CSUN Reflects on Challenges Then and Now


Just in time for the fall semester of 1956, as Dwight Eisenhower sat in the White House and the first baby boomers were turning 10, a tiny, new college sprouted on a patch of squash fields and orange groves in the far-flung Los Angeles suburb of Northridge.

The campus, now a busy hub for more than 25,000 students and a key player in the California State University system, begins its fifth decade of classes today.

But despite enormous advances in prestige and size, Cal State Northridge at its 40th anniversary faces hard financial choices, growing friction with its neighbors and lingering trouble from the 1994 earthquake.

And on the academic side, there is discord in the ranks of professors over how to deal with the growing number of students who lack basic skills.

Still, administrators note that there are many reasons to be thankful.

Enrollment is creeping upward after a post-quake low, and a retail project known as the University MarketCenter will provide a much-needed source of additional revenue and opportunities for student employment.

The university plans to commemorate its birth as the San Fernando Valley Campus of Los Angeles College of Applied Arts and Sciences, an outpost of what was to become California State University at Los Angeles, with a Sept. 8 brunch to honor the original faculty. On Sept. 11, several founding faculty members and former students hope to reenact the flag-raising ceremony from the campus' opening day.

For the retired educators, it is a time of reflection, an opportunity to look back at CSUN's humble beginnings and an occasion to marvel at what it has become.

"It's been my life," said Del Stelck, a history professor from the day the college opened until his retirement in 1988. "I'm so proud of the campus and our achievements."

Bill Schlosser, a former theater professor, recalled in an interview the ankle-deep rivers of mud that would flow through campus on rainy days and the constant struggle for space. Leave for work a little late, he said, and you might be stuck beside a slow-moving freight train blocking the only routes to campus.

One of the biggest challenges then, as now, was to find a way to keep pace with the college's growth, said Stelck.

Enrollment projections were eclipsed by the thousands of students who poured into the college each fall as the years passed.

The population continued to grow pretty much unabated--reaching 31,575 students in 1988. The university blames the Northridge earthquake for much of the subsequent drop in enrollment, but Lorraine Newlon, CSUN's director of articulation, admission and records, said the numbers are creeping back up.

By late last week, student enrollment was 25,675, Newlon said. At the same date in 1994, the number was 23,461.

This year, she said, administrators expect enrollment to reach 26,500 students by the end of the registration period in September.

"The benefit to the university is not so much the numbers," said CSUN President Blenda J. Wilson, "but the encouragement and confidence that is expressed when students and families choose to send their children here when we still have visible damage from the earthquake."

Despite the encouraging signs of recovery, however, challenges remain. Quake repairs will require another two years.

And the university continues to struggle with large numbers of incoming freshmen who are unprepared for college-level English and math as well as disagreement among faculty members over how to address the problem.

Because the university trains elementary and secondary school teachers, professors should take a hard look at the methods they are espousing, said David Klein, a mathematics professor.

"The whole CSU system is the biggest teacher trainer in California," said Klein, an eight-year CSUN veteran. "What we teach our future teachers is what they're going to teach our students."

Klein, a back-to-basics proponent who criticizes new methods for teaching math as "fuzzy," is waging his battle on the Internet and in discussion groups with secondary school math teachers.

"I hope that people are going to wake up and go back to high standards," he said.

By contrast, faculty President Jim Goss said that instead of blaming grade school teachers, the university should concentrate its efforts on improving CSUN students' skills after they arrive.

"Our task is really to try to teach them so that when they leave here, they'll be the kind of graduates we've always had," he said.

Goss, chairman of the religious studies department and a professor since 1969, added that faculty members hope to increase outreach efforts at local schools and to identify "simpler things we can do to start assessing students and what their needs are before they graduate" from high school, he said.

As an example, he said potential CSUN students could take the university's required entry-level mathematics test during their junior year of high school to allow an additional year of preparation if their skills are deficient.

Outside the classroom, the lingering effects of the Northridge earthquake remain plainly evident on the campus more than 2 1/2 years later. Many classes continue to be held in portable trailers, and several of the university's largest buildings remain shuttered, awaiting repairs.

Staff members say they've simply learned to cope with the inconveniences and point to the rising enrollment numbers as evidence that students have as well.

"I work out of a dome in a parking lot," Provost Louanne Kennedy said. "I visit the president in her trailer. We've normalized it."

