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Crosstown Rivals

(illustration by Deanna Staffo)

For nine hours, the college students seated across from each other at the Cal State Long Beach auditorium have been answering some rather obscure questions. Questions about American presidents, Babylonian mythology and particle physics. Questions that have left their shoulders slumped, their faces slack, their synapses exhausted and the contestants themselves looking less like the chipper players who showed up at 7 this morning than passengers on a delayed international flight.

College Bowl may be the most underrated rivalry in college sports, and with the April finals still two months away, this regional tournament is sparsely attended. Most of those allowed to go home already have. The tournament is now down to three final teams, two more rounds, and one slot at the nationals. USC and Pomona are about to duke it out onstage, while UCLA watches from the loge. The only question for the Bruins is whether they would prefer Pomona or USC as their final-round opponent. Not much of a question, really.

“Beating SC isn’t a matter of life and death,” football coach Red Sanders told his beloved Bruins a half century ago. “It’s more important than that.”

Exhausted though they are, the Bruins watch raptly as the tournament moderator tears open a small envelope at the podium and hoarsely reads the first question.

“The comedies of this knighted 20th-century author are variations on the irreconcilable tensions between individual experience and deadening social conventions. For 10 points, name this Brit wit —”

A red light goes off on Pomona’s table, thwarting SC. “Noël Coward,” offers Pomona’s captain.

“Correct,” the moderator says.

Pomona 10, USC 0.

“Identify this five-letter word that was the code name for the 1942 Allied invasion of North Africa —”

“TORCH,” Pomona’s captain again interjects.

“That’s good for 30 points,” the moderator notes.

Pomona 40, USC 0. The match isn’t over yet, but the definition the Bruins have posted on their Web site seems more and more justified:

USC (n.) 1. A glorified summer camp where each year, five affluent Stanford rejects and five dyslexic Saudi princes assemble to convince themselves that their next four years will be spent in pursuit of a valuable education.

The moderator reads the next question aloud. “Not until 2005 did scientists manage to photograph this species in its native habitat, 3,000 feet below the ocean’s surface.” This time, both teams are stumped. The moderator continues with a series of political questions, and USC rallies.

Pomona 40, USC 40. It’s going to be a nail biter. But if the Trojans slip past, the Bruins will have to wallop them next round. UCLA still hasn’t forgiven the Trojans for stealing their place at the nationals back in 2000. Something mysterious started happening that year. USC’s incoming-freshman SAT scores approached, equaled, then passed UCLA’s. Time named USC “College of the Year.” USC became more selective in its admissions than its crosstown rival.

But on this particular day, the Trojans are losing the battle. Pomona is up by more than a hundred points, according to the rapid scribbling of the scorekeepers. You can see defeat on the face of USC team captain Mik Larsen, a quiet, pony-tailed history major who is well aware of the stereotypes that still dog his school.

“They think they’re better,” he told me at lunch, sniffing at how the UCLA team recently accused his team of cheating, and of writing terrible practice questions. “And maybe they are, but that’s changing.”

It isn’t changing fast enough for Larsen, however. His team loses momentum after the judges reject the Trojans’ answer to a difficult math question. The round finishes, and Larsen waves over the moderator to dispute the judges’ call. The moderator announces that USC’s answer to the math question was indeed correct, but adds hastily, “It wouldn’t have affected the outcome in any case.”

It doesn’t. USC loses to Pomona, who then loses to UCLA, who then flies off to the nationals in Connecticut a few months later. After eliminating other well-ranked schools like Northwestern, UCLA crushes the University of Illinois, taking back the national title. The Bruins can now rest on their laurels.

Or could, anyway, until the much dreaded U.S. News & World Report rankings were released in August. Controversial as it is, the U.S. News guide is considered by many to be the most influential and reviled arbiter of institutional standing in higher education. Fistfights and administrative beheadings have resulted from its oracular judgments. Just six years ago, as USC began to climb the rankings ladder, UCLA placed 25th among the nation’s universities and USC was far behind at number 42. This year?

UCLA 26, USC 27.

In the fall of 2005, top African-American studies scholar Robin D.G. Kelley took a weekend tour of USC and glimpsed a holy relic: the piano that had once belonged to his hero, Thelonious Monk. While writing a biography of the jazz great, Kelley had become accustomed to handling rarely seen historical documents possessed by the Monk estate. But he’d never seen the instrument Monk had poured his soul into during the last years of his life, let alone been given the opportunity his hosts presented to him that afternoon.

 

“They asked me if I wanted to play,” said Kelley. “I never imagined I’d do that.”

