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Little College in Palos Verdes Rides Out the Storm

September 18, 1985|URSULA VILS | Times Staff Writer

This is a story of survival against the odds: the survival of a two-year private college that some gave up as doomed 12 years ago.

Others persisted, determined to keep Marymount Palos Verdes College alive. They have more than succeeded.

In 1973, Marymount Palos Verdes had 120 students, a budget of $535,000, a deficit of $170,000 and no endowment to speak of. Today it has 650 students, 39 full-time and 35 part-time faculty members, an operating budget--in the black--of more than $5 million and a $2 million endowment.

Outstanding Decade

That outstanding decade of progress will be celebrated Thursday at a convocation at which the newly installed Catholic Archbishop of Los Angeles, Roger Mahony, will celebrate Mass. Attending will be the presidents of the four U.S. Marymount institutions of higher learning (Tarrytown and Manhattan, N.Y., Marymount of Virginia, Marymount Palos Verdes) and the former president of Marymount College, now part of Loyola Marymount University of Los Angeles.

Thomas D. Wood, who became president of the college in 1973, sat in his office on the campus on a promontory in Palos Verdes overlooking the Pacific. Catalina Island stood etched against the horizon.

Wood, a genial man with bachelor's and master's degrees from Whittier College and a doctoral degree in education from USC, said that "philosophy is my bag, philosophy and sociology of education." Perhaps that is what has helped him and Marymount Palos Verdes ride out the storms that have beset smaller colleges in the turbulent educational times of the past quarter-century.

The history of Marymount Palos Verdes College, which Wood believes to be "probably the only independent two-year Catholic college in the West," is a microcosm of several shifts in educational philosophy and pragmatism.

Marymount Junior College was founded in 1932 as an extension to a 10-year-old elementary-through-high school for girls established by the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary, an order of Roman Catholic nuns, in Westwood, just across Sunset Boulevard from UCLA. The junior college came about at the request of Marymount alumnae who wished to continue their education under the direction of the sisters.

In 1948, Marymount was chartered as a four-year women's college by the State of California. Within a decade it had outgrown its quarters in Westwood and in 1960 it moved to a new campus with an ocean-view site in Palos Verdes--but not its present location.

In the '60s, a decade of educational change and ferment, Los Angeles had four Catholic colleges but no Catholic coeducational university. In what Wood termed "a brilliant move," the four-year Marymount College affiliated with Loyola University, a men's school, and moved to Loyola U's Westchester campus.

That left what is now Marymount Palos Verdes as a two-year college on a campus built for a four-year institution. It became coeducational, and Wood became its first lay president in 1973.

Library and Laboratories

"We were on a campus built for 400 students in residence," Wood said, "and we had 120 students there when I arrived. The advantages were the library and the laboratories, both built for a four-year college. The disadvantage was that there was a lot of empty space in the dorms, which we rented out for things like marriage encounter groups."

As finances became more and more limited, it was decided to sell Marymount's two-year campus.

New quarters were found at another institution that had become an anachronism by the '70s: a girls' boarding school built in the early '50s, closed, then leased as a school by a group that could not survive financially either. That property, a high school originally operated by the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary, became the new Marymount Palos Verdes College campus, and the former Marymount campus was sold to the Salvation Army.

"We did pay off our debts eventually and we bought this property from the order (of sisters)," Wood said. "We got a good deal, 3% money. They wanted to see it (the junior college) succeed."

Financial problems abated, Wood said, after five years when two notes from the Salvation Army came due and Marymount Palos Verdes was able to pay its debts.

Then the college hired recruiters.

"Nobody knew us," he said. "They thought we'd closed. Even some people who lived on this hill didn't know we were here. Then we began to attract the attention of high school college counselors.

"It is not inaccurate or with undue pride that I can say we have as superior a lower division program as any in the basin.

"One of the great advantages is to be able to personalize the relationship with students. If you get too large you stretch that. There is a kind of tyranny of success in education.

"Another reason we prospered here was that we avoided the siren call that comes to people in fiscal trouble: the ancillary programs to earn money. If you have a mission and you're satisfied with it, stick with it."

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