50 years on, Cal State Dominguez Hills renews efforts to transform an underserved community

California State College Palos Verdes was envisioned as the Harvard of the West, a progressive, liberal arts school. It was aimed at the burgeoning population flooding affluent South Bay cities after World War II and would be built on a stunning site overlooking the ocean.

But in the summer of 1965, the Watts riots erupted after decades of pent-up tensions over policing, segregated housing, jobs, education and lack of transportation.

The riots altered not only the way the country viewed race relations but also the attitude of then-Gov. Edmund G. "Pat" Brown, who pushed a plan to move the campus farther inland to serve students in the multiracial communities of South Los Angeles.

Classes began in January 1965 at Cal State Palos Verdes, founded in 1960 as South Bay State College. After the riots the inland campus site was chosen and the school renamed Cal State Dominguez Hills after the Dominguez family, which owned the original Spanish land grant on which the campus sits.

In the last 50 years, the campus has become among the most diverse in the state college system. It awards the most bachelor's degrees for African American students in California and graduates among the most Latinos in the country. Last year, the campus was one of four in the U.S. honored by President Obama for community service, and this year it was among 14 California colleges and universities selected to share a $50-million state award for innovations to increase student retention and graduation.

Still, the campus, which is in Carson, faces significant challenges. Overall retention and graduation rates are still well below the national average. Most students arrive unprepared for college-level work and require remedial courses. Many are the first in their family to attend college; a good portion attend part time.

The campus long has suffered from a perception — in large measure based on the population it serves — that it is less rigorous academically than other campuses. Surrounding communities still struggle with crime, too few jobs and underperforming K-12 schools.

Dominguez Hills was saddled with an almost impossible task: to transform a community and repair its sense of hopelessness and despair.

"We're doing a good job in that transformation, but a lot more needs to be done," President Willie J. Hagan said in a recent interview.

Hagan was near retirement when he accepted the interim presidency in 2012. He pursued the permanent job the following year, drawn to the campus and its history.

"I think if people understand why we're here, our mission, our calling and that we are committed to that, then they support this campus," he said.

Los Angeles City Councilman Joe Buscaino attended evening classes at Dominguez Hills, earning a bachelor's in communications while working as an officer in the Los Angeles Police Department.

"After the Watts rebellion, Dominguez Hills was one of a trio of higher-education institutions that included Southwest College and Charles R. Drew University that were born to address the lack of higher education in the area," said Buscaino, whose classmates went on to become lawmakers and business leaders. "They opened doors to people who thought doors were closed to them."

Urban campuses like Dominguez Hills increasingly cater to nontraditional students, and Hagan and others said that the use of graduation rates as measures of success can be misleading.

Those rates are typically based on completion rates of entering freshmen, but don't include transfer students. The College Scorecard, developed recently by the U.S. Department of Education, lists the six-year graduation rate at Dominguez Hills at 28%, compared with a national average of 44%. (Campus officials said the rate in 2014 was 32%.)

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"This is such a wrong measure for a campus like Dominguez Hills ... because it doesn't focus on who's actually coming through the door," said music professor David Bradfield.

Improving the time it takes for students to earn degrees is especially important for low-income and minority students, said Michele Siqueiros, president of the advocacy group Campaign for College Opportunity.

"There are more measures that matter than just the total number of graduates, but I worry sometimes that institutions will use all these other factors as an excuse," Siqueiros said. "Institutions across the state have students with working families and who are less prepared for college, but the response to that varies and some with the same populations have better outcomes."

Another hurdle is money. Like most of Cal State's 23 campuses, Dominguez Hills suffered deep budget cuts when the state reduced funding by $1 billion for the system during the recession. Funding has gradually increased but hasn't caught up to pre-recession levels.

Most students at Dominguez Hills need academic support, and most are transfer students. The school wants to hire more advisors and full-time faculty who can provide mentoring and research opportunities. The campus had among the lowest percentages of tenured faculty in the system, but is working to increase those ranks.

Nearly half of all classes are held in what was intended to be temporary buildings, some 20 years old. Officials are trying to get funding to replace its 47-year-old science building, for example, at a time when science, math and technology fields show the greatest income potential but also low participation rates among women and minorities.

"What's frustrating is having faculty and staff who know exactly what needs to be done but not having the resources," Hagan said.

Campus leaders are working on many fronts. They started a transition program for freshmen — the First-Year Experience — offering extra advising, special seminars and small class sizes. The Male Success Alliance, designed to boost attendance and retention for black and Latino men, is cited as a national model.

Estela Bensimon, co-director of the Center for Urban Education at USC, worked with Dominguez Hills more than a decade ago on issues of equity for students of color. She said she found a cultural disconnect between faculty and students. More recently, the center helped to develop the school's winning presentation for the state innovation award, and the sense of purpose had greatly improved, she said.

"The president is new and he seems to have connected with faculty, and there seems to be a new energy," Bensimon said. "In the 2000s I saw the college as very passive and not a place where I felt a vibrancy, and that has changed."

Indeed, Hagan receives generally good grades from faculty on his leadership and direction for the campus.

"I would say it's a good marriage," said James Hill, a physics professor who is chairman of the Academic Senate, adding that there were some initial areas of disagreement.

Unlike many other Cal State campuses, undergraduate majors at Dominguez Hills are not oversubscribed, and the campus hasn't exceeded its enrollment capacity. Hagen said after years of struggling to meet enrollment goals, the campus now enforces strict application deadlines so as not to exceed targets.

Freshman Irma Sanchez said she was accepted at UC Santa Barbara and UC Riverside and wait-listed at UCLA. But she immediately took Dominguez Hills' offer.

"The small class sizes and student diversity really appealed to me," said Sanchez, a biology major from San Diego who lives on campus. "In my visits it seemed the faculty actually cared about education and was more hands-on."

carla.rivera@latimes.com

Twitter: @carlariveralat

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