Neither did the Columbia University professor ever imagine he’d find himself considering the job he was being offered by his tour guides. Kelley was a confirmed New Yorker with Ivy League tenure. As a graduate student at UCLA, he had known the school across town merely as the University of Spoiled Children. The program for which he was now being considered, American Studies and Ethnicity, hadn’t even existed. But any fears Kelley had about becoming a token minority scholar in a token minority program were allayed that day, when he sat down for what sounds like more of an intellectual salon than a job interview.

“Only once we talked about money,” Kelley recalls. “They had read some of my stuff, and they engaged me intellectually — these are administrators! They asked what I was working on now. Everyone treated me as if I were a very significant thinker and not just another high-profile press release.”

No press release was needed. Soon after returning to New York from his interview, Kelley received a call from his old dissertation adviser at UCLA. Having heard that one of their top graduates was considering moving west, the department held an emergency meeting at what, by their own admission, was a critical time for UCLA.

For years, the university with one of the nation’s pioneering African-American studies programs — the university that produced Jackie Robinson, Ralph Bunche and Tom Bradley — has suffered an embarrassing decline in diversity. Its incoming class this fall included only 96 African-Americans, the fewest in more than 30 years. In response, UCLA has adopted a more holistic set of admissions standards, placing less emphasis on test scores, which the university hopes will help diversify its 2007-08 class. Other UCs have experienced similar declines in minority enrollment, though none so precipitous as the dominant public university in a county with the country’s second-largest black population.

Kelley and others blame Proposition 209, which ended affirmative action at California’s public institutions a decade ago. It was roughly around that time that USC embarked on its own transformation.

“At USC, after the riots, there was suddenly a feeling that if the surrounding communities go under, it’s hard to have first-rate students come,” says USC professor George Sanchez, a UCLA classmate of Kelley’s who persuaded him to consider USC. “Meanwhile, I would have colleagues at UCLA who had been ensconced in the Palisades so long, they would say, ‘I haven’t been downtown in 20 years.’?”

If they had, Sanchez’s former colleagues at UCLA might have been surprised. By providing a neutral ground for dialogue, USC helped ease the neighborhood’s shift from a largely African-American neighborhood to a Latino enclave. The university helped set up and fund the Kid Watch program to ensure that local children get home safely after school, and it has promised many of its academic seats to those same students. It was to honor those efforts that, in 2000, Time magazine voted USC “College of the Year.”

The effects are being felt all over Los Angeles, including the city center, according to USC history professor and State Historian Emeritus Kevin Starr. “The current revival downtown was driven by USC planners who had been talking about it for 25 years,” says Starr. Meanwhile, USC enrolled 132 African-American freshmen last fall, twice UCLA’s percentage. (This year’s figures haven’t been released yet.) Kelley says he took note while deciding which job to take.

“I used to walk around the USC campus 20 years ago, and the faces have changed,” says Kelley, who ultimately turned down his alma mater for USC. “I can see USC becoming a less hostile environment for minorities than UCLA. For me, that’s been the biggest surprise of all.”

Kelley isn’t the only one surprised by the changes at USC. UCLA professor Tim Stowell says he was shocked himself last year when he and five of his linguistics-department colleagues received calls from USC on the same day: “They wanted us to defect.”

The department chair says he had never seen such a large and well-coordinated raid in academia. If successful, UCLA would have lost a third of one of its top departments, third-ranked in the nation. Stowell knew what a blow the defection would be, but after years of unmet demands for better facilities and more graduate-student funding, he was tempted.

 

In the end, UCLA met the demands and retained its linguistics department, but not without raising discreet alarms, recalls Kevin Starr. “The chancellor called [USC president] Steven Sample and said, ‘Look I don’t mind you trying to poach a professor or two, but not a whole department!’?” says Starr. “The raid attempt showed a lot of chutzpah.”

If you can’t beat them, join them. Last Wednesday, UCLA flexed its own recruitment muscle and addressed its diversity concerns by announcing that it has snagged Harvard University’s Civil Rights Project, a research center focused on civil rights and racial inequality. Poaching one of Harvard’s prized projects was a coup, and possibly an expensive one. According to its own leadership, UCLA has struggled to close a widening state and federal funding gap that has handed a recruiting advantage to private institutions.

“A decade ago, UCLA and Berkeley were receiving funding on a per-student basis that was comparable to USC and were in a position to compete on a selective basis with elite private universities,” former UCLA Chancellor Albert Carnesale told the Academic Senate (the body that represents the school’s faculty) at a private retreat in 2002. “The current resource gap could lead to a concomitant quality gap between these campuses. UCLA could [be unable to] compete with its current resource base.”

