From the Office of the President

Each of Cal State Northridge's three presidents faced unique challenges as the university--and society at large--changed in the last four decades.

One president presided over the university's founding and the chaotic days of student protest during the Vietnam War. His successor tried to restore calm to a campus often shaken by violence. Yet another president faced rebuilding a campus shaken by an even greater power.

Times staff writer Abigail Goldman asked each of the presidents to share some thoughts about their tenures' defining moments and their visions of what CSUN might face in the future.

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RALPH PRATOR, president from 1958 to 1968

Q: What was the most challenging moment of your tenure?

A: I think that was probably during the first year, when it was clearly evident to us that the institution was going to grow extremely rapidly and, under those circumstances, we didn't have nearly the kind of land base we knew we needed for the projected enrollment.

Our enrollment was around 5,000, and from all the demographic information we had, it was evident we might reach 50,000 students by the year 2000. We needed to more than double our existing land base, which meant we had to have in excess of 300 acres of land. So with the help of several Valley legislators, we were able to get the fair at Devonshire abolished and eventually get the land ceded to--at that time--San Fernando Valley State College.

Q: What changes did you see in the student body during your tenure?

A: One of the things that happened rather early: We went from a very mature student body--as a matter of fact, during the first year or two, it was generally conceded that the student body was older than the faculty--to a more normal institution where students would range from 18 on.

Q: How did the university change as the Valley around it changed?

A: When we started, the whole Valley was largely agricultural and, of course, was moving very rapidly into what it is at the present time. The Valley at that time was composed of about 26 communities, and one of the few agencies that was trying to make an entity of the Valley was the associated chambers of commerce. I think we began to accept a responsibility for integrating the Valley, making an entity of the 26 separate communities, and we got a tremendous amount of encouragement.

JAMES CLEARY, president from 1969 to 1992

Q: What was the most challenging moment of your tenure?

A: Well, the most challenging moment that comes to my mind was the first year, putting the university back on track toward its educational mission after the conflicts of 1968, which created a very difficult situation for the university.

I discovered very quickly that the year left the campus with bitter infighting among the faculty, a lot of student unrest and extremely poor and hostile relations with California state officials and the general community. I didn't even have an office when I came out; the president's suite had been destroyed by an unknown arsonist.

Q: What is your fondest memory of your time at CSUN?

A: I guess that would be May 1992, at an all-university reception outside of the current faculty center--the warmth and affection and best wishes from the entire university community, extended to my wife, Mary, and myself on our retirement. Twenty-three years is a long time. We saw a lot of things during that time: achieving university status; getting as quickly as we could a truly diverse student body, faculty and staff; and academic recognition during the '70s and '80s that earned the respect of the educational world.

Q: What changes did you see in the student body during your tenure?

A: I think during the late 1960s and most of the 1970s, I felt that the student body was angered by social injustices they had perceived and, of course, the Vietnam War. So they were caught up in those issues and they became more important than anything.

In the 1980s, the student body seemed to feel they needed to graduate as soon as possible and they wanted to get out into the workaday world, and with that attitude and behavior, gave us a period of tranquillity.

Then, in the early 1990s, it seemed we had gone through a whole cycle and the student body was returning to the same concerns that bothered and angered students in the '60s and '70s. They were interested very much with social justice, health, educational opportunities and civil rights, but the difference I perceived was that they were dealing with these critical issues properly and deliberatively and nonviolently.

The lesson that was learned in student bodies across the country was that you don't solve these problems by burning down a university building. You solve these problems by getting graduated and getting out into the community and into politics.

Q: What do you think will be the university's biggest challenge for the future?

A: Money is always a problem, and I think in higher education, it's true across the country. Those of us who are involved in education would all like to see a consistent and adequate working budget that is flexible and nonformulaic. It ought to be program-based. And, of course, along with this would be successful efforts for significant extramural support and the maintenance of a student body, faculty and staff that is diverse and reflective of the population in the community.

BLENDA J. WILSON, president since 1993

Q: What has been the most challenging moment of your tenure?

A: Easy: the moment of returning to the campus and seeing the parking structure demolished, and perceiving at that time that the entire campus would look like that, was the most terrifying moment of my life.

Q: What is your fondest memory so far of your time at CSUN?

A: The fondest memory, I guess, has to be Feb. 14, 1994, when we reopened campus after the earthquake. It's fond not because it was neat or without a lot of confusion, but it demonstrated how a community working together can achieve something that seemed impossible.

Q: What changes have you seen in the student body during your tenure?

A: What I have noticed in the last six years is that the campus has been able to discuss issues of race, ethnicity and gender--sometimes in circumstances that seem controversial to the outside world.

The result is that there is a considerably greater degree of unity among students on this campus than exists in our general society. There really has been a change in how students work at understanding one another. In my early years, there was great difficulty around issues of race and gender.

Q: What do you think will be the university's biggest challenge for the future?

A: The biggest challenges are educational in two ways. One is to understand and to assist our public schools in preparing students better for a higher education environment--and we are involved in many different efforts to accomplish that. The results for the university will be reducing our need to do developmental and remedial work with students who come here.

The second challenge is for our faculty to incorporate into what we do an appreciation of interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary study. I say it's a challenge because most of us were educated at a time when the boundaries between disciplines were impermeable, and we're now seeing that the way knowledge is being constructed requires interdisciplinary perspectives and is creating, in fact, new fields of knowledge.

Q: As the current president, is there anything else you would like to add about the university turning 40?

A: Forty years for an institution of higher education is very young, and yet we at Cal State Northridge represent the best of what is known about teaching undergraduates, so it's an extraordinary accomplishment. Most people think about university growth in terms of numbers of students and buildings. But the real achievement of this university is the remarkable intellectual capital it represents.

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