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CELEBRATE! : Orange County's First 100 Years : THE IRVINE EXPERIMENT : ORANGE COUNTY AND UCI: A MARRIAGE NOT EXACTLY MADE IN HEAVEN

May 21, 1989|JOSEPH N. BELL | Bell is a free-lance writer who produces a column for The Times' Orange County Life section

Shortly after an eminent educator named James March was recruited in 1964 from Carnegie Tech to become UC Irvine's first dean of social sciences, he celebrated his first Fourth of July in Orange County as was his custom: He flew the American flag in front of his house.

I had dropped by to see him that morning and told him: "If you fly that flag, everybody around here is going to assume you're against the United Nations, in favor of impeaching Earl Warren and think that the fluoridation of public water supplies is a Commie plot."

He didn't believe me and left it flying. The next day, a neighborhood committee of members of the John Birch Society called on him to ask if he wanted to join the local chapter.

This is but one of dozens of similar incidents that greeted the impressive--and startled--corps of educators who were recruited to help launch UCI's vision of itself as the "Harvard of the West."

Orange County and UCI weren't exactly a marriage made in heaven. A lot of unsuspecting educators who were regarded as moderates or even conservatives in their previous lives found when they arrived here that they were instantly suspect as left-wingers.

So were the students. A 1967 resolution of the board of governors of the United Republicans of California asserted that "a deliberate effort is being made to admit only liberally oriented students to Irvine."

I remember a newly hired English professor, who had left a prestigious job at an Eastern university, coming into my office at UCI waving a copy of The Times. He had just read the account of a speech by Dennis Carpenter, then vice chairman of the Republican State Central Committee (later a state senator from Orange County), who said--among other things--that he would like to see a UCI "program of recruitment that would hire young, shaven, all-American types to teach the kids something instead of trying to influence them politically."

This new professor was middle-aged, bearded and politically liberal. He was also one of the best in his field. I remember the panic in his eyes that morning as he faced the cold reality that he had sold his home in the East. His name escapes me because he didn't stay the route, as so many of us did.

I joined UCI in 1966 as a lecturer in the English department and spent 21 years teaching there. From close up, it strikes me that in its brief life, UCI has already gone through five rather distinct stages: euphoria, disillusionment, activism, apathy and technocracy. I have a feeling the latter is going to be around for a long, long time.

The euphoric stage lasted until about a year after UCI accepted its first students. Those were the years when we all went out and watched the campus literally grow out of the brown hills of the Irvine Ranch.

It was an exciting time, a whole new element of great promise introduced into what had been for so many years an agrarian society. And at the same time the buildings were going up, human resources were being recruited to write on a brand-new academic slate--a challenging prospect that seduced some potent academicians into coming to this new and unproved school.

UCI and Orange County were able to cohabit briefly in a superficial sort of harmony. The good citizens were mildly upset over the irreverent selection of an anteater as a mascot, but things were relatively calm until the San Francisco Mime Troupe arrived on campus for a performance in the spring of 1966.

Then, quicker than you could say "criminal communist conspiracy," the UCI-Orange County honeymoon was over--and disillusionment set in. The Mime Troupe's performance was called "Civil Rights in a Cracker Barrel," and UCI instantly was accused by the political right in Orange County of providing a platform for a passel of subversives.

This was Chancellor Dan Aldrich's baptism of fire, and he simply refused to cave in to the pressures on him to cancel the Mime Troupe performance. It also established Aldrich in the years to come as possibly the only administrator in the UC system who could have maintained bridges between the Orange County community and the UCI student body

during the activism of the 1960s and early '70s. He refused to allow the Neanderthals on either end of the political spectrum to polarize the community and the campus to a point beyond repair.

The Mime Troupe performed, and Orange County was outraged--albeit typically most of the outrage came from people who hadn't seen the show.

During the activist years that followed--when campuses all over the nation were in ferment--UCI functioned, uneasily and occasionally violently, under the steady-as-you-go hand of Aldrich. Speakers who were barred from other campuses-- including representatives of both the hard right and the hard left--spoke at UCI.

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