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Eye on the Prize : Gleeful Officials and Faculty Hope USC's First Nobel Will Help the Campus Finally Shed Stereotype as an Academic Lightweight

October 13, 1994|LARRY GORDON and J. MICHAEL KENNEDY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Across the USC campus the news that chemistry professor George A. Olah brought the university its first Nobel Prize was greeted Wednesday with joy and grateful relief. There is, it seems, nothing like the first time.

USC has lots of Heismans in its trophy case but desperately wanted a Nobel. "It was," one USC official commented dryly, "like an unscratched itch."

Never again would USC face the indignity of being left off the list of major California institutions with Nobel laureates on their faculties. Stanford has won 14 Nobel prizes, Caltech 12. Even cross-town rival UCLA boasts three.

And now, the 114-year-old University of Southern California. "Certainly, this university has wanted a Nobel winner for some time," USC's president, Steven B. Sample, exclaimed Wednesday in something of an understatement.

The prize, said faculty and students, gives USC powerful ammunition against old and annoying jibes about its image as the University of Spoiled Children, or worse, the University of Second Choice for serious academics.

Although it is unlikely that Olah will ever be more famous than USC alum O.J. Simpson, the Nobel was welcomed as a deserved dose of academic acclaim for a school better known for its gridiron exploits. Olah joined USC in 1977, already renowned in the chemistry field for work that led to cleaner-burning gasoline and advances in oil refining.

Sample said he was pleased that the prize was awarded the year after a $120-million gift from Walter B. Annenberg for communications programs at USC, one of the largest grants in the history of higher education.

Combined, the Nobel and the Annenberg grant "will have a synergistic effect. That will be very helpful in student recruitment, fund raising and faculty recruitment," USC's president said.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, USC's dean of admissions and financial aid, thought ahead to this Saturday's football game with Stanford when he savored the prize.

Why not, said Joseph Allen, have the USC marching band spell out the word "Olah" on the playing field? After all, the Stanford band has taunted USC's academic reputation in the past by forming the average SAT scores of Trojan freshmen, which traditionally lag behind Stanford's scores.

"It's wonderful to have this new symbolism," Allen said of the Nobel. "It's strong evidence that this is a place that has improved its academic quality and is committed to keeping that going."

David Merkowitz, public affairs director of American Council on Education in Washington, agreed that the Nobel will boost USC's national reputation. "Having a Nobel laureate on the faculty is a sign of enhancement," he said. "And I'm sure they will use it for good measure in terms of recruiting and marketing."

In recent years, USC has been pushing for admission into the big leagues of national and international research universities. The school, whose main 150-acre campus is located south of Downtown, ranks about 20th among American universities in the amount of federal research aid it receives, $225 million annually.

Five years before UCLA was admitted to the Assn. of American Universities, USC won entrance in 1969 to that premiere organization of research institutions, whose membership now totals just 56 schools.

More recently, the university has been seeking to bolster the reputation of its undergraduate programs, which long have been the butt--justified or not--of in-house criticism and jokes from rivals Stanford and UCLA. Slightly more than half of USC's 27,864 students are undergraduates.

The current crop of USC freshmen averages SAT score totals just over 1100, a rise of about 100 points over a decade ago although still well below Stanford's or UCLA's. And counter to the image of an overwhelmingly affluent student body, 60% of USC students receive some financial aid to help with tuition and living costs that can total more than $22,000 a year.

Olah alluded to USC's changing image in remarks to his chemistry department colleagues hours after getting the phone call from Sweden on Wednesday morning.

"I think you should have a balance in any institution, and USC is maturing, combining a first-class science and medical research effort with a successful athletic program," he said.

Later in the day, several hundred faculty, staff and students gathered for a champagne reception at which Olah was applauded for more than a minute as he stood at the podium.

"I am so excited I am speechless," said Katherine B. Loker, an alumnus who in 1990 donated $7 million to Olah's research. "When we first met him, I knew he was a Nobel Prize individual."

Ironically, the Nobel may have its most important effect in Southern California, USC officials said Wednesday. In some respects, the university is more respected out of state than locally, partly because of the cross-town shadow cast by UCLA and Caltech.

"In some ways, it's harder to be recognized in your own back yard," said Morton Schapiro, an economist who is USC's dean of letters, arts and sciences. He forecast future Nobels for USC faculty, a game usually played by those other local schools.

"It's good to get your first, but there will be other ones," Schapiro said.

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