One of California’s heaviest concentrations of colleges and universities is sandwiched between downtown and the Orange Freeway, occupying a forest of low-rise office towers that could easily be confused with an aging business park.
Within a one-mile radius in eastern Fullerton are five institutions of higher learning with a combined enrollment of 45,000 students, producing some of Orange County’s top attorneys, teachers, ministers, engineers and eye-care specialists.
Although locals refer to the area as “little Claremont,” referring to the renowned Claremont Colleges in Los Angeles County, it has long maintained a low profile. But that is slowly changing.
All five campuses--Cal State Fullerton, Pacific Christian College, Fullerton College, Western State University College of Law and the Southern California College of Optometry--are in the midst of expansions that promise to bring new research centers, classrooms, parking structures and athletic facilities.
Cal State Fullerton recently opened a new library and is planning an expansion of its baseball stadium in hopes of hosting College World Series playoffs. The law school and optometry college are scheduled to complete new libraries next year, and Pacific Christian is planning an athletic complex and science wing.
For years, the colleges grew with little coordination. But starting in 1995, the presidents of all five campuses began meeting regularly to discuss common concerns and examine ways that the colleges could team up to enhance student services and share resources.
“We are finding that there are so many opportunities to share our resources,” said Bill Heaton, advancement director at Southern California College of Optometry. “We are beginning to feed off one another for the advantage of all.”
This new partnership comes as the Chamber of Commerce and city officials debate whether to make “The Education Community” Fullerton’s official motto.
Boosters see the slogan as part of a larger effort to improve the city’s image and economy, which have been battered by defense downsizing including the loss of 6,000 jobs at a Hughes aerospace plant.
“All of north Orange County has taken a big hit, not just in terms of economic development but in its reputation as well,” said Anil K. Puri, an economist at Cal State Fullerton. “Marketing an area’s image can certainly help. It’s a way of saying this area is not in decline.”
Marketing alone, however, won’t address complaints from some students who say the city lacks the night life, pedestrian shopping and collegiate atmosphere of other university towns.
“Fullerton feels like suburbia,” said Michael White, 27, a former Cal State Fullerton and Fullerton College student. “You can’t just walk off campus and see a French movie.”
White and others have detected a modest improvement in recent years as several coffeehouses, music clubs, clothing stores and eateries opened both downtown and on streets that connect downtown to Cal State Fullerton.
Along State College Boulevard, secondhand music and paperback book stores, an art supply center and other youth-oriented businesses now share strip mall space with doughnut shops, supermarkets and fast-food restaurants.
Still, some students say that campus life has suffered because most colleges are essentially commuter schools.
“People come in for their classes in the morning and drive out in the afternoon,” said John Martinez, a Fullerton College student. “It’s not a real community. . . . This is not Westwood Village or Berkeley.”
Fullerton’s colleges may lack the prestige of UCLA or Berkeley, but the city does boast an educational tradition that dates back to 1913 when California’s oldest community college--Fullerton College--opened its doors near downtown.
In 1959, Cal State Fullerton was founded amid the Valencia orange groves about a mile to the east, providing four-year degrees to the thousands of people who migrated to Orange County after World War II.
Over the next two decades, Pacific Christian College and the Southern California College of Optometry abandoned their cramped urban campuses in Long Beach and downtown Los Angeles for larger facilities alongside Cal State Fullerton. Western State opened in 1966.
The area appealed to the small institutions because of its proximity to the new state college as well as to freeways and the growing suburban population. Because most of the surrounding parcels were agricultural, the area also offered room to grow.
The colleges have a significant economic and cultural influence on the city. Cal State Fullerton alone pumps more than $180 million a year into the local economy, while its students contribute another $126 million, according to a study by Puri and economist Robert A. Kleinhenz.
Many Fullerton residents take advantage of the classes and arts programs offered by the colleges and religiously follow Cal State Fullerton baseball.
“It’s always been a feature of our city that people take night classes and get involved in the colleges,” Mayor Chris Norby said. “You always hear people saying, ‘I’m taking a class.’ ”
All the campuses have seen their enrollments increase substantially over the last two decades as development has taken hold in Orange County. Pacific Christian, for example, began operating out of an abandoned shopping center in 1973 with just 300 students.
