Reversal of Enrollment Decline Is Top Priority : New Chief Seeks New Image for WLAC
Linda Thor, the new acting president of struggling West Los Angeles College, chose her words very carefully.
Challenged by the trustees of the Los Angeles Community College District to boost the Westside campus’ shrunken enrollment by 20% next fall, she knows her actions will be scrutinized and the results carefully weighed.
But Thor, who speaks with a self-assured air, considers her mission well within the realm of possibility.
“I think the solutions to the college’s problems are already here because the people are here,” she said recently in her office at the top of the hillside campus in Culver City. “I get stopped in the parking lot with suggestions on (everything from) how we ought to be answering the telephone to what kinds of major educational changes we ought to make. I see my job as listening to what people have to say--and implementing the best of it.”
In an administrative shake-up intended to reinvigorate a college that has lost almost half its enrollment over the past four years, the trustees appointed Thor acting president on Feb. 20, replacing M. Jack Fujimoto, who headed the school for seven years. Her appointment is effective until June 30, 1987, when the board will select a permanent president.
Thor’s 12 years with the college district have been spent exclusively at the downtown headquarters--first as a public information officer, next as head of the information office and most recently as director of an enormously successful occupational and technical education program. She holds a master’s degree in public administration from California State University, Los Angeles, and is working toward a doctorate in community college administration at Pepperdine.
She has no classroom experience, which has caused some concern among instructors and on the board. But the trustees were impressed with her track record in two key areas: fund raising and public relations.
As head of the job-training program, Thor raised $23 million in state grants for the district; as director of the communications office, she engineered the most successful recruitment drive in the district’s history. Using radio advertising, an approach community colleges had not tried before, the 1978 campaign attracted 2,000 responses. Thirteen percent enrolled, most of them new students.
“The board felt she had some abilities the college drastically needs,” Trustee Harold W. Garvin said.
Some say that if she succeeds in fattening WLAC’s
roll books and enhancing its image, the college could become a model for the other campuses in the ailing college district, where overall enrollment and the state dollars tied to it have declined by one-third since 1981.
West Los Angeles College has about 6,400 students, down from its peak of almost 12,000 in 1980. Many of its students attend night classes or programs off campus, such as at the college’s airport center near Los Angeles International Airport, where courses in the travel business and aircraft maintenance are offered.
Dozen Communities Served
Tucked away in the hills above Culver City, the college serves about a dozen Westside communities, from Bel-Air to Westchester and Pacific Palisades to Baldwin Hills, and is easy to reach from the Santa Monica and San Diego freeways.
Some complain, however, that once a visitor gets there, he may not realize that he has arrived. Although attractively landscaped, the campus lacks identifying signs or convenient landmarks, and its roads are confusing. Moreover, there is no obvious heart of the campus and very little campus life.
One student grumbled in the school newspaper about a year ago that he found the campus boring, having little else going on than “two guys sitting in the cafeteria playing dominoes.”
However, at Santa Monica College, WLAC’s main competitor with about 20,000 students, classes are full and students bustle around the campus. “All the party people go to Santa Monica, and it’s closer to the beach,” making it the popular choice for many students, according to an 18-year-old marketing major who entered WLAC after graduating from Westchester High School.
Santa Monica also is perceived to be a more complete college with higher academic standards, according to students and high school counselors who were interviewed. As one measure of its effectiveness, Santa Monica transfers more students to public universities than West Los Angeles does. Moreover, WLAC students were critical of their peers, complaining that too many of them are not serious students, and of some of their instructors, saying they should be more demanding. One student joked that a more apt name for the school would be “Waste Away College.”
Still others said they plan to transfer to another junior college because they are tired of courses being canceled for lack of enrollment.
Thor acknowledges these problems but says she is determined to solve them, beginning with the sagging enrollment. In order to meet the 20% goal set by the trustees, Thor needs to recruit 1,300 new students by the fall term, which begins in August.
“I don’t think that’s impossible,” she said.
A major reason for her optimism is an inter-district agreement signed in February that restricts the number of Los Angeles students who may enroll at Santa Monica College. Key provisions that Thor helped to negotiate established a Dec. 20 spring application deadline for Los Angeles students wanting to attend Santa Monica, and, beginning July 1, financial penalties against Santa Monica College if it accepts more than 5,000 Los Angeles students.
