Isla Vista’s troubles belie UC Santa Barbara’s academic strength

Hannah Maschwitz gets a hug from boyfriend Tyler Mullen as the two UC Santa Barbara seniors reunite Saturday morning near the rampage scene.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

UC Santa Barbara had a notable double achievement in 2013.

The beachside campus placed second in the world for impact in the sciences as scored by the Center for Science and Technology Studies at Leiden University in the Netherlands. Home to five Nobel laureates, it ranked below only MIT and topped such powerhouses as Stanford University, Harvard University and UC Berkeley.

The university also came out high on another list: the Princeton Review rankings of best party schools in the nation. UCSB again came in second, bested only by the University of Iowa.

That image was dramatically reinforced in April when the infamous Deltopia street party turned violent in Isla Vista, the densely populated student residential district adjacent to the campus. More than 100 were arrested, most of them young people from other places.


On Saturday, UCSB students and officials were in mourning and shock after a rampage in Isla Vista that left seven people dead, including the attacker, who was said to be a Santa Barbara City College student.

They also expressed concern that the university’s strengthening academic reputation would be tarred by the tragedy — and by Isla Vista’s past incidents of chaos and violence, including four deaths in 2001 when a student plowed his car into a crowd.

Nikka Kurland, a third-year economics major who is a student senator and lives in a sorority house close to the scene of the killings, said she and many other students were traumatized and wanted “to find solutions making Isla Vista a safer place.”

When choosing a college to attend, Kurland said, UC Santa Barbara’s party reputation made her hesitate a bit. But she was swayed by the school’s strong economics program and the chance to get involved in many extracurricular activities.

“Yes, we play here, but we work much harder,” Kurland said.

She said she could understand why some families might worry about the school now, but she hoped prospective students appreciate its academic excellence.

Yuri Goetze, an ecology and evolution major who graduates next month, said he chose to attend UCSB in part because of “the weather and being right next to the beach.”

That also gave him the chance to do volunteer work, rescuing and helping to rehabilitate stranded sea lions and harbor seals.

Goetze, who shares an Isla Vista house with six other students, said the neighborhood next to the campus “definitely has a party environment, but it’s not that difficult to avoid … if you want to.”

He said the April street party disturbance caused many students to wonder whether their community had become too much of a magnet for wild behavior.

Friday night’s killings, he said, do not have any true connection to Isla Vista. “It was the kind of crazy, terrible thing that could have happened anywhere,” he said, adding that he hoped it would not harm the university’s reputation.

Isla Vista, an unincorporated community of about 23,000 people — about half from UC Santa Barbara and the rest from the local community college and elsewhere — has a history of troubles.

Often those are a result of its dense population, especially on weekend nights when cars and pedestrians jostle for space.

In 2001, as revelers were out in force on the street, a freshman drove his Saab at more than 50 mph into a group of students, killing four and critically injuring another. A jury found him legally insane.

Halloween celebrations attract thousands of out-of-towners and have turned violent, with fires in the streets and drunk students falling off the bluff, sometimes to their deaths.

Isla Vista’s status as an unincorporated part of Santa Barbara County — patrolled by the county sheriff’s deputies with help from UCSB police — is part of the problem, according to students. Some are campaigning to make it an independent city or at least a separate service district to facilitate the improvement of lighting, sidewalks, roads and housing.

“I think the matter is reclaiming Isla Vista as our community and moving forward in light of the recent tragedies,” said Ali Guthy, who last week became UCSB student body president.

A third-year sociology and psychology major, she said that the party atmosphere is heightened by a “massive influx of out-of-towners” and that residents there have little control.

Although UCSB has no direct authority over Isla Vista, the university contributes several million dollars a year to help with police and fire protection, according to campus spokesman George Foulsham.

He declined to comment further about the shooting or its possible effect on the campus. Henry T. Yang, chancellor of the 21,700-student campus, released a statement expressing grief “for the precious lives lost” and announced counseling help and other measures.

Besides the high rank on the Leiden science list, UCSB has been gaining popularity and academic status.

Nearly 67,000 students applied for freshman admission this year, a record, and just 36% of them were offered a spot.

The campus recently ranked 33rd in the world among research universities scored by Britain’s Times Higher Education magazine, and 41st in U.S. News & World Report’s national survey of universities.

Twitter: @larrygordonlat