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May 21, 1989|JEAN DAVIDSON | Davidson is a Times staff writer.

Twenty-five years and 37,331 degrees since it was founded, the university appears poised for the big leagues. The aim, today as in 1965, is to rival UC Berkeley and Harvard. 'The question is, will UCI achieve greatness? The opportunity is there.'

In the sunny, book-lined office of UC Irvine Chancellor Jack W. Peltason, a dozen distinguished academics gathered recently to honor one of their own.

It was an important, even a historic moment, but there was nothing stiff about it. Champagne flowed along with effusive toasts, and Peltason beamed like a coach whose underdog team had just run away with the championship.

UCI chemistry professor F. Sherwood (Sherry) Rowland, a founding faculty member, had received the Japan Prize for his research on the destruction of the Earth's ozone shield. The prize included $400,000 in cash, enough loot to inspire enthusiastic chest-thumping, even if the award were not second in international status only to the Nobel Prize.

"Sherry Rowland's work is significant to the whole world, and the world has recognized him," Peltason proclaimed. "And that work took place at our university."

UCI and UC Santa Cruz, both of which opened in 1965, are the newest universities in the 120-year-old University of California system, but it is UCI that is competing in many disciplines with hallowed Berkeley, UCLA and other top institutions across the country for the most prestigious prizes, elite professors and brightest students.

In recent years, UCI has grown in political muscle and brainpower with the additions of the Beckman Laser Institute, a medical research center, the western headquarters of the National Academy of Sciences and the Humanities Research Institute, a UC think-tank. UCI has also lured world-renowned scholars with above-scale salaries and, increasingly, has had to fend off outside bids for faculty members such as Rowland, who have done pioneering research at Irvine and now are celebrated themselves.

Always land-rich, UCI is beginning to bring in big bucks, too. Private donations reached a record $24 million in 1987-88, and research grants, the fuel that propels scholarly study beyond state-funded basics, totaled $61 million. The university, which employs 10,336 administrators, professors, clerks, groundskeepers and others, also pumped an estimated $544 million in personal income into the economy, with three-quarters of that spent in Orange County.

The momentum shows no signs of slowing. Twenty-five years and 37,331 degrees since UCI was founded, the university appears poised for the big leagues.

"I think UCI is one of the most exciting places in the world of higher education," Peltason says. "We're like a kid entering adolescence--we're maturing. UCI is going to be good, and it is going to be big. The question is, will UCI achieve greatness? The opportunity is there."

The aim, today as in 1965, is to rival UC Berkeley and Harvard University, and the buzzword is destiny . Some caution that striving to accomplish so much in so short a time may result in shortcuts in quality, but no one disputes the remarkable strides the newcomer already has made.

PLANS FOR A UC campus in East Los Angeles or Orange County began in the 1950s when soaring enrollment projections and a suburban building boom convinced the UC Board of Regents that Disneyland wouldn't be surrounded by orange groves for long and that UCLA alone would not be able to serve the growing metropolis.

And so the search began. More than 20 sites were considered, then rejected, as communities competed for the university and the development it would bring. In March, 1959, the Regents selected 1,000 acres of gently rolling property on the Irvine Ranch because of its sweeping view of the Santa Ana basin, its location in the center of an urbanizing county and the planned web of freeways that would link it to metropolitan Los Angeles.

UC officials also saw a rare and exciting opportunity to nurture a new community around the campus in cooperation with the Irvine Co., the development firm that owned the more than 100,000 surrounding acres of Irvine Ranch land.

About the same time, a bitter two-year battle within the Irvine Co. was coming to a head. Joan Irvine Smith, then 26 and the only descendant of founder James Irvine II on the company's board of directors, wanted to make the 1,000-acre tract a gift to UC but faced a wall of opposition from other board members. Exasperated, Smith took her campaign public. She called news conferences, wrote letters and spoke at rallies.

It worked. In December, 1959, the Irvine Co. agreed to donate the 1,000 acres selected by UC. The university's landholdings were completed three years later when the Regents purchased from the Irvine Co. an additional 510 acres for $3.3 million.

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