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New Profs Aid UCI's Ascent of Ivory Tower

Education: University has aggressively recruited top-tier scholars in reaching to rival such schools as UCLA and UC Berkeley.

July 14, 2002|JEFF GOTTLIEB | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Offering big salaries, research money and fancy titles--along with the opportunity to build new programs--UC Irvine has recruited several high-profile professors for the coming school year.

The headhunting is part of an effort by UCI administrators to boost the university into the highest echelon of academia.

The new professors come from a variety of fields--including history, psychology, genetics and mechanical engineering--and from such schools as UCLA, New York University and Emory University in Atlanta.

"Irvine is now using the tactics very aggressively that perhaps are more quietly used by institutions ... [that] have less of a competitive problem in recruiting faculty," said David Ward, president of the American Council on Education and former chancellor of the University of Wisconsin.

Although about two-thirds of UCI's new appointments are bright-light junior faculty members fighting their way up the tenure track, the senior academics who accepted offers are expected to attract other professors, grants and attention to the university.

Among the new hires are Elizabeth Loftus, whom the Review of General Psychology ranked 58th on its list of the 100 top psychologists of the 20th century; the exiled Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiong'o, considered one of the greatest living African writers; and Southern California historian and social critic Mike Davis, author of the best-selling "City of Quartz" and recipient of a MacArthur Foundation award.

All three will hold the title of "distinguished professor," a designation given to only a few.

Other newcomers include Satya Atluri, a theoretical mechanical engineer from UCLA, also a distinguished professor, and Doug Wallace, a geneticist and member of the National Academy of Sciences.

It's Growing Time

As 37-year-old UCI grows into middle age, faculty and administrators are pushing hard to establish a reputation comparable to that of UCLA and UC Berkeley. They are being helped by the planned growth of the student body by about 50%, to 30,000, within the next decade. Such a sharp increase brings the opportunity to hire about 400 professors, including those replacing retirees, said Herb Killackey, the executive associate vice chancellor.

It is also a time of extensive campus construction. Six science and engineering buildings are planned or under construction, at a total cost of about $200 million, said William Parker, UCI's vice chancellor for research.

"That's one of the features we have in recruiting senior faculty," he said. "We're a growing institution and they have the opportunity to shape a new program."

For example, Wallace, the newly hired geneticist, will have a joint appointment in the schools of biological sciences and medicine and will move into an entire floor of Hewitt Hall when it is completed in six months. He will bring with him from Emory about 25 people who make up his research team, including doctoral and post-doctoral students, technical assistants and support staff, Parker said.

Established professors may come to UCI for recognition, the chance to build new programs or colleagues they'd like to work with.

"We're not sufficiently well-funded to provide the best financial package," Parker said. "We want to be competitive with salaries, space and research support. But what attracts people are the building opportunities that come with a growing university or a specific set of colleagues here."

Most of the time, schools engaged in academic arms races don't give up easily. For example, New York University's faculty engaged in a campaign to entice Ngugi to stay, and the university offered him loads of additional resources, said Karen Lawrence, UCI's dean of humanities.

Special Status to Confer

UCI put a special effort into hiring Loftus, Ngugi and Atluri. Early last year, nominations were solicited from faculty for professors elsewhere who could be appointed distinguished UCI professors. A committee narrowed the list to seven.

A social scientist and a computer scientist turned down the offers, Killackey said, and the negotiating dance continues with two others.

"I'd say the [success] rate was a little higher than we expected," Killackey said.

Ngugi, 64, a novelist, essayist and playwright, said he left NYU for the chance to become the first director of UCI's International Center for Writing and Translation. "I love New York. I love NYU. But I felt that the challenge of the new center and chance to develop that type of model was too important for me not to take it."

Amnesty International adopted Ngugi as a prisoner of conscience after the Kenyan government jailed him. He has been in exile since 1982.

"This is a major coup for UCI," said Francoise Lionnet, chairwoman of French and Francophone studies at UCLA.

Lawrence called Ngugi's hiring "huge. It will lend immediate visibility to our new center."

Loftus accepted the offer from UCI June 30 in psychology and crime, law and society. She had spent 29 years at the University of Washington in Seattle, but a dispute with the administration left her angry and ripe for an offer.

Loftus said she decided to take UCI's offer because of its concentration of professors at the intersection of psychology and law.

Mike Davis is a historian known for his bestsellers and articles in popular journals. He was teaching at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

"It's an appointment that really gets us on the map in urban history in a way we haven't been," said Kenneth Pomeranz, chairman of the history department.

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