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Reversal of Enrollment Decline Is Top Priority : New Chief Seeks New Image for WLAC

April 06, 1986|ELAINE WOO | Times Staff Writer

Linda Thor, the new acting president of struggling West Los Angeles College, chose her words very carefully.

Challenged by the trustees of the Los Angeles Community College District to boost the Westside campus' shrunken enrollment by 20% next fall, she knows her actions will be scrutinized and the results carefully weighed.

But Thor, who speaks with a self-assured air, considers her mission well within the realm of possibility.

"I think the solutions to the college's problems are already here because the people are here," she said recently in her office at the top of the hillside campus in Culver City. "I get stopped in the parking lot with suggestions on (everything from) how we ought to be answering the telephone to what kinds of major educational changes we ought to make. I see my job as listening to what people have to say--and implementing the best of it."

In an administrative shake-up intended to reinvigorate a college that has lost almost half its enrollment over the past four years, the trustees appointed Thor acting president on Feb. 20, replacing M. Jack Fujimoto, who headed the school for seven years. Her appointment is effective until June 30, 1987, when the board will select a permanent president.

Thor's 12 years with the college district have been spent exclusively at the downtown headquarters--first as a public information officer, next as head of the information office and most recently as director of an enormously successful occupational and technical education program. She holds a master's degree in public administration from California State University, Los Angeles, and is working toward a doctorate in community college administration at Pepperdine.

She has no classroom experience, which has caused some concern among instructors and on the board. But the trustees were impressed with her track record in two key areas: fund raising and public relations.

As head of the job-training program, Thor raised $23 million in state grants for the district; as director of the communications office, she engineered the most successful recruitment drive in the district's history. Using radio advertising, an approach community colleges had not tried before, the 1978 campaign attracted 2,000 responses. Thirteen percent enrolled, most of them new students.

"The board felt she had some abilities the college drastically needs," Trustee Harold W. Garvin said.

Some say that if she succeeds in fattening WLAC's

roll books and enhancing its image, the college could become a model for the other campuses in the ailing college district, where overall enrollment and the state dollars tied to it have declined by one-third since 1981.

West Los Angeles College has about 6,400 students, down from its peak of almost 12,000 in 1980. Many of its students attend night classes or programs off campus, such as at the college's airport center near Los Angeles International Airport, where courses in the travel business and aircraft maintenance are offered.

Dozen Communities Served

Tucked away in the hills above Culver City, the college serves about a dozen Westside communities, from Bel-Air to Westchester and Pacific Palisades to Baldwin Hills, and is easy to reach from the Santa Monica and San Diego freeways.

Some complain, however, that once a visitor gets there, he may not realize that he has arrived. Although attractively landscaped, the campus lacks identifying signs or convenient landmarks, and its roads are confusing. Moreover, there is no obvious heart of the campus and very little campus life.

One student grumbled in the school newspaper about a year ago that he found the campus boring, having little else going on than "two guys sitting in the cafeteria playing dominoes."

However, at Santa Monica College, WLAC's main competitor with about 20,000 students, classes are full and students bustle around the campus. "All the party people go to Santa Monica, and it's closer to the beach," making it the popular choice for many students, according to an 18-year-old marketing major who entered WLAC after graduating from Westchester High School.

Standards Cited

Santa Monica also is perceived to be a more complete college with higher academic standards, according to students and high school counselors who were interviewed. As one measure of its effectiveness, Santa Monica transfers more students to public universities than West Los Angeles does. Moreover, WLAC students were critical of their peers, complaining that too many of them are not serious students, and of some of their instructors, saying they should be more demanding. One student joked that a more apt name for the school would be "Waste Away College."

Still others said they plan to transfer to another junior college because they are tired of courses being canceled for lack of enrollment.

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