OUTSIDERS have dubbed it UFO - University of Fort Ord - for the stark, lunar-like terrain. Locals tout it as the campus of the 21st century, for its futuristic vision of hands-on learning. Either way, it's a prime example of a post-cold-war superpower turning military swords into educational plowshares.
In what is being held up as a national model for defense conversion, the new California State University, Monterey Bay opened doors to 650 students Aug. 28. It took $1 billion in land and buildings deeded from the US Army and another $29 million in defense conversion funds to transform one of the nation's largest military bases into a home for students in shorts and on mountain bikes.
''Everyone I know asks me, 'What's it like walking around a dusty campus using former military buildings as classrooms?''' says freshman Tyana Thayer. ''I tell them it's a blast ... it's a totally new beginning.''
The idea of using the base for educational purposes began nearly five years ago when Fort Ord first appeared on lists of US military bases pegged for closure because of massive defense downsizing. The land was officially deeded to the California State system for a new campus last year.
Seventeen of 44 buildings stood complete on opening day. Palm, eucalyptus, and gnarled oak punctuate a wide-open landscape of one-story buildings, mostly in cream or adobe color - some freshly painted in primary colors. But many structures are still at the mercy of contractors saws, drills, and earthmovers.
Students at the Monterey Bay campus - expected to number 13,000 by 2010 - will design their own learning plans, spending more time studying outside the classroom than in. And computer skills will assume top priority in a high-tech academic environment. Students and faculty members, for example, will be hooked up to one other by computer.
''Part of our public mandate is not just to establish ourselves and compete in the education marketplace,'' says university President Peter Smith, ''but rather, complement the area's education strengths in marine biology, language, and international affairs in ways that leave the entire community stronger for the effort.''
But the campus has not completely shed its past. Less than 5 percent (1,385 acres) of the base's 28,000 acres belong to the university. Some of the barracks date back to the Korean War and many bear military insignias. Roads still display names like ''Light Fighter''; parking-lot curbs are often labeled ''military vehicles only.''
''If you want ivy on your walls, this is not the place for you,'' says Holly White, spokesperson for the university after an afternoon tour. Two miles up the road from the main area of buildings, but still on base property, is a self-contained, labyrinth of suburban-style homes where 90 percent of the staff and students live.
The Monterey area sees the university as the means for economic recovery, after losing 27,000 military personnel, who added about $750 million to the community each year. Local officials say the university will eventually provide more jobs and income than the base did.