathematics. Physicist Keith Brueckner, first chairman of the physics department, turned out to be a gifted recruiter. In the arts, literature professor John Stewart hired working writers, musicians and painters - at the expense of critics and art historians.

UCSD's five-college system offered a choice within a British-styled system for undergraduate students, with colleges covering the range from a rigid science curriculum to a more flexible liberal arts degree.

UC San Diego concentrated on funding via federal research grants. Mr Revelle, who served in the navy in the first world war and after it was the senior scientist in the atomic bomb tests at Bikini Atoll, was well positioned to court military research work.

With the end of the Cold War, and cuts intended to reduce the huge US budget deficit, universities nationally are complaining of the financial squeeze. UCSD, however, has increased its revenue from Federal contracts and grants at a time when the state of California was cutting back. Reaching out aggressively for private funding, it has succeeded in boosting private grants, contracts and gifts to an expected $84 million in 1996, a more than 50 per cent increase over the previous year.

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