By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
“USC has accepted the Al Mann Institute on terms we wouldn’t accept,” Abe explains. He says it was a lot of money, but UCLA had no choice. “I think there is a faculty interest in having our hands not tied.” UCLA’s internationally famous film archive met with a similar disappointment last January, when director Steven Spielberg chose to locate his invaluable archive of Holocaust footage, the Shoah Foundation, at USC instead. USC received another windfall in George Lucas’ recent $175 million gift to the school, the largest ever in university history.
The $3 billion UCLA has raised over the past 10 years would barely cover its operating costs for a single year. A more valuable asset may be the school’s reputation for public service. According to that measure, The Washington Monthlyrecently put UCLA in the nation’s No. 4 slot, far ahead of 33rd-ranked USC. Such bona fides are needed to attract donors like entertainment mogul David Geffen, who in 2002 contributed $200 million toward the university expansion project that may benefit Angelenos most directly: the marble-clad UCLA Ronald Reagan Medical Center, now considered the West’s top hospital.
Fortunately, academic rivalry isn’t a zero-sum game. Former Berkeley Chancellor Heyman compares the UCLA-USC rivalry to the one he watched develop between Cal and Stanford.
“There could be competition,” Heyman recalls, “but it was still excellent for both places.”
Without a doubt, UCLA and USC’s escalating academic contest will mean better hospitals and art schools for the city. It will probably also mean more rounds of the battle over real estate and capital that has simmered throughout the universities’ history.
One of the first volleys was fired in 1925, when Westwood developer Edwin Janss convinced the University of California regents to relocate a southern branch of his university onto his land, drastically increasing the value of his surrounding thousands of acres. Janss replaced the regents’ limo drivers with his own employees, who gave their boss an edge on negotiations by eavesdropping on the regents as they toured other possible sites in Burbank, Pasadena, Palos Verdes and Fullerton.
UCLA quickly established itself as a commuter college for students who couldn’t afford USC, soon adding residence halls and recruiting renowned scholars. But long before the Bruins’ academic rise, that class distinction expressed itself through the athletic rivalry we all know. There may be no better example of how arbitrarily and easily such competitions begin.
Weeks before Pearl Harbor, six daring members of USC’s Sigma Epsilon fraternity infiltrated the UCLA cheering section at the Bruins’ first game of the season and stole the key to the flatbed truck carrying the Bruins’ prized 295-pound iron trophy, the Victory Bell. After the culprits identified themselves in the school paper, the cycle of retribution began. When USC refused to return the bell, the Bruins did cruel things to USC’s mascot, Tommy Trojan; Tommy’s avengers burned their school’s initials into a UCLA lawn. Only after USC’s president threatened to cancel the season did the two schools’ student body presidents end the madness with a compromise: the Victory Bell would be entrusted each year to the school that wins what is known simply as “The Game.”
But that competition was rather artificial, compared to the war USC was fighting on its own turf in those postwar decades. With property values plummeting, the surrounding neighborhood was being divided from within and without: its stately homes split into cheap apartments, and the area itself severed from wealthier areas farther north.
USC watched with dismay as much of the wealth that surrounded it fled to the Westside and the Valley. Despite UCLA’s gentrified surroundings — or perhaps because of them — the campus became a magnet for student activists, among them a young Bruin from Boyle Heights named Tony Villar, now known as Antonio Villaraigosa. In those tense decades, Chancellor Franklin Murphy wisely refused to crack down on political dissent at UCLA. Meanwhile, USC walled itself off from the simmering discontent happening right outside its campus boundaries.
After the Watts Riots, it appeared that USC might follow the example of Pepperdine, which fled from South Los Angeles to Malibu. As the surrounding neighborhood went from bad to worse, many questioned the decision not to. In his 2003 book, The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership, Steven Sample recounts the pressure he faced around the time of the 1992 riots: “From the moment my appointment as president at USC was first announced in December of 1990, I was urged by countless numbers of people to begin the process of moving USC out of Los Angeles. These people sincerely believed that L.A. as a viable urban center was dead as a doornail, and that the only way USC could survive and thrive was to move to Malibu . . . or to Orange County.”
At the hour of the so-called downtown renaissance, few are calling for USC to pull up stakes. “UCLA won a contest for space,” says noted Los Angeles historian D.J. Waldie, author of Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir. “But in the long run, in the city that’s becoming more diverse, more complicated economically and ethnically? Maybe USC is properly positioned for that city, and UCLA is less so.”
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