UC IRVINE’S Brain Hill : Faculty Members, Administrators Get Break on Home Prices, Live Side by Side in a Highly Creative Community of Scholars

Times Staff Writer

The streets in the neighborhood are named after thinkers like Newton and Curie and Mendel. The residents tend to have IQs the size of their ZIP codes and came to Orange County from places like Princeton and Yale and the National Science Foundation and some of the country’s leading research laboratories. They came armed with big resumes and the kind of intellects that can help transform good universities into great ones.

Some kind of neighborhood, huh? Imagine a block with no blockheads. Also, imagine a neighborhood larger than some towns but dependent on university police for protection. Or where the residents can’t have firearms because their homes are on university property.

University Hills is surely one of the county’s most unusual neighborhoods--a cloister of scholars and administrators that UC Irvine hopes will lead it into the 21st Century, a century in which UCI fully expects to win the kind of prestige now reserved for the UCLAs and Cal-Berkeleys and Ivy League.

That, at least, was what UCI planners had in mind when they stared into the hills south of the campus more than 20 years ago and, where rabbits and coyotes roamed, envisioned the neighborhood that has become University Hills.


The first wave of about 85 families moved in during the summer of 1985. In the last two summers, another 200 families have bought homes; 100 have rented. Today, University Hills is academe’s version of the company town, an enclave of about 1,000 people living on 65 acres. Two-thirds are faculty members and their families, with the rest being administrators and other university staff members. Although there are provisions for non-university families to live there, none do because demand from the university has been so high.

And, sometime in the next century, maybe in 25 years or so, as many as several thousand people may live in University Hills--most likely in even higher density than now, although that possibility is inconceivable to some residents. One resident tells of hearing the next-door neighbor talking to his cat about chasing a mouse. “I don’t want to hear about it,” the resident said, “and I know he doesn’t want me to hear about it.”

Still, University Hills has its appeal. It may be something akin to movie stars wanting to live around other movie stars.

“I was telling someone who was thinking of moving in that on one side he’d have an expert on T.S. Eliot and on the other a brilliant economist,” said Dorothea Yellot, vice president of marketing for the Irvine Campus Housing Authority, the nonprofit group that manages University Hills. “It does help sell them.”


OK, so the place has brains. But does it have a pulse?

Is it truly a neighborhood or just a collection of residents in ivory towers done up in Southern California Mediterranean? And, on to the larger question: Why would anyone want to live in the same neighborhood as their colleagues?

Ruth Angress, 56, late of Princeton and an expert in 18th- and 19th-Century German literature, was taking her dog, Bella, for a walk through her University Hills neighborhood. “I keep thinking there should be more life on the street,” she said.

It would be hard to imagine less life on the street than on this particular picture-perfect Sunday. It wasn’t so much a neighborhood as it was a canvas: Orange County in still life. To the outsider, the thought recurred: Where is everybody?

But perhaps Angress herself had unwittingly helped explain the quietude. Just minutes before, until she had an unexpected guest, she had been sitting in her den amid a passel of papers, magazines and books and staring at her home computer. On the screen was her as-yet-unfinished speech for a lecture series at UCI, where she heads the German department. The subject of her talk was a psychological interpretation, from a feminist perspective, of the German comic opera “Der Rosenkavalier.”

“One thing people don’t realize is how much university business is conducted here in our homes,” she said.

“There’s no reason why I shouldn’t work on Sunday. Besides, its due on Wednesday,” she added, smiling.

But really, she was asked, working on a Sunday? On a day like this? “It depends on whether you have a job or a profession,” Angress said. “Work is a hobby, to some extent.”


In other words, since the pursuit of knowledge is an endless process, why not the hours? The true scholar--the one who is passionate about the pursuit and thrives to impart the results of the hunt to students--may well get a natural high when working. Which may explain why a neighborhood like University Hills is a turn-on to some residents.

Stephen Bondy understands that. He was a neurotoxicologist with the National Institutes of Health before he came to UCI in 1985 as a professor in the community and environmental medicine department. “I was at the neighborhood pool the other day, and I heard two men talking excitedly about the discovery of a new particle in physics,” said Bondy, 49. “It made me glad that I was in a university community where I could overhear a conversation like that. It gave me a moment of pleasure.”

This is not to suggest that the most common sight in University Hills is that of neighbors standing under the light of the moon, with their index fingers thrust forward, discussing the lofty topics of the day. “I have a biologist on one side of me and an anatomist on the other,” Bondy said. “We generally talk about how to kill slugs on the lawn.”

J. Hillis Miller is one of UCI’s more illustrious catches, coming to the campus in 1986 as a distinguished professor after building a national reputation as an English professor at Yale. He and his wife are renting in University Hills while awaiting the completion of their custom-built home in the neighborhood.

