GOLETA, Calif. — As a professor at Princeton University, physicist David J. Gross often visited UC Santa Barbara, always admiring its sunshine and ocean views. But then he would return to his Ivy League school, assuring colleagues that living in New Jersey's often dreary climate meant "you'd do better work."
These days, with a sweeping Pacific view out the windows of his office at UC Santa Barbara, Gross offers a different outlook. The California institution is "a university on the make," he said. "Just because you live in a beautiful place doesn't mean you can't do good work."
Last week, Gross underscored that belief by sharing the 2004 Nobel Prize in physics. The award, the fourth Nobel for a UC Santa Barbara professor since 1998, helps mark the campus' emergence as a major American research university.
Long known more for its spectacular setting and student parties than serious scholarship, UC Santa Barbara these days is earning frequent recognition for its academics.
By many measures -- including the rising caliber of its freshmen classes and its slow climb in national rankings -- the campus is stepping out of the shadows cast by its better-known UC siblings.
At the same time, it is combating a stubborn reputation as a party school and trying to gain control over an adjacent, often unruly community where thousands of students live.
The seriousness of the partying problem was illustrated in 2001, when a troubled UC Santa Barbara freshman plowed his car into a crowd of pedestrians on a Friday night, killing four young people.
Three years after that incident, however, the university's image is changing.
"It's been no secret to the people here that it's an awesome place," said Daniel Haier, editor in chief of the student newspaper.
"People from the outside are now viewing this as a place where there's very serious academics and very serious research ... as opposed to a place right next door to a ghetto of drunken students."
The developments in recent years reflect a new chapter for a campus once fondly described by undergraduates as the "UC of Sunbathing Blondes" and still lauded by Playboy magazine, among others, as a top party school.
UC Santa Barbara officials and others point to the five Nobel Prizes -- four since 1998 -- that have been won by the school's faculty, all in physics and chemistry. No other UC campus has received as many Nobels in recent years
The Santa Barbara campus still lags far behind UCLA and UC Berkeley in U.S. News & World Report's annual ranking of the nation's leading research universities. But in the late 1990s, it broke into the top 50 in the magazine's popular survey, and edged up to 45th place this year.
William G. Tierney, director of USC's Center for Higher Education Policy Analysis, credited UC Santa Barbara's leaders, including Chancellor Henry T. Yang, for boosting the university's stature by emphasizing fields in which it could flourish, "rather than try to ensure that everything is equal and mediocre."
The academic profile of UC Santa Barbara's freshman class also has risen, as it has at all eight UC undergraduate campuses over the last decade amid a population boom in college-age youths. In the mid-1990s, UC Santa Barbara accepted almost all students who met basic UC requirements. This year, it turned away nearly half of its 36,000 applicants. UC Santa Barbara has about 20,000 students, 85% of whom are undergraduates.
The average score on the SAT entrance exam for enrolled freshmen has climbed by 90 points over the last decade, to 1,181. In the same period, the average grade-point average for freshmen has risen from 3.45 to 3.75 on a four-point scale, while the average score on the SAT II writing test has jumped from 457 to 584.
Catherine Cole, an associate professor of dramatic arts, has noticed the change in class. When she first came to Santa Barbara seven years ago, Cole said, "it seemed much harder to get the students focused." Now, she said, "they are much more engaged, with a much higher expectation for the learning experience."
UC Santa Barbara has also begun to reap the benefits of strategic decisions made years ago by university officials who knew that the 1,000-acre campus could not expand. Rather than focus on growth, UC Santa Barbara chose to concentrate on certain scholarly areas, said Gene Lucas, executive vice chancellor.
That meant recruiting star professors such as Gross, 63. Although he performed his share of the groundbreaking work leading to the Nobel while at Princeton in the early 1970s, it was a major coup for Santa Barbara to recruit him in 1997. Gross earned his doctorate at UC Berkeley, and UC Santa Barbara offered him the opportunity to return to the West Coast and run a prestigious physics institute.
Along with physics, UC Santa Barbara's strengths now include engineering, religious studies, information technology and a growing number of interdisciplinary centers.