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How UC Irvine Makes Offers They Don't Refuse

Employment: University Hills housing is the benefit that lures top- notch faculty to the school and keeps them happily there.

July 02, 2002|EVAN HALPER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Irvine's immaculately landscaped French Country and Spanish Colonial homes could tempt almost any college professor to trade in the textbooks for a briefcase and the lucrative corporate life.

But what serious academic could afford to live in such Orange County neighborhoods, where even a modest single-family home can run half a million dollars?

Actually, most any UC Irvine professor.

UC Irvine's answer to runaway housing prices is University Hills, the handsome, faculty-only master-planned community of homes that rivals even the swankiest developments in town--and at half the price.

Ever since famed Yale deconstructionist J. Hillis Miller surprised the academic world by bolting to UC Irvine 15 years ago--lured in part by an affordable custom-built house in University Hills--the college's faculty housing program has provided a huge edge in recruiting. Few, if any, other universities can offer the majority of their professors luxury homeownership at a deep discount.

The latest batch of talent the upscale residential neighborhood helped bring to UC Irvine includes an endowed department chairman from New York University and a distinguished professor in the sciences from UCLA. UC Irvine's dean of humanities also reports negotiations with at least one Harvard professor and said a number of junior faculty members have passed up offers from the University of Chicago, the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and other top schools largely so they can keep living in University Hills.

"We have it all here," said Michael Szalay, an associate professor of English who has turned down several higher-ranking schools.

Szalay's fiancee just left a tenured teaching post in Ann Arbor for a faculty job at UC Irvine, and last week the two bought a four-bedroom Craftsman-style home in University Hills for $334,000.

"We get to be academics at a great institution, but we also get to live the lifestyle most of America dreams about," he said. "We've escaped the garrets that academics in major urban areas are so often forced to live in, and we get to have it all."

"Garret" life has become reality for more academics as housing prices in metropolitan areas soar. Big-city colleges and universities report that recruits are turning down even the most lucrative job offers because housing is so expensive.

At Stanford University in upscale Palo Alto, a report from the Provost's Committee on Faculty Housing in 2000 concludes that the housing crunch was so dire that "Stanford's future is in jeopardy.

"Chairs and deans have a very difficult time recruiting the best faculty, given the local price of housing," the report states.

Stanford has about 850 homes on campus that faculty are welcome to buy, but they lack the price caps of UC Irvine's University Hills homes. The homes typically cost more than $700,000.

"Most people who are coming here can't afford to live here because of the housing crisis," said Betty Oen, associate director for faculty and staff housing at Stanford. "If they have offers from outside universities, they are usually in places with much lower housing costs."

Stanford and other universities have helped faculty members fill the gap by dipping into their endowments to fund cut-rate loans, grants and other housing assistance for faculty members. Still, many professors, especially junior faculty, can't afford to buy a house anywhere near campus.

"As housing prices go up, as they have been outrageously, it is only going to get worse," said Courtney Caldwell, a Newport Beach-based university housing consultant who helped UC Irvine set up its program and now helps schools nationwide. "It has just gone crazy," she said.

Caldwell has been besieged by calls from desperate administrators watching recruits slip from their grasp. Now many colleges want to set up a program similar to the one UC Irvine established nearly 20 years ago, which will soon be complete with 1,100 homes, enough for half the professors on campus. Schools are having varying degrees of success.

Big private schools such as NYU, Columbia, Harvard and Princeton offer some faculty members affordable apartments in high-rent neighborhoods. The perk has helped recruiting and also kept some of the faculty stars from leaving, especially in areas where the rental market has soared, Caldwell said.

The most activity appears to be in California, where skyrocketing land prices are particularly pressing.

Pepperdine has built faculty housing over the years to keep faculty and recruits from bolting as a result of sticker shock in Malibu--and it is working on several dozen more units. UC Berkeley and UC Santa Barbara have started buying apartment and condominium buildings to help solve their housing problems. But there are far too few units available to meet demand.

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