He has an Italian name, an Irish face, a courtly manner, a highly intelligent and open mind and a reputation far and wide for achievements--in education, human relations, ecumenism and civil rights.
He is Father Charles S. Casassa SJ, chancellor emeritus of Loyola Marymount University, an institution that owes its present stature in the Southland educational community in large part to him.
Aided in Merger
It was Casassa who, with Sister Raymunde McKay of the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary, put together the merger of Loyola and Marymount in 1968, giving Los Angeles a Catholic co-educational university and considerably improving the resources and programs of both institutions.
"He was a distinguished university president and the builder of Loyola Marymount," said Harry Volk, former head of Union Bank and a prominent community leader. "Its present stature is a reflection of his work."
Indeed, Loyola Marymount University as it exists today is largely because of Casassa. When he became president of then-Loyola University in 1949, the Jesuit institution had five buildings on its Westchester campus and one at the law school downtown; it now has 23 on the main campus and four at the law school.
Casassa takes credit for only 11, modestly pointing out those that were built under his successors as president and chancellor or through the efforts of the sisters--but he is still out making friends and raising funds for the university.
Even his 75th birthday party tonight will be not only a tribute to Casassa but a benefit for LMU. The black-tie dinner this evening at the Beverly Wilshire will raise funds for the Charles S. Casassa Conference Center in the planned Hilton School of Business, to be built on newly acquired land at the Westchester campus.
Born in San Francisco on Sept. 23, 1910, Charles Casassa has devoted his life to his God (he was ordained a Jesuit priest in 1938), his fellow man and his beloved Loyola Marymount University, which he served as president from 1949 to 1969, as chancellor from 1969 to 1984 and as chancellor emeritus since then.
He admits to a fondness for long walks, sports on television and a game of bridge, but one wonders when the man has time for such pursuits.
In a wide-ranging interview in his office in Leavey Center at LMU, Casassa spoke of his current duties as chancellor emeritus: the ever-continuing fund raising, representing LMU in the community and following pending legislation in Sacramento and Washington that affects education.
He concedes that the future of independent colleges may be somewhat precarious, but he is nonetheless optimistic.
"No one doubts that the Harvards and Yales are going to survive," he said, "and in my opinion the good small schools that have sound financial management will survive. Some will lose because they don't have the financial support and the costs of education are rising, but the majority will survive."
Casassa also spoke of Loyola Marymount University--past, present and future. Typically, he tended to focus on the future and discussed the proposed use of 28 acres acquired recently, of which 16 to 18 acres are usable for development.
"We have acquired new property, but not to increase our size," he said. "We want to increase the number of residential students, which are about 42% of the student body now; we want to get that up to 72% or 73%. So we hope to build a couple of residence halls and a commons or cafeteria, some kind of eating facilities.
"We also will put up a separate building for business administration.
"We don't want to be much above 3,500 undergraduates; that is a good size. If we get beyond that we might lose one of our characteristics, our close personal relationship with students. If we have 10,000, that is gone; if we have 20,000 there is no hope.
"With 3,500 we can have adequate faculty and adequate counseling. Close personal care of the student has always been a goal of the Jesuits, back to St. Ignatius himself."
Casassa also said that LMU is determined, as are other prominent institutions, to stress quality of education.
"From the mid-'60s almost to the present the quality of higher education has deteriorated, and markedly so," he said. "There now is a surge to bring back quality and excellence to education. We have slipped badly, and we should not be doing remedial work in college. But it is a long debate: How to define quality and how to improve it.
"There is tremendous concern over the basics. How do you attack the basics? What should the core curriculum be in the next 50 years? There will be a fight over that. . . .
"Take the matter of studying a foreign language. Some schools dropped the requirement for a number of years. But international trade is now a big item. I look to see more stress on foreign languages, beginning in high school or even earlier.