Carnesale’s warning focused on the long-term future, but the root of his concern is already at hand. At the time of the 2002 meeting, USC received $27,000 per student, mostly from tuition, and UCLA $18,000, mostly from state support. That concern has since spread throughout the faculty. Without mentioning USC by name, UCLA’s Academic Senate warned of a “competing private university’s” poaching attempt on the linguistics department. Another report suggested that “a slowdown in recruiting . . . along with reduction in staff and services has created a perception among the faculty that the unit is in decline,” and warned that UCLA was struggling to retain its faculty. The department heads wanted the resources to keep their best talent, and some felt they weren’t getting it.

Many at UCLA and USC complain that Los Angeles’ fast-growing housing costs have made it more difficult to recruit faculty from outside the area. As real estate prices in Los Angeles continue to outpace the rest of the country, both universities have realized it is often easier to conduct raids across town.

How many poaching attempts USC has conducted is uncertain; neither university is keen to publicize data that could depict it as either opportunistic or vulnerable. A UCLA spokesperson says that actual losses are low, though he was unable to document this with exact numbers. In any event, the attempted raid on UCLA’s linguistics department would not have counted in retention statistics, since Stowell’s dean stepped in before USC could make a dollars-and-cents offer.

There is no disputing the competition’s impact on the internal workings of both universities. For Stowell, the fact that UCLA pays so many of its faculty off-scale — in other words, retaining them by offering nonstandard salary raises even during state budget freezes — is itself an indication of the number of poaching attempts the university is fighting off. Rather than raise salaries across the board, the university has doled out big money to keep its stars.

“The upside is that this is the way the UCs have stayed competitive,” says Stowell. “The downside is that it has introduced inequities in the faculty.”

For the most part, the effort has kept UCLA’s brightest talent on board. Professor Terrence Tao became the first faculty member in university history to win a Fields Medal (the “Nobel Prize of mathematics”), soon followed by a MacArthur Fellowship. Though UCLA lost its international-relations-school dean to USC last year, it recently recruited general and former presidential candidate Wesley Clark as a fellow.

But talent is expensive, and faculty like Stowell say that other parts of the university must foot the bill. UCLA’s professional schools now cost nearly as much as those at comparable private institutions. Jared Fox, former president of UCLA’s Graduate Student Association, says his university is able to support fewer and fewer graduate students as a result.

“The common argument is that law-school students will be able to pay their loans back,” says Fox. “We’re seeing fewer and fewer who can afford to go into public service, which is one of the things that public universities are supposed to encourage.”

Lately, money woes have even extended to UC’s leadership. Since the fall of 2005, the regents have grappled with the fallout of a series of San Francisco Chronicle articles that raised questions about the system’s top administrative salaries. Congress has reprimanded the regents over their handling of compensation, as has the university’s own task force. At a recent regents meeting, UC student body president Anu Joshi harangued the university’s leadership for denying her the chance to speak on the issue at their meetings. Hours before, the UC’s systemwide Academic Senate went so far as to replace its head for the first time in history — some reports say it was because he failed to stress the faculty’s concerns to the regents.

 

To compensate for dwindling support, UCLA has raised student fees for four years running while maintaining its public mission by increasing aid to its neediest students. Regardless, last year, UCLA’s research funding was the second highest in the nation, according to a University of Florida study. USC ranked 24th, but its faculty is growing, and its departmental rankings are rising fast.

“The best parallel to USC is NYU,” says Kelley, who taught at New York University before Columbia. “Twenty-five years ago, NYU was considered a private service institution, nothing out of the ordinary. Then they said we’re going to spend our endowment on principal to buy top faculty, and they shot up overnight.”

On a chilly spring morning in March, billionaire real estate developer Edward Roski Jr. and his wife, Gayle Garner Roski, have taken the stage of Watt Hall to assist USC’s own quick ascent. Four decades ago, the couple met on this campus. Ever since then the Roskis have been proud Trojans. Today they are proving their loyalty by making what USC calls the largest single donation to a visual arts school in the United States.

As you might expect, the man accepting the check is smiling.

“Is this all $23 million gets you?” Steven Sample jokes, referring to the bouquet of flowers he is handing to Mrs. Roski.

Joking aside, the status of the gift as the largest single donation is questionable. Almost three years before USC’s ceremony, UCLA announced that Roski’s friend, philanthropist Eli Broad, had spent $23.2 million to replace UCLA’s earthquake-ravaged art school with the Richard Meier–designed Eli and Edythe Broad Art Center, which opened in September. Broad's gift had initially been lower, thus the confusion. But Sample and former chancellor Carnesale have both passed out their share of bouquets.

