One year ago, UCSB was basking in the reflective glow of the white hair and waxy foreheads of Herbert Kroemer and Alan Heeger, its two Nobel Prize winners.
Chancellor Henry Yang beamed for weeks and couldn’t talk without using the word “glorious.”
Faculty members delighted in the media rush. The LA Times, the largest and most serious newspaper in the state, ran a story, “Prizes Underscore UC Santa Barbara’s Quality.”
The Santa Barbara News-Press, despite mixing up who won which prize, set aside its hatred of the school to praise the Nobelists and the chancellor, a symbolic move that seemed to represent the rest of the county lying down with the university.
“Appearances Can Be Deceiving,” the News-Press proclaimed with a front-page headline.
Well, of course they can. No one would ever guess that, looking at the shuttered windows of the ugliest chemistry building in the UC system, or the 1970s-era brown color scheme of the physics building, the school would be winning Nobel Prizes in those two fields.
Ha, ha. This is not what the News-Press meant.
It’s the appearance of the campus’ oldest demon – Isla Vista – that keeps the school from the pantheon of ivy-covered, serious and high-minded universities.
Isla Vista. One square mile, it looks like a beer-dripping hurricane passed over the wreck of a freight train carrying red plastic cups. A square mile with 20,000 people, almost half of which are UCSB students. A square mile famous for its Halloween and back-to-school parties, where bored teenagers from all over come to get drunk, high and laid.
A square mile that for decades has dragged the university through the mud on a series of wild adventures, some harmless – like the Princeton Review or Playboy’s party school rankings – and some disastrous.
In February, David Attias, an 18-year-old freshman, drove his car down a crowded street and killed four people.
The LA Times returned, with a new article about the dangers of the reckless partying in I.V.
The News-Press picked up its old hatred, dusted it off, and, embracing its old friend, returned fondly to calling for a natural disaster to make I.V. disappear forever into the ocean. Or something like that.
Over the next few months, two City College students died falling off cliffs at Del Playa parties.
A videotape surfaced, showing a kid getting assaulted by eight out-of-towners as mobs of people stood around and watched.
No matter that these were not UCSB students. The university was screwed. Ten years of public relations work was undone.
UCSB dropped five places in the U.S. News & World Report list of top colleges this year, remaining behind other UC schools, like Irvine and Davis, despite having better average high school GPA and SAT scores and a more selective admissions process.
Of course, the U.S. News lists are garbage, but people pay attention to them.
UCSB did reappear on the Princeton Review’s list of top 20 party schools.
The chancellor was not heard to exclaim, “Bitchin!”
For all its trying, the university has never been able to escape Isla Vista.
You’d think the faculty here would be sick of it by now – always having their work overshadowed by out-of-control parties and burning couches and hung-over students with tan, taut bodies.
But they’re not.
Some of them are used to it. Isla Vista has been in the news since they burned the bank in 1970, when the national guard was called in and students took to the streets to yell about Reagan and Vietnam and other things that made them angry.
Some professors actually like it there.
Mark Juergensmeyer, a professor of global studies, lives on the 6600 block of Del Playa. He has students over to his house for sections and parties.
“I like the vitality and the exuberance of [I.V.],” Juergensmeyer said. “I like my neighbors – they seem genuinely pleased that a professor would actually hang out on their turf, and I always get waves and cheers as I pass by.”
Some professor’s do not share Juergensmeyer’s sunny outlook.
“I’ve had two of my children go to school here. Both moved out after a year or two. And I agreed with the move,” mechanical and environmental engineering Professor Wilbert Lick said. “I don’t think it’s a good place for a student who’s seriously interested in academics.”
Faculty members have reasonable grounds for disliking I.V. In addition to worrying about their students’ safety – which is a top concern of most professors – they have to fight against a place that blows up on the weekends and can’t fail to draw outside attention away from the school.
Most of the crime in I.V. is actually the work of out-of-town visitors who come here for the parties. The general public doesn’t distinguish between UCSB students, City College students and unwelcome guests, so UCSB students get saddled with a reputation they don’t deserve any more than students anywhere.
Most professors probably know this much. But the vast majority of professors do not have time to visit and probably know the town more from what they read in the News-Press than they do from personal experience.
“I wish there were more opportunities for other professors to experience I.V. for the positive aspects of life here,” Juergensmeyer said. “I’d like to tell them, ‘come on over, have a cappuccino or a glass of beer, and find out what a pleasant and interesting life your students lead.'”
Chancellor Yang has sealed his popularity by frequenting the streets with his wife. They wander up and down, peering into parties, often on the biggest and rowdiest nights of the year. Yang has been complimented on his costume on Halloween and kicked out of parties by City College students who did not recognize him.
“Spending time with students is an enjoyable part of our lives,” Yang said. “Our students are most spirited, and we enjoy being with them, whether it is in the classroom, or at meetings and events we attend, or where they live, which, for a large proportion of students, is Isla Vista.”
Eric Simons is the editor in chief of the Daily Nexus and is heartbroken that he is unable to grow an orchard around his Del Playa Drive abode.