Called Role Model : College Chief Puts New Spark Into Campus Life

Times Staff Writer

When Linda Thor was acting president of West Los Angeles College, she worried about whether a visible change in her condition would hurt her chances for a permanent job.

Her pregnancy was beginning to show.

"I was concerned about what the reaction would be," she said. "I was worried that they might think that I would be unable to perform my duties as president."

Thor asked a trustee of the Los Angeles Community College District for an opinion. She was told that "being pregnant is a very normal and natural position to be in, even for a college president."

Youngest President

Thor continued working until Aug. 20. Five days later she gave birth to her second child, an 8-pound, 7-ounce baby girl, who was named Marie Thor Huntsinger. After a two-month maternity leave, she returned in time for her inauguration as president of West Los Angeles College.

At 37, she is the youngest community college president in the state, one of a dozen women presidents and the only one to have given birth while in office.

To Thor's surprise, the pregnancy was not viewed by the students as a problem. It relaxed the barriers that traditionally separate college administrators from students.

And it even endeared her to the women students at the hilltop campus in Culver City, many of whom are older than 30, hold full-time jobs and have children.

"It made me a real person to many of the students, not just a college president," she said.

'A Mentor for Me'

"She is like a mentor for me," said Suzzane Goodlow, a student member of the community college district's board of trustees.

During commencement ceremonies in June, Thor was six months pregnant. "I was standing there in my cap and gown, presiding over the ceremony, and the students would come up on the stage and give my expanded tummy a little pat as they went across," she said with laugh.

Thor earned her position as president in the face of a challenge. The trustees named her as acting president in 1986 and told her to increase enrollments on the struggling Westside campus by 20%.

The enrollment had reached a high of 11,600 in the fall of 1980 but dropped to 6,400 in 1985.

An aggressive campaign organized by Thor increased student enrollment by more than one-third to 8,700. Much of the growth was attributed to a decision to move the start of the fall term from late August to a more traditional mid-September date.

There are new programs, one of the enables some graduates to enroll at UCLA when they complete their associate degrees. Another program allows students with full-time jobs to attend classes at night and on Saturdays to obtain a degree in five semesters.

Despite the additional students, Thor points out that the college's $9.6-million budget is slightly lower than in 1986.

The main campus for West Los Angeles College is located on 70 acres near the Santa Monica and the San Diego freeways. The college also operates satellite campuses in Marina del Rey and on a five-acre site near the Los Angeles International Airport where students specialize in aircraft maintenance.

West Los Angeles College competes with Santa Monica College, which has 20,000 students and is perceived by many to have higher academic standards and a more attractive campus.

An interdistrict agreement restricts the number of students from the Los Angeles area who may attend Santa Monica College. Financial penalties are assessed if the college accepts more than 5,000 Los Angeles students. Last year, Santa Monica paid $300,000 to Los Angeles under the agreement which expires in 1989.

More Facilities Needed

Thor contends that if West Los Angeles College had more classrooms and other facilities, it would hold its own against Santa Monica.

She said that the main drawback is that West Los Angeles College never was completed. It operates out of three buildings and about 20 temporary bungalows. The college lacks an auditorium, a gymnasium, a fine arts building and a technology building.

The cafeteria was designed to serve about 3,000 students and the student center operates out of one room.

"The lack of permanent classrooms makes it impossible for us to compete," said Thor, who has requested funds to expand the college. She said the college also plans to bring back its football and baseball teams that it was forced to drop in 1986 because of budgetary cuts.

Nearly a quarter of the college's students drop out after each semester, which Thor attributes to the fact that nearly 80% of the students attend part time.

Commissioned Survey

One of Thor's first moves as acting president was to commission a survey of 100 high school seniors and 400 adults to determine what they thought of the college. The survey found that 68% of the seniors and 78% of the adults knew little or nothing about the institution.

The lack of recognition was good news, Thor said. "It means that we do not have the task of changing firmly held negative views. It gives us a fresh start."

Before coming to West Los Angeles College, Thor was head of the district's information office. She holds a master degree in public administration from California State University, Los Angeles, and a doctorate in community college administration at Pepperdine.

"She is a woman who cares as much about the gardeners and the facilities as she does about the students," said Laurie Riddell, student body president. "I admire her. I think she is a role model."

Board of Trustees President Harold W. Garvin called Thor a "hard-working creative person. She has improved morale and has done an outstanding job."

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