Last year, Wilson said mounting bureaucratic delays were threatening to slow CSUN's recovery. The Federal Emergency Management Agency replied that the campus was to blame for not providing prompt information on quake repairs.

The university received an additional $61 million for quake relief from FEMA in May, and officials said the disputes had been resolved. To date, CSUN has received approximately $246 million of the estimated $300 million it will require to repair the battered, 353-acre campus, said CSUN spokesman Bruce Erickson.

Also last year, Wilson publicly censured husband-and-wife administrators Bill and Jane Chatham after the couple accepted home repair work from employees of the contractor they were supervising as part of CSUN's quake recovery. An investigation by the state's Fair Political Practices Commission did not find evidence of a legal conflict of interest and the Chathams left the university in June.

With the latest FEMA funds, CSUN hopes to reopen Sierra Tower, Jerome Richfield Hall and the science and engineering complexes by the fall of 1997, Kennedy said. One of the oldest buildings in CSUN's infrastructure, the 37-year-old South Library, will be demolished and replaced with what is expected to be the administration's new headquarters, she said.

Future projects include repairs to the fine arts building and the Delmar T. Oviatt Library and the demolition of the vacant University Tower Apartments. The damaged administration building will be renovated to become the tentatively titled Center for Student Success, Erickson said, a one-stop site housing student-services departments such as financial aid, admissions and records and the Career Center.

Kennedy said it is perhaps fitting that the college continues to operate out of trailers and temporary buildings, noting that it was founded 40 years ago with little more than a few small bungalows surrounded by narrow roads.

According to John Broesamle's 1993 history of the college, "Suddenly a Giant," CSUN got its start as a stepchild of the campus that would later be known as Cal State Los Angeles. Established on a 165-acre plot in early 1956, the school became identified early on with the training of teachers.

"The college emerged," wrote Broesamle, a CSUN history professor since 1968, "as a branch campus specializing in education courses. It subsequently developed with a combination of liberal arts and professional emphases, but never as a liberal arts institution per se. Nor did the curriculum establish any major new departures. In fact, it took quite traditional forms."

Nevertheless, the early days were heady ones for founding faculty members.

"We were very enthusiastic," said Stelck. "We had a great deal of anticipation and excitement over starting a new campus."

A 1957 bill in the state Legislature split the campuses into separate institutions, and on July 1, 1958, San Fernando Valley State College was born. Nearly 14 years later, it was rechristened California State University, Northridge.

Nearly four decades later, however, the growth and development that have become a source of pride for staff and students have also become sources of friction administrators have pledged to address.

In recent months, relations with Northridge residents have frayed over a proposed retail district to be developed on CSUN's North Campus property and plans for a city transit center the university hoped to build in a parking lot.

In May, the Cal State Board of Trustees approved Hopkins Real Estate Group of Newport Beach to build a 225,000-square-foot, upscale shopping center on a 20-acre parcel along Devonshire Street between Lindley and Zelzah avenues. CSUN officials cite the project, a public-private partnership dubbed the University MarketCenter, as a lucrative source of additional revenue and a convenient opportunity for student employment and internships.

Many neighborhood businesses and homeowners, however, remain bitterly opposed, arguing that it will bring unwanted traffic, noise, pollution and economic competition.

"We do not feel that converting state educational property to commercial use is appropriate," said Jim East, chairman of the governmental affairs committee of the Granada Hills Chamber of Commerce, which has formally opposed the project. "We are in no way opposed to retail property or retail business."

Susan Parmelee, president of a 217-unit townhouse complex adjacent to the site, said that she is resigned to the fact that the shopping center will be built but hopes the university will appease residents by agreeing to several mitigation efforts.

"We do need walls, we do need trees," she said. "We need something to stop the eyesore."

According to Erickson, the university is listening.

"We are sincere in our intentions" to heed the concerns of the community, he said, citing opposition to the retail project and transit center as evidence that the university must improve its communication with residents. "We're going to have to demonstrate with our actions that we are a good neighbor."

Plans for a busy bus stop to be operated by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority on a 1 1/2-acre portion of CSUN's Parking Lot C are in a "state of suspension" after homeowners blasted the proposal at a public meeting this month. To Wilson, the changes and challenges as the university looks forward are "exciting in all directions."

In a way, they're not all that different from those that faced the new professors of 40 years ago.

"We didn't have all the supplies we wanted or all the room we wanted," said Schlosser, the former theater professor, but it was a time of high energy and rapid expansion. "We went home at night and felt we were accomplishing things."

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