In 2003, USC announced that it had raised $2.85 billion in nine years through its Building on Excellence campaign, then the largest fund-raising effort in higher-education history. UCLA fired back last February, announcing that its own just-concluded Campaign UCLA had raised $3 billion over a slightly longer period, taking the No. 1 spot.

Such a campaign by a public university has few precedents. “When I started out as chancellor, we never had a capital campaign,” recalls Berkeley professor emeritus Michael Heyman, who was Berkeley’s chancellor in the late 1980s. “Sixty percent of our budget came from the state. Now it’s half that. Certainly no one ever went to the private sector for buildings, but now private donors pay for almost all of them.”

Of the approximately two dozen institutions in the country pursuing capital campaigns of a billion or more, roughly two-thirds are public, and UCLA is in the lead. Some experts, like author and higher-education-consultant Lara Couturier, worry that it is increasingly difficult to tell public institutions like UCLA and private institutions like USC apart.

At the same time, both institutions are spending in an eerily similar manner, applying their new funds to approximately 125 new professorships and half a billion dollars in new construction. But UCLA faces a challenge that the relatively tuition-driven USC doesn’t, says Couturier: Most private donors insist that their gifts be directed to specific parts of the university, even when the university faces more pressing issues elsewhere — like fixing its air conditioning.

“It’s hard to find the funds for daily operations,” says Couturier. “It’s not sexy to donors.”

To patch up a couple of neglected areas, UCLA began a second fund-raising campaign even before finishing the first: Ensuring Academic Excellence, which seeks $250 million to endow chairs and support graduate students. That campaign was what helped meet the linguistics faculty’s demand for graduate-student fellowships, which some estimate are $2,000 lower at UCLA than at comparable institutions. At only $2,000 per student, neither school’s endowment compares with that of top Ivy League institutions such as Harvard, where the figure is about $60,000.

Such support is critical to bringing in top talent, especially from abroad. Some faculty worry that UCLA’s stature internationally has suffered because of diminished support.

Roger Geiger, an expert on the economics of research universities, says there are limits to what such fund-raising campaigns can do. As a much larger institution, Geiger says, “UCLA can’t make up the funding gap by building endowment. Of the public universities, only University of Virginia, which is very small, can do that.”

 

Not surprisingly, UCLA and USC both find themselves wooing local philanthropists like Roski for increasingly important private donations. Despite the similar amount and timing of his gift, Roski denies that his gift was chosen to compete with Broad’s contribution to UCLA’s art school. No matter. UCLA’s average alum may not be as wealthy as Roski, but the school excels at making friends with deep pockets. UCLA grew into a UC flagship in large part through former chancellor Charles Young’s successful courtship of Westside donors starting in the ’60s, when USC had a monopoly on wealthy Pasadena donors.

Back then, UCLA had a single endowed professorship and a budget of $170 million. By the time Young stepped down in 1997, the number of endowed professorships had risen to 120, and the budget to $2 billion. But in the last decade, the geographical loyalties he helped cultivate have eroded.

For every donor like Roski, who has never given money to UCLA, there is another like Broad, who has become a hero to both schools. Besides creating the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Center at UCLA, Broad endowed a $25 million stem-cell-research center at USC that will compete with UCLA’s own center for California’s Proposition 71 stem cell research funds.

UCLA has already received the largest Prop. 71 grant of any institution in the state. In an increasingly privatized research economy, the size and public status of the UC system are sometimes liabilities. For instance, because UCLA is a public school, Broad had to build the Broad Institute for Integrative Biology and Stem Cell Research at USC instead.

“You can’t have stem-cell research in a building with federal funding,” Broad explains. For similar reasons, Westwood missed out on the $112.5 million Alfred Mann Institute, a bioengineering program Mann allegedly offered to UCLA in the late ’90s. According to UCLA business school professor George Abe, who teaches a course on patent research, the sticking point in the negotiations with UCLA was Mann’s insistence on retaining too much control over the institute’s patents and patent revenue.

“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 Monthly recently 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.”

Whether Waldie’s prediction proves true or not, his calculus is revealing. Which university will inherit the keys to the city? The most likely answer is that they will have to share. As their ranking gap shrinks, so does the distance between Westwood and West Adams, two formerly disconnected suburbs now fusing into a vibrant marketplace of minds and ideas.

There may be no better emblem of that unlikely triumph of psyche over geography than the 1970s radical from Boyle Heights who, 30 years after entering UCLA, found himself standing before a strange commencement podium, addressing his alma mater’s rival.

“In the final analysis,” Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa asked the most recent crop of young Trojan graduates, “isn’t it an essential truth that any real rivalry is rooted in respect?”


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