Del Stelck turned onto Nordhoff Street on a hot August day more than 40 years ago to report for duty as a professor of history at what was then the San Fernando Valley branch of Los Angeles State College.
He saw a squash field. When he turned down a dirt road marked "Zelzah," a tree limb blocked the path. He had to get out of his Chevy station wagon and move it before he could go on.
At last, he spotted a flagpole.
"I figured that I must be there, then," Stelck remembered. "I knew there wasn't going to be much. I spent my first hours on campus jumping across ditches."
Today, more than 27,000 students attend the school. Around that flagpole, more than 100 buildings have sprouted on 353 acres. More than 1,400 faculty and 1,700 staff work there.
"This place grew more rapidly than any other place I've ever heard of," said Blenda J. Wilson, president of Cal State Northridge.
The same could be said of the San Fernando Valley. The Valley that was home to horse farms and orange trees--with groves once covering 15,000 acres of land here--now has about 1.3 million residents, enough people to form the sixth-largest city in the country.
But the metamorphosis of CSUN--as well as the Valley--is about more than numbers. It is a modern American tale:
* In four short decades, tens of thousands of people received college educations they would not have had access to before.
* Almost all of the first students were white, and now more than 60% are other races and ethnicities.
* Both the university and the surrounding Valley rebounded from a devastating earthquake faster than anyone could have imagined.
The saga started in 1955 when the Valley branch of Los Angeles State College, which eventually became Cal State Los Angeles, held classes in rented space at San Fernando High School. Three years later, on July 1, 1958, the satellite program broke away to become San Fernando Valley State College.
From the beginning, Valley State served the nontraditional student. Classes were filled with housewives returning to school and men just out of the service. The students generally were older than the professors. The common joke--based on observation--was that professors had to look both ways before crossing the street for fear of being run over by a student on his way to work.
Even the campus site was selected to serve students who couldn't live in dorms away from home for reasons of finance, family or both. Nearly everyone commuted.
If students were diverse in terms of age, gender and background, race was a different matter.
The bustling iconic suburbia of "Leave It to Beaver" was firmly entrenched by the mid-'60s in the Valley, a place where politicians still said "Los Anjeleez."
Restrictive housing covenants and common practice made sure this particular American dream was almost lily-white. The results were reflected in the complexion of Valley State. As late as 1967, only 23 blacks were enrolled at the campus of 15,600 students. Eleven students were Latino.
When the social upheaval of the 1960s reached Valley State, it may have caused a greater shock than at institutions with longer traditions of protest, such as UC Berkeley.
So when African American students angry about underrepresentation of "blacks and browns" at Valley State took 34 staff and administration personnel hostage in November 1968, the campus, the city and even the nation were stunned. If unrest could reach the Valley, the thinking went, it could reach anywhere.
"Uneasy Peace at Valley State," declared a Life magazine spread, complete with black-and-white photos of grim students and anxious administrators.
Some Valley State faculty supported the students, even choosing to march with them in protest as the Vietnam War dragged on. But on some parts of campus, as in the Valley as a whole, the so-called Generation Gap remained wide.
"I think many of us just couldn't understand what the protesters were trying to say," said Stelck, now 78 and retired.
A farm boy from Iowa, Stelck and thousands of other World War II veterans had attended college on the GI Bill. "Many of us had been so grateful just to be able to go to school that as students we wouldn't have ever complained. When I went to college, I was so happy I would have kissed the ground under me."
But the Vietnam War and the GI Bill generations did share something in common--at least at Valley State.
Just as the GI Bill helped the nontraditional student, so did California's Master Plan for Higher Education, which mandated that Valley State and other California State University schools educate students who fell in the top third of their high school classes. The top 12% of high school students were directed to the more prestigious University of California.
"I think the California Master Plan for Higher Education was one of the most brilliant strategies I've ever seen," Wilson said. "I think it changed education."
It also changed society, helping to usher in an era in which a high school education alone was no longer enough.
"California was a leader in the percentage of people going to college," said Jon Regnier, CSU senior director of physical planning. "A lot of other states had 20% at most going to college; some still do. At its peak, I think nearly 70% of Californians had some college education."
What would emerge from the state's mandate was an American university very different from the traditional ivory-towers notion of higher education. In the beginning, though, this fundamental shift was not obvious. Some new faculty and administrators hypothesized in those early days that Valley State might one day blossom into "The Little Harvard of the West."
Instead, the Valley's college grew like most other CSU schools, focusing on undergraduate education rather than research, though some was indeed conducted. Doctorates could only be awarded through joint programs with the UC schools.
So when San Fernando Valley State College was officially designated California State University Northridge in 1972, some felt the change reflected more symbolism than reality.