Over the years, the college has taken over nearby apartment complexes, professional buildings and even a seven-story office tower to accommodate its expanding curriculum and enrollment, which now stands at 1,050 students.
“When we reached 1,000 students, [the state] finally gave us a freeway exit sign with our name on it,” said Gary Tiffin, dean of undergraduate studies. “That was important because we feel kind of hidden.”
Optometry college enrollment has risen from 200 students to nearly 400 since the 1970s. The college hopes to break ground soon on a state-of-the-art library featuring an extensive collection of videos and CD-ROM related to vision care. Twelve new study rooms and a parking structure are also planned.
The colleges cater to different types of students, from budding optometrists and pastors to professionals earning law degrees at night and teenagers still searching for a major.
Despite the diversity, however, educators and community leaders see many benefits to partnerships among the institutions.
The discussions began about two years ago as infrequent meetings of all five college presidents. In recent months, the meetings have become more regular.
“When you have a mass of educational institutions in one place, there develops a certain intellectual excitement that the lectures and activities spark,” said Dennis Honabach, president of the Western State law school. “When students are part of a larger educational community, there is a sharing of ideas that is very important to a legal education.”
Being next door to Cal State Fullerton allows Western State students to take classes in other subjects related to the fields of law they want to enter.
“When you are a stand-alone law school, one concern is that students lose sight of the fact that a study of law must be grounded by sociology, history and politics,” he added. “Having these other colleges around is a tremendous advantage to us.”
So far, the discussions have helped foster some modest joint projects, such as an optometry school program in which students help staff the Cal State Fullerton medical clinic. Optometry students are also providing eye screenings for the university’s geriatrics program, Heaton said.
Three professors from Cal State Fullerton and Pacific Christian College now team-teach a class on comparative religion that is open to students from both campuses. The course is unique because each professor is an expert on Christian, Jewish and Islamic religions.
“It broadens the understanding of students and opens up communications between our students and their students,” said Doug Dickey, a philosophy professor at Pacific Christian. “There’s a bridge that connects our campuses. But it is really symbolic. This kind of class makes the bridge real.”
The college presidents recently commissioned a study to determine the economic impact of the campuses on the surrounding community. They have also talked about more long-term goals such as providing universal library access to all students, holding more joint classes and sharing facilities and resources.
City officials and business leaders agree on the importance of the colleges to Fullerton’s future. But they have been struggling for more than a year to decide whether higher education should be central to the community’s identity.
Members of the Chamber of Commerce asked the City Council last year to adopt “The Education Community” as Fullerton’s official motto. Backers say the slogan would give Fullerton a distinctive image and help differentiate it from scores of other Southern California cities.
“It’s a statement that says this community believes in education,” said Jim Alexander, vice president of the chamber. “Our educational institutions are one of the things that make us unique. That can definitely be a plus in drawing business.”
So far, city leaders have been slow to embrace the motto. Some council members said the slogan is too simplistic, while others find it needlessly boastful.
Even Puri, the Cal State Fullerton economist, expressed doubt that marketing the colleges alone would have as much impact as promoting education along with other community assets like a revitalized downtown and new Metrolink train station.
“Any city can put a flashy motto on the stationery, but I don’t know what that proves,” Mayor Norby said. “If you have it, you don’t need to necessarily flaunt it.”
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Fullerton is home to five institutions of higher learning, an unusually high number for a city of 110,000 residents. The campuses have maintained low profiles outside Orange County, but that may change as enrollment rises and officials embark on expansion plans. A snapshot of each campus:
1. Cal State Fullerton
What’s new: Recently opened a new library; also planning to expand baseball stadium and build new performing arts center
2. Fullerton College
What’s new: Plans to build new learning center and library by 2000
3. Pacific Christian College
Founded: 1928; moved to Fullerton in 1973
What’s new: Enrollment has tripled in last 20 years, prompting several expansions; officials now planning new athletic complex and more classrooms
4. Southern California College of Optometry
Founded: 1904; moved to Fullerton in 1973
What’s new: Scheduled to open library, 12 study rooms and parking structure next year
5. Western State University College of Law
What’s new: Broke ground earlier this month for expansion that will double library size
Source: Individual colleges
Researched by SHELBY GRAD / Los Angeles Times