Already the agreement has been productive, diverting 1,100 new students to West Los Angeles this spring, according to Thor. She expects at least that many students from Santa Monica in the fall.
More Saturday Classes
Thor also plans to add Saturday classes and more extensive offerings in English as a second language, beef up a special program for students who work full time and expand the occupational programs. Drawing on her experience as head of occupational and technical education, Thor particularly wants to cultivate links with business and industry. Already she has secured a donation from Pacific Bell of half a million dollars’ worth of new telecommunications equipment for the electronics program.
The college also has stepped up its recruitment efforts at local high schools. On April 16, the school will provide bus transportation for about 400 high school students to visit the West campus for half a day of classroom visits and lectures.
The open house is aimed as much at current WLAC students as prospective recruits. The college has the second-lowest retention rate of the nine campuses in the district (Southwest College has the lowest), losing about a quarter of its students each term.
“We want to bring them back in the fall,” Thor said, adding that the college will try to broaden its tutoring program and advanced offerings and place more emphasis on having students transfer to four-year universities, both public and private.
Moreover, Thor intends to hire an outside firm to assess the image of the college among its current and former students, high school teachers and counselors, Los Angeles residents attending Santa Monica College and other residents of the Westside communities the college serves. Information gleaned from the study will be used to develop new programs and services as well as a marketing plan to “correct any misperceptions about the college,” she said.
Access to $100,000
To help accomplish her recruiting and program goals, Thor will have access to about $100,000 from the inter-district agreement with Santa Monica. Next year, she anticipates receiving $200,000 of the projected $500,000 to $600,000 Santa Monica is expected to pay the Los Angeles district (the balance to be divided among the other Los Angeles community college campuses). The rest of the college’s $9-million budget will come mainly from the state, which funds community colleges based on the number of students in daily attendance.
Among some faculty members, there is resentment that Thor’s predecessor was not allowed the same opportunities to make changes.
“The new president is being given a lot more leeway and money to deal with the college operation than Dr. Fujimoto,” said football Coach Jim Babcock. Babcock and other instructors said they were sorry to see Fujimoto leave and thought he was used as a scapegoat for problems beyond his control.
Fujimoto, who is on leave until he starts a new job as an assistant to the chancellor in July, has complained that he was denied the authority and the budget he needed to make improvements, including major and minor staff changes. He also has charged that the enrollment decline at WLAC resulted from decisions made by the district administration--specifically, moving the start of the fall term from September to August and centralizing financial aid services, which resulted in a massive backlog of applications.
New Senior Staff
Some board members have acknowledged that college presidents may not have had broad enough powers in the past to be fairly held accountable for the success or failure of their programs. But they also said this may begin to change. Thor, for example, was able to choose an entirely new senior staff--two vice presidents, three deans and a recruiting and communications specialist--and she said she is optimistic that the college will get “most of what we’re asking for” from the administration.
Those who have observed Thor in the few weeks since she assumed the presidency say she already has made a positive difference on campus, bringing a new style of leadership that the college has long needed.
Although many instructors are upset about the layoff of a dozen faculty members--part of a major reorganization of district resources--the general mood is “much more positive than it has been in a long, long time,” said Academic Senate President Jim Lee Morgan.
Describing Thor as “a faculty member’s dream” in terms of encouraging involvement, he said: “She’s consulted with me on everything from the direction of the airport center to the color of the stationery letterhead. I jokingly told her, ‘Don’t ask me about the color of the toilet paper cover. I don’t want to know.’ ”
Students also sense a rise in morale, brought about in part because of Thor’s accessibility. “It’s good just to see her walking around the campus,” said John Voket, editor of the student newspaper, The Oiler.
People who have worked with Thor in the past describe her as indefatigable, extremely well organized and having an unbeatable air.
“I would say Linda is probably the most enthusiastic person I’ve ever worked with,” said Mission College President Lowell Erickson, who preceded Thor as district communications director. “But she directs that energy and is a very effective person.”
Thor herself says that she loves her new job, although it has meant long, lunchless days full of conferences and impromptu meetings with campus gardeners, electricians and just about anyone else who has an idea to share.
“They want to tell me history, they want to tell me the things they always wished would happen that haven’t happened,” she said. “They also want to talk about the future. They don’t like the enrollment being down--it’s depressing for them as well. So I think that’s our real hope. Everyone wants the situation to turn around, and they want to be part of the solution. I’m trying to build on that attitude.”