"It has remained a university in name but a college in fact," said John Clendenning, a retired CSUN English professor who started at the school in 1960.
Even so, Clendenning said the school has come a long way from the early days when Life magazine, in its story on the student protests, sneered at the college and its mission. "Valley State," it wrote, "is a modest school, offering more training than education, producing society's workers rather than its managers."
Today, CSUN has renowned departments in opera, geography and Chicano studies. It has the largest number of disabled students of any California university, along with the country's largest mainstream program for deaf and hearing-impaired students.
Although the school has remained primarily a place for undergraduate education, Clendenning said, "the best of our graduates are equal to the best of graduates anywhere in the country."
And, through the years, CSUN has continued to mirror the Valley that surrounds it.
The school--once so white--is now one of the most diverse in the nation. For example, Latinos, who make up an estimated 35% of the Valley's population, constitute 21.6% of the CSUN student body.
Joaquin Macias, the Associated Students president, said one of the reasons he chose CSUN over Howard University, a historically black school in Washington, D.C., was its diversity.
"Dealing with people that are different from you on a daily basis is something people are going to have to do day in and day out in the real world," said Macias, who ran for office on an all-minority ticket. "You find that here."
As it enters its fifth decade, CSUN faces significant challenges: Rebuilding from the earthquake continues. The university must continually woo or pacify nearby homeowners who have objected to plans to develop property north of the main campus.
A deficit of $800,000 and gender-equity concerns caused Wilson last year to cut four men's sports programs. They were later restored with emergency state funds after public outcry, but the task of finding a steady revenue source for the sports program remains.
The university also suffered a setback last year when it lost $2.27 million through risky investments.
Some faculty and local residents have questioned whether the university has overreached in building dormitories that remain under-capacity and expanding into Division I sports. Those critics contend the university is trying to become something it can never be: a traditional Big 10-style state university.
But, in fact, one thing has remained constant over the years, and it continues to be one of the university's greatest strengths:
CSUN students are different from those at more traditional schools. The average student is 26 years old. The vast majority commute. About 70% work more than 30 hours a week.
"CSUN took people who were often the first people to go to college in their family and gave them a chance," said Regnier, the planning director who has worked for the CSU system since 1966. "Students who went to CSUs know they can come out and they have the training to do a real job."
On the wall inside the makeshift President's Office--still housed in portable trailers installed after the earthquake--a poster hangs. Imposed on a picture of the campus are the words "It's excellent. It's close. It's affordable."
CSUN, Wilson points out, has graduated 120,000 students over the years and served tens of thousands more. Wilson--who spent 10 years as an administrator at Harvard University and four at the University of Michigan, said she considers her work at CSUN the most important of her career and dismisses what she calls "a nostalgia for elitism."
"I don't understand why local means 'small-time' to people," Wilson said. "There is nothing small-time about CSUN. I think what I call a 'people's college' plays the most important role in democracy."
And it is a people's college that serves the Valley that surrounds it.
The top 10 feeder high schools for CSUN are from the Valley, representing about 24% of the incoming freshmen in 1996-97. North Hollywood High was first with 101 students, followed by John Francis Polytechnic. Pierce and Valley community colleges also send significant numbers.
After graduation, many of these students will stay in the Valley, giving back to the community that gave them a chance in the first place. CSUN, it could be argued, is a local school in the best possible sense. It may not crunch out Nobel laureates like the Ivy League, but it has improved the lives of thousands.
To those who would praise the old ivy-covered towers at the expense of the Valley's college, Wilson replies, "I don't know why that would be a more noble purpose than what we're doing at Cal State Northridge."
Special correspondents Jake Finch and Rob O'Neil contributed to this story.
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CSUN Through the Years
In its first four decades, Cal State Northridge has more than doubled in size, while its enrollment has increased seven fold. The most dramatic changes, however, have been in the cost of tuition and the changing demographics of its student body. Following are comparisons from the early years and today.
(1958) Semester tuition: $29
(1958) Enrollment: 3,658
(1967) Ethnic Diversity: Out of approximately 15,600 students*:
African American: .15%
(1958) Faculty: 104
(1958) Campus Size: 165 acres
(1960) Parking Fee: $16
Semester tuition: $946
Ethnic Diversity: Ethnic breakdown for student population of 26,500*:
Asian & Pacific Islander: 13.8%
American Indian & other: 15.8%
African American: 7.8%
Campus Size: 353 acres
Parking Fee: $64
*Due to rounding, figures may not add up to 100%.
Sources: Cal State Northridge University Archives; Virginia Elwood, University Archivist;
"Suddenly a Giant, a History of California State University Northridge" by John Broesamle.