Courtesy of Bob Dob Illustrations

David Baltimore has faced down a congressional committee and parleyed with presidents and kings. But on one morning at the California Institute of Technology, he found himself face-to-face with a busted car, broken file cabinets, and other useless junk heaped on the lush Beckman Lawn that distinguishes Caltech. A sign, posted near the pile, declared its worth to be $1.8 million: The price of an unpopular postmodern sculpture Baltimore wanted to see created on the lawn. Such is the life of a college president.

Protests in peacetime are uncommon at Caltech, where heron wade in bougainvillea-shaded lily ponds, jasmine and camellias scent the air, and most of the students and faculty are submerged in basement labs. But a proposed Richard Serra sculpture called Vectors, a steel wall that would have zigzagged like metallic kudzu over one of Caltech's largest lawns, inspired months of petitions...

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