Azusa Pacific Nudges Into the Big Time : After Years of Obscurity, School Joins Ranks of 25 Best Small Colleges

Times Staff Writer

Behind the rubble of construction and across the street from rows of shopping malls and hamburger takeouts in the southeast corner of Azusa, an obscure little Christian college appears to be nudging into the big time.

Azusa Pacific University was included this fall in a listing of the country’s 25 best small comprehensive colleges which was compiled by U.S. News and World Report.

The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching is expected to produce more accolades in a report to be released this month, according to hints from the foundation’s president, Ernest Boyer.

Azusa Pacific University “has fallen into the inner circle” of top-rated schools, Boyer said at a faculty meeting on campus last week. Boyer was formerly chancellor of the State University of New York and United States Commissioner of Education.

“Azusa Pacific represents an interesting type of institution in America--the small private college with a religious tradition as part of its heritage that I think is redefining its mission,” Boyer said. “It is finding ways to hold to deep traditions while accommodating changed circumstances. It comes as close as an example of deep-running currents of American higher education in its uniqueness as anything I know.”


In makeshift president’s headquarters where he is surrounded by 27 other temporary buildings usually referred to as “trailers,” Azusa Pacific President Paul Sago basked in the pleasure of hard-won honors.

“We’re so much better than we’re recognized to be,” he said.

Azusa Pacific will become more recognizable next year, when a new complex of music and theology schools, a chapel, recital hall and administrative offices opens at the corner of Citrus and Alosta avenues. Administrators hope the buildings, now under construction, will give more identity to a school that looks more like a collection of temporary structures.

The university gained notoriety of a sort when it sold its hillside campus in the foothills above Glendora to the Church of the Open Door in 1986 for $6 million. Although the church immediately began using a former gym for Sunday services, it took two years for Azusa Pacific to get its money because of a complicated legal dispute.

Despite the construction, Azusa Pacific probably will remain overshadowed by Citrus Community College next door, which has eight times as many students, and the nearby Claremont Colleges, which are better endowed and more famous.

Went Unrecognized

Sago believes Azusa Pacific has excelled even though generally unrecognized for many years. He says the school suffers from the same “20-year time lag” that he thinks falsely perpetuates reputations, both good and bad, of many colleges.

With students from about 30 countries joining those from 40 states, Sago said, “We are probably better known in Korea or in the educational community of Hong Kong than we are in certain parts of the Los Angeles basin.”

Sago calls Azusa Pacific “a college in transition,” explaining that the transition has been going on for 90 years.

The school traces its roots to 1899 in Whittier, where it began as the Training School for Christian Workers with 12 students.

Merging several times with other small Protestant schools, by 1963 it had 237 students and was settled on its present 70-acre site.

Today Azusa Pacific University has 1,500 full-time undergraduates--most of whom live on campus--and between 500 and 1,000 graduate students seeking master’s degrees in 13 programs. It has schools of liberal arts, sciences, music, nursing, business and management, education and behavioral studies, and theology.

During his 13-year tenure as president, Sago has established “sister school” ties with 18 colleges and preparatory schools in 11 countries and is working on 10 similar affiliations to join in exchange programs.

As with most private colleges, more than half of the students receive financial aid. Tuition, room and board total about $10,440 a year.

Factors in Ranking

The U.S. News and World Report ranking was based on several factors, including rating the quality of students according to their high school records, strength of the faculty and teaching, student-teacher ratios, ability to retain students and the schools’ reputations for excellence. Small comprehensive colleges were those with fewer than 2,500 students.

Azusa Pacific administrators said most incoming freshmen this year were in the top 25% of their high school classes. Half of the 120 faculty have doctoral degrees, and the ratio is 17 students for each teacher. While 55% of the students complete four years at Azusa Pacific, a spokesman said most dropouts in all colleges occur in the first year and the school retains 75% of its students from then on.

