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A Work in Progress : Cal State Monterey Bay Marches to a New Beat at Former Army Base

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Three years ago, Robert Gahnberg was an Army intelligence analyst living in the Ft. Ord barracks. Today, he is back, but like the base, he has been converted.

The former sergeant is one of 590 students attending the fledgling Cal State Monterey Bay--a campus carved from the now-closed coastal army base in a bid to create a model university for the 21st Century.

“It’s neat to be here again and be part of the new campus,” said Gahnberg, 24, a global studies major who seems every bit the student in his shorts, sandals and tank top. “It will be interesting to see what it ends up looking like. Right now it still looks like an Army base.”

No kidding.

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The university’s official slogan is “A Work in Progress"--and that would seem to be an understatement. Classes started Wednesday, even though the transformation from base to university is far from finished.

The central campus is a dusty, sprawling construction site where workers outnumber students and librarians wear hard hats to work in a building that has yet to house a single book. Renovation of most key buildings--including would-be classrooms, labs and the library--won’t be finished for weeks. Building numbers have been spray-painted on like graffiti to help students find their way. For now, temporary classrooms have been set up in outlying buildings that will be upgraded later as the university grows.

Military insignia still abound--including a giant bayonet dripping blood that decorates one administration building.

Similarly, administrators still are finalizing educational programs that will require students to use the latest computer technology, know a second language and perform some sort of work to get a degree. Even though students have yet to be told what they must do to graduate, they do have a school mascot: the sea otter.

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“The fact of the matter is, there is much more that remains to be done here,” said university President Peter Smith, an enthusiastic, 49-year-old former congressman from Vermont.

For some incoming students, the chaos of the new campus--one of only two to open in California in the last 25 years--is in itself an adventure.

“It’s awesome,” said Kelly Osborne, 20, a student who transferred from Cal State Sacramento. “It’s a brand-new campus. I’m a pioneer.”

The university has attracted faculty members from around the country, including playwright and movie director Luis Valdez, creator of “Zoot Suit” and “La Bamba.” He will be teaching courses in tele-dramatic arts.

On Monday, President Clinton is scheduled to visit to help celebrate Monterey Bay’s opening and praise it as a model of base conversion. He will speak from a hastily erected platform in the construction zone near the university’s tallest structure--a flagpole left by the Army.

The last of the Army’s 35,000 troops pulled out 11 months ago, making the changeover from military facility to university one of the fastest base conversions in the country.

At a time when the Cal State system is strapped for cash, the 1,400-acre Monterey Bay campus is a billion-dollar asset the state could hardly afford to refuse. Renovation of the campus is being financed largely through federal base conversion funds.

At 45 square miles, the onetime Army base is only slightly smaller than the city of San Francisco and was the largest military facility in the country to be shut down. Although the campus covers only 5% of the base acreage, it will be the dominant institution on the site.

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Nearly 70% of the base will be set aside as open space--much of it land long used for artillery practice where live shells remain buried. An additional 14% will be turned over to neighboring cities such as Seaside and Marina for commercial development. The military will hang on to 12% of the base to continue operating its prestigious Defense Language Institute and Naval Postgraduate School.

With the closure of Ft. Ord, the Monterey region lost about $423 million a year in military salaries, services and contracts. But the university already has helped revive the local economy with its construction contracts, well-paying jobs and influx of students.

“As far as being an anchor tenant, we probably couldn’t have brought in anything better,” said Kathleen Ahern, a spokeswoman for the Ft. Ord Reuse Authority, which is coordinating conversion of the base. “The wonderful thing about a campus is when students aren’t in class, they spend and eat constantly.”

And, at this campus, they will also be studying in a new way.

Sitting in his small office--one with his paper name tag taped on the door--Smith eagerly expounds on his vision of a new kind of university that combines the latest innovative approaches to education.

For one, students will not graduate simply by putting in “seat time” in class, the president said. They will also have to show competence in their field through some sort of “capstone” test, thesis or portfolio.

Students who arrive with knowledge in a specific area, such as fluency in a second language, will be able to get credit and graduate more quickly.

Use of computers will be mandatory and the entire campus, including student housing, is being wired for the latest technology. Students with their own laptops will be able to go to the library and plug into the campus network and the World Wide Web.

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Smith envisions broadening the role of faculty members from mere instructors to coaches and mentors. Students will also be required to perform community work, hold an internship or perform some other kind of work in the real world in order to graduate.

“Maybe in the end, this isn’t a place for everybody,” he said.

But even if the particulars are not worked out, the university’s first batch of students appear ready for the challenge.

“It’s a bit of a madhouse, but that’s to be expected,” said student Barry Jones, 43, standing on a new concrete walkway with mounds of dirt and rubble nearby. “It’s not every day you get a chance to get in on the ground floor of a new university. Even with all its attendant problems, I wouldn’t be anywhere else.”


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