“The (idea of a) community of scholars has both a plus and a minus,” said Miller, 59. “The minus is you’re living very close to your colleagues. I’m not used to that. At Yale, we lived out in the country. The plus is that when you do see them, when you’re out walking, you can have a little chat. The chairman of my department and I always seems to be out walking in the same place, and we sometimes have a little talk about literature, and that’s good.

“There’s also the proximity of colleagues in other fields whom you otherwise might not see at all. An example is a very distinguished scholar, Francisco Ayala (a UCI distinguished professor in ecology and evolutionary biology). This is a very interesting man, interested in human rights. . . . So not only is he a good biologist, but he’s a very interesting man. To have him as a next-door neighbor is something I’m really looking forward to. I don’t suppose we’ll get in each other’s hair too much.”

It is people with credentials like Bondy’s and Miller’s that UCI believed it couldn’t afford to lose if it wanted to muscle in on the academic big boys.

Too often, said William Parker, UCI associate executive vice chancellor, prospective faculty members would come to Orange County from the Midwest or East Coast and faint dead away over housing prices. Or, catch the next plane home.


“Affordable housing was the biggest problem we had in the recruitment of faculty,” Parker said. “We had to solve the problem to achieve our campus goals. We always thought Irvine offered the potential and the vision, and that people were interested in joining an institution that was moving forward and that has some reputation for innovation, aggressiveness and dynamic character. So we could get some very good people interested. They’d end up saying, ‘I’d love to join you, you have great opportunities, but my God, look at the cost of housing.’ ”

What the university came up with was a plan to make housing available at better than market prices (generally 20% to 40% below market value) as long as buyers would agree to some restrictions. For example, buyers would own the house but not the land. Then, they had to agree to resell it according to specific guidelines that would almost certainly reduce their profit. Also, they had to attempt to sell it to university employees before getting the chance to sell on the open market.

The more favorable terms were weighted toward the cheaper homes--the idea being that UCI didn’t want to lose promising young scholars who might be buying their first home. The result so far has been that while the oldest person in University Hills is 67, the predominant family unit is a mid-30s couple with children.

John Dombrink, a single, 35-year-old UC Berkeley-educated assistant professor of social ecology, lives in a $70,000 two-bedroom town house. To get an equivalent home in the real market, he probably would need a roommate to help pay the mortgage.

“For a lot of us, for that package (to buy in University Hills), we would have been happy with something that was functional and close in,” Dombrink said. “But they really went overboard to present us with good aesthetics. I think they tripped over themselves to make things attractive.”

Dombrink said he doesn’t think the community has become the “faculty ghetto” that some feared, although he did get a humorous dose of the perils of living amid colleagues.

“When I first moved in, I was away on sabbatical for a while and didn’t get a chance to put my yard in,” Dombrink said. “The chancellor kept getting on my case, saying, ‘When are you going to get your yard put in?’ Having your boss walk past your yard every day is a frightening feeling.”

Although Dombrink’s tale is a lighthearted one, it indirectly touches a nerve. That is, if there is one feeling scholars don’t like, it is that of fright. Chills the old brain cells or something. Nor do they handle repression well, whether real or imagined. Their mind-sets are geared toward openness, free exchange and, in some cases, the maverick.

To some of them, the homogeneity of the neighborhood and Orange County was distressing enough. In addition, the board that sets down the homeowner rules also has stirred some animosity.

Barbara Burgess, 36, an associate professor of molecular biology and biochemistry, was recruited from a research lab in Ohio. “There’s kind of an enforced homogeneity,” she said. “I come from Ohio, and if they tried to build neighborhoods that looked like this, where everything looks the same, well, I thought that went out in the ‘50s. So I was very disappointed that this kind of homogeneity was prevalent everywhere.”

She also thought the governing board was too restrictive. “I found it absolutely appalling that someone would tell me what color to paint my fence,” she said. “When you have an academic job, you’re your own boss and you decide what you’re going to do every day. Many of us wound up being professors because we didn’t like other people telling us what to do.”

But even with those qualms, Burgess, married to a UCI chemistry professor and the mother of a 14-month-old baby, decided University Hills offers a near-perfect package: proximity to work, a big garden and a comfortable, affordable home.

So Burgess has accepted the trade-off explicit in the University Hills arrangement: the surrender of some autonomy in exchange for convenience and comfort. But she isn’t the only resident who finds the authoritarian presence somewhat disturbing.

“I lived on an acre of land back East, and I could do anything I wanted with my house,” Bondy said. “Here, you can’t put aluminum in your windows.”

Laughing at the proscription, he said: “Suddenly, I had an overwhelming urge to put aluminum in my windows. . . . I’m not sure we’re supposed to fix our cars or hang laundry out, either.”