Other Southern California schools on the U.S. News and World Report’s list of best small comprehensive colleges were Whittier College and California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks.

Two San Gabriel Valley schools, Pomona College and Claremont McKenna College, were on the list of 25 best “small but superb” liberal arts colleges that draw students from 50 states.

The magazine noted that Azusa Pacific offers “training in an evangelical context,” requiring undergraduates and staff to attend chapel three times a week.

Although the school is ecumenical and has no formal church ties, it has a “statement of faith” that employees are asked to abide by. It is similar to Protestant creeds that avow belief in the Bible as the word of God, the Holy Trinity and Jesus’ resurrection.

Service to the Needy

Students must earn “ministries points” by serving impoverished people to graduate. Best known of the programs are twice-a-year trips to Mexicali in which more than 4,000 volunteers from churches and schools throughout the San Gabriel Valley join Azusa Pacific students to teach, feed and provide other services for the poor.

Despite such Christian-inspired activities, there are no obvious religious symbols on the tidy campus. Despite the construction and temporary structures, there are a number of modern buildings, including a library, science building and gym.

Most of the campus is occupied by parking lots, athletic fields and student apartments that were installed 20 years ago as “temporary” housing. Centered in a cluster of classroom buildings is a student lounge so small it would fit in the foyers of student centers of most California state colleges.

“I don’t think this school has the pull that USC has, when it comes to getting into grad school,” said senior Vicki Koopman, as she relaxed in the student lounge. A former Arcadia resident whose family now lives in Iowa, Koopman said, “I wanted to go to USC for the name, but I know I’m getting a better education here. Teachers know me and help me.”

The “moral atmosphere” is what drew Victor Schwetz of Hacienda Heights. “I don’t think there’s any drug use or sexual activity here and it’s a relief that we don’t have to deal with that. We have enough to do,” said Schwetz, a sophomore.

Hiroko Nagura, a senior from Tokyo, said she chose Azusa Pacific because its small Christian ambiance was a continuation of the Christian Academy she attended in Japan. “The focus on uniqueness of individuals,” she said, made the faculty “very open and very understanding of our needs.”

Teachers Take Interest

Rawl Campbell of West Covina attended Cal State Fullerton for two years before entering Azusa Pacific this year for its choral music program. “The teachers here take a personal interest in you,” the junior said.

Their sentiments were echoed by dozens of other students, none of whom said in interviews that they objected to regulations that separate the sexes in dormitories and that set rigid visiting hours.

The campus has always had rules against smoking, alcohol and drugs, which many students said they appreciated.

“A few years ago we were considered radical,” Sago said. “People laughed when we said no smoking. Our standards were based on religious position, but they’re also just good judgment. We’ve been ahead of our time.

“We love our kids,” Sago said of the “conservative approach” the school takes to dormitory living. “It’s a mistake to say that any 18- or 19-year-old is a mature adult. We don’t invade privacy of student rooms and we don’t control their lives. But these kids are our future and we let them know we’re interested in their well-being.”

Boyer last week commended the school for “its commitment to the serving professions” and for “developing a spirit of community that has become an example for the nation.” Just by surviving several social and educational upheavals since World War II, Azusa Pacific has “beaten the odds,” he said.

No Longer Type-Cast

The Carnegie Foundation’s review is the first it has ever done of a small private college in its 90-year history, Boyer said. Two senior fellows of the foundation spent several days observing the school and are writing a report that Sago said he expects to release Dec. 15.

“I invited them to come,” Sago said.

“We have been type-cast as a small Bible-college type of place, and really we are a medium-sized comprehensive university,” he said. “I am convinced that we are as good as, and in most cases better than, many schools with high-standing reputations. So I was just bold enough to go and ask.”

Senior vice president Cliff Hamlow said the school has a $20-million operating budget, most of it coming from tuition and fees. It plans on 2,000 students eventually, “but we’re in no rush to get there--we want to maintain our stability.”