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Soak up a little radical chic

Nestled in the Berkeley Hills, Cal is home to Nobel laureates and a spirited student body. Oh, and trendy hotels and eateries.

November 02, 2008|Christopher Reynolds | Reynolds is a Times staff writer.

BERKELEY — So what do we call this place? Cal? Berkeley? Cal Berkeley? UC Berkeley? This question hung above 10 of us -- nine visitors and one student tour guide, all gathered at a busy campus that simmered on an autumn weekday morning with undergraduate enthusiasm, intellectual fermentation and political skirmishing.

Way back in 1966, when he was running for governor and the university was awash in demonstrations, Ronald Reagan described this campus as "the mess at Berkeley." After winning that election, Reagan engineered the firing of the university president, cut the budget, proposed selling rare books from the library and sent the National Guard in with bayonets and tear gas, dramatic gestures that helped give this territory its own chapter in the history of dissent in America.

But that was a long time ago.

"You can pretty much call us whatever you want," guide Jenn Lerner told us. "As long as it's not Stanford."

And so we began, some of us considering commitments to UC Berkeley, some just curious. Berkeley, the city, is a famously liberal enclave of 102,000 people wedged into about 10 square miles just north of Oakland. Berkeley, the campus, is 1,232 acres of that, but most of the action is in the 178-acre central core, which faces San Francisco Bay from the low slopes of the Berkeley Hills.

That core area is where you find the school's key landmarks, including the 307-foot Campanile (a.k.a. Sather Tower, which serves as a North Star to many a meandering freshman), Sproul Plaza and stodgy old South Hall, which goes back to this school's early days in 1873.

Lerner, a junior majoring in American studies, rattled off facts at high speed, all the while walking backward and interrupting herself with offbeat asides. By many measures, she noted, this is the No. 1 public university in the nation, its current faculty decorated with seven Nobel prizes. (The laureates get preferred parking, which may be the ultimate measure of respect here.) In Sproul Plaza, we noted the campus Republicans and the Muslim students recruiting tables about 8 feet apart. There's also a dodge-ball league, Lerner added, along with about 800 other campus groups.

The cyclotron was invented here, and various Silicon Valley luminaries put in time here. The Bancroft Library (closed "until winter" for retrofitting) holds the world's top collection of Mark Twain papers and an early nugget from the gold rush of 1849.

Oh yes, and berkelium, a substance discovered by a team of Cal researchers in 1949, is No. 97 on the periodic table of the elements. Search for as long as you like, said Lerner, but you'll find no stanfordium on that table.

The place's name was chosen to honor George Berkeley, the 18th century Irish philosopher and bishop who is credited with the phrase "Westward the course of empire takes its way." Though Frederick Law Olmsted spent part of the 1860s designing a campus for this site, his ideas were "modified substantially" when it finally materialized and began to grow.

The first buildings were designed in the Second Empire architectural style, very European-feeling, and the Campanile, completed in 1914, is a copy of St. Mark's clock tower in Venice, Italy. But then came a parade of architectural styles -- a little Gothic here, a little Mission there, a little Deco there -- that yielded a set of buildings almost as diverse as the students coursing in and out of them.

There are about 24,600 undergrads here and 10,300 grad students, with about 85% of the just-admitted freshmen from California. About 35% of all students are Caucasian, 34% Asian American and Pacific Islanders, with other backgrounds present in smaller numbers. About 8% come from foreign countries (mostly grad students). About 10%, Lerner told us, belong to fraternities or sororities.

By the university's count, the average campus-dwelling undergrad is spending $26,586 this year, and 65% get some kind of financial aid. It sounds pretty pricey, at least until you take the Stanford tour.

Anyway, here and there as you wander, you'll find remnants of past and present campus upheaval. At a grand old building with missing door handles, Lerner told us why: Protesters in the '60s used that hardware in chaining themselves to buildings. Once the handles were removed, authorities elected to leave some off.

Not that activism is strictly a historical matter in these parts. Just two weeks before we arrived, campus police finally succeeded in chasing four tree-sitters out of a 90-foot redwood on campus near Memorial Stadium, followed by the rapid felling of the tree. The tree-sitters (who were not students) had been part of a 21-month protest against plans to cut down a grove to expand a sports facility. (Somewhere, is Reagan smiling?)

After saying our goodbyes to Lerner, we paid $2 a head and rode an elevator to the top of the Campanile (open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. most weekdays), the better to see how the campus creeps up into the hills and down toward the bay.

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