The Big Man Is Back on Campus


Behind the wheel of his late-model Lincoln Town Car, Arthur Albert sticks out from his fellow dorm rats at Cal State Northridge like some grizzled old sore thumb.

Because from the viewpoint of most twentysomething college students, that's what Albert is: ancient. Omygawd! He's like, 53 years old!

And the dude's wheels are straight out of some Oklahoma country club, not the racy Japanese-made roadsters most big men on campus prefer.

"Yeah, this car has raised some eyebrows around campus," Albert says with a sheepish grin. "It's too big and slow for California. It burns too much gas. Not only that, it dates me."

The lumbering Town Car is just part of the generation gap between this university administrator and other dorm residents.

Call it a little social experiment: Mr. Rogers goes to kegger blasts. The Camelot generation takes a crash course in partying--1990s style. This year, CSUN's new vice president for administration and finance is spending six months living the campus life until his wife resettles from their former home in Norman, Okla., and they find a suburban pad more appropriate . . . well . . . for folks their age.

Albert is the third administrator to spend time among the young and restless campus natives since student affairs Vice President Ron Kopita broke new ground in 1992 by sharing a dorm apartment with his son for eight months.

Now the university is considering making such close-quarters encounters part of the regimen for new administrators.

From the university's point of view, it makes both sense and cents for Albert and other officials to do hard time in the dorms. Many of the on-campus apartments--built to compete with similar off-campus dwellings--sit empty as the college continues to pay off the financing for their construction.

"I got the chance to reconnect with students in a way I never could unless I lived right along with them," said the 51-year-old Kopita. "It was a great learning experience. The only downside was that I gained a lot of weight eating pizza."

For Albert, the campus experience has been a reliving of his early-'60s days at the University of Dayton, but with a contemporary twist. He's relearning his way around a coin laundry and how to endure mostly sleepless nights as his high-energy neighbors play tackle football outside his window at 4 a.m. And he's rediscovering the art of keeping a six-pack or two iced down in his otherwise sparse refrigerator.

Not only that, Albert said, but he's actually come to appreciate Snoop Doggy Dogg.

"A lot of rap music has been finding its way into my ears lately," he said. "Yes, Snoop Doggy Dogg and I are finally learning to understand each other."

Albert recalls his first reaction to the suggestion that he live in the student dorms while waiting for his wife: Gasp!

He pictured the Spartan life in an anonymous high-rise dorm where fast-pitch baseball and contact golf were played in crowded hallways and students shared rooms the size of walk-in closets.

But Albert soon found that his new abode at Pinon Hall was quite unlike any dorm room he knew back when Lyndon Johnson was President. This is, after all, Southern California. His "room," refurbished after the 1994 earthquake, is a regular apartment, a two-story, two-bedroom, two-bath affair that resembles a comfy, but drab, country-club prison cell. Outside are basketball and volleyball courts, even a swimming pool. Not to mention a satellite dish.

It's not just the dorms, but the students themselves that have changed since Albert carried young ladies' books across campus. Most students are older these days. More than 40% are night students who work full-time day jobs to pay for school.

"I identify with most of these students," Albert said. "Not all of them are just kids."

One thing about living on campus though. Albert has found himself guzzling more beer. His Cal State Northridge experience has reminded him of the time in the early 1960s when, drunk at the wheel of a friend's packed convertible on the night his college basketball team won the National Invitational Tournament, he cracked up the car and was let off with a mere slap on the hand because there were no deaths or injuries.

These days, driving under the influence is a big deal. But Albert does his drinking on the back porch of his student apartment, watching the flashy younger life pass by on the sidewalk outside.

It's on weekends that Albert really feels his age. That's when most of his neighbors hang outside on their balconies until 3 and 4 a.m., blasting their boomboxes, catcalling the other sex, slamming brewskies.

Often, Albert will toss and turn in bed, covering his ears with his pillow. But he lets things slide. After all, he's the outsider. "If that kind of noise happened in any neighborhood back in Norman, people would call the police right away, and it wouldn't be at 2 a.m., either. It'd be more like 10 p.m."

In his eight months on campus, Kopita found that he stayed up a lot later. Not only that, he found himself playing matchmaker for his son-roommate.

"He was looking around," Kopita recalled. "So I actually introduced him to three women for three different blind dates. I spotted them specifically for him. I'd say, 'Now, she'd be a nice girl for my son.' He wasn't complaining."

So, for the time being, Albert spends his evenings dressed in T-shirt and shorts, wandering the campus, trying to learn more about students and their concerns. After all, his job as vice president of administration and finance makes him responsible for improving student life, including making sure their air conditioners are working on the hottest days and that they have fewer parking hassles.

But it's on those warm autumn nights, downing a cold Molson on the balcony, that he comes closest to appreciating the student body at Cal State Northridge.

"Yes, there are some benefits to living on campus," Albert said with a smile as a woman in short shorts waltzed past.

"And that's one of them."

For the Record Los Angeles Times Thursday October 26, 1995 Valley Edition Metro Part B Page 4 Zones Desk 1 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction Administrator's name--The last name of Arthur J. Elbert, vice president of administration and finance at Cal State Northridge, was misspelled in Monday's Around the Valley column on college administrators who have lived in university dorms.
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