While Bondy is more amused than incensed, David Smith sees a potentially more ominous side to the management of the neighborhood.

An assistant professor of sociology and president of the neighborhood’s condominium residents, Smith thinks university planners should put an ear to the ground in University Hills.

“One of the problems we (condo residents) are having is trying to define ourselves in the community,” Smith said. “We’re over on one side of the development and, thus far, one of the problems is the university and planners haven’t given us much of a chance to give input. One of the things that gives you a sense of cohesiveness and community is a better opportunity to participate in the planning that’s going on.”

A day-care center is already planned for the area across the street from the condos. More recently, there is talk of apartments for graduate students. Apartment buildings, Smith said, “would inalterably change the character of the neighborhood that we’re developing.”

The issues helped forge some new bonds among condo residents, Smith said, “but unfortunately, the powers that be didn’t pay much attention to it all.”

But like virtually every one of about 15 residents interviewed by The Times, Smith, 31, said he likes living in University Hills.

“I go down to the Jacuzzi and hear about other people’s tenure cases and hear about their problems with publications, people talking about what kind of research they’re doing. There is more concern and sympathy for the kind of concerns young academics have. When I go off campus or am involved in things like church activities, people have funny ideas about what professors do. They ask how many classes you teach . . ., and they have an image of someone who sits in an office, propped back in the chair with a pipe in his mouth. People in University Hills understand it’s a high-pressure thing, where you’re struggling to make tenure, you’re involved in high-powered work, spending late hours in the office, but that you also become motivated by a lot of intellectual excitement. It’s nice to have a support group that understands that.”

Dombrink shares that view. “I’m sure the chancellor wouldn’t want us portrayed as pointy-headed liberals,” Dombrink said. “One of the things you have to remember is that the community is more liberal than the rest of Orange County, so the University Hills community has more of a supportive effect on us. Were we members of the majority politically, there might be less of a need for that. Sometimes, it’s good to have a place to go home and lick your wounds.”

Although UCI planned University Hills as a lure for new recruits, most said the housing wasn’t the crucial determinant in their decision to take the job. Lewis Nosanow, a division director at the National Science Foundation before joining UCI this year, said: “The neighborhood was not absolutely vital to my coming to UCI. I came here and I liked it, but this sure made it a lot easier to find a home. One day looking around the rest of the community convinced me this (University Hills) was a wonderful place to live. It’s not a question of dollars so much as an opportunity to become part of a university community.”

Nosanow, 56, said he doesn’t feel as if he’s going home at night to the same people he sees during the workday. “You don’t live next to the people you see all day, anyway. I live next door to a physician and have a professor of Spanish literature on the other side. There’s quite a diverse group of professionals. Even more than that, there’s diversity in the people.”

Otto Reyer, UCI’s director of financial aid, was the first, along with his wife and daughter, to move into University Hills. Partly for that reason, at least one resident calls him the “Mayor of the Neighborhood.”

“I think it’s a lot closer group up there than you would find in a normal community,” said Reyer, 43. “An example is our Monday Night Football group. It started with six of us saying, ‘What are you doing Monday night?’ Last week we had something like 28 people, and not many people were watching the game. What happens is that everybody gets off in their little conversations on the side. It’s not so much shoptalk, but you get into some good, interesting conversations.”

Reyer said he fully embraces the notion of a university capturing a community of scholars in the same place. “I think it really adds to the university,” he said. “Sometimes if you’re privy to just sit and listen to the conversations, it’s just magnificent to hear some of the scholarly debate that goes on.”

Parker said he’d heard all the complaints. As a college administrator, he would be the most shocked of all if everyone thought everything in University Hills was hunky-dory. Yet, despite the complaints, only three families have moved out of the neighborhood without leaving the university.

“We have a waiting list of between 30 and 40,” Parker said. “The best way to characterize demand is that for each of the three phases, they’ve been sold out before the first home was completed.”

And with a campus plan that calls for more than 30,000 students early in the next century, Parker acknowledged that University Hills could grow to several times its current population. The UC regents bought 510 acres when they first committed to the University Hills project. Long-range plans call for using 150 to 200 acres for housing, with the rest used for a variety of other university-related purposes, Parker said.

The housing plans made Smith, the condo association president who loves the neighborhood, shake his head. “Maybe I shouldn’t say this,” he said, “but the people who are doing the planning, they have a similar background. They used to work with the Irvine Co., and they brought this mind-set over: ‘We’re going to develop things like crazy, and we don’t care what other people think. We’re going to grow, grow, grow.’

“Why do we want to grow so huge?” Smith said. “Isn’t there some sort of happy medium?”