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Oxy : Liberal Arts College Has Low Profile, Loyal Alumni and a Large Endowment

January 22, 1987|MARTHA L. WILLMAN | Times Staff Writer

Since Occidental College was founded in 1887, it has survived an economic crash that left it with just seven students, a fire that ravaged what was then its only building, student unrest and allegations of racial discrimination.

Although hundreds of other colleges have folded in the wake of similar adversities, Occidental continues to endure. College officials attribute the school's stability to its large endowment and the support of its fiercely loyal alumni.

As the small liberal arts college in Eagle Rock celebrates its centennial, it boasts an academic reputation as high as its tuition.

Yet, some say, it still lacks its own clear identity. The school's colors--black and orange--and its nickname and mascot--a tiger--mimic Princeton. Concrete pedestals at its three main entrances are reminiscent of Harvard. And students refer to Oxy as "the college of Stanford rejects."

But David Danelski, Occidental's dean of faculty, staunchly maintains that Oxy's identity has been long established: that of a small, liberal arts and sciences college that stresses high-quality teaching. "Our identity has been remarkably constant over our 100 years," he said. "We have remained true to our commitment to undergraduate education."

Not Widely Known

Others, however, concede that Occidental is still not widely known outside of educational circles, even on the West Coast.

"I had never heard of Oxy until my high school counselors recommended it," said senior Ken Lowney of Palo Alto, who also applied at Whitman in Walla Walla, Wash.; UC Berkeley, and the University of Oregon before he settled on Occidental as his first choice.

Senior Heidi Melsheimer of Arizona said she resisted the urgings of her parents, both Occidental alumni, that she attend the Eagle Rock campus because she felt it lacked the prestige of larger institutions. "I was determined not to like it--until I got here," she said. "Now I love it."

The sprawling 120-acre campus tucked into a residential enclave only minutes from downtown Los Angeles is an enigma. Unlike the noise and concrete that typifies other metropolitan campuses, Occidental is a tranquil island in the city--with acres of meticulously kept lawns, rose gardens, eucalyptus and jacaranda forests.

But life at Occidental is markedly different from that of the Ivy League schools in the East after which it was patterned. Shorts are common attire at Occidental, even in January. Students barbecue steaks outside their dormitory every two weeks. Professors often move their classes to the grassy knolls on campus or to nearby museums and art centers.

Many students say that the smallness of Occidental (only 1,650 students), the reputation of its faculty and the beauty of its grounds were important in their decision to attend.

Richard C. Gilman, Oxy's president for 22 years, points out that Occidental is relatively young contrasted with many leading campuses. "It takes time to nurture and develop a reputation," Gilman said. "To attain the reputation of a Dartmouth or a Wesleyan takes a long, long time. Occidental emerged on the national scene much more recently, only in the last 25 years or so."

But emerged it has.

The academic rank of colleges is often based on the size of their endowments because foundations and corporations give the greatest sums to schools with the highest reputations. Occidental's endowment rose from less than $13 million when Gilman took the helm in 1965 to $110 million today. It has received grants from such leading contributors as the Rockefeller, Ford, Dreyfus and National Science foundations.

Aggressive Fund Raising

Much of the large endowment was raised in the last 10 years when the college undertook an aggressive fund-raising campaign. Earnings from the endowment are being used, in part, for improvements to some of the 33 buildings on campus and to develop new science, research and cultural facilities. Almost $16 million in improvements have been completed since 1975, and projects costing another $23 million are planned.

Occidental's resources place it in the top 5% among the 800 small, liberal arts colleges in the nation, according to the Research Corp. of Tucson, Ariz. And, out of more than 2,800 institutions ranked nationwide, including such large ones as Stanford, USC and Princeton, Occidental places about 70th, according to the National Assn. of College and University Business Officers.

But, in other studies, including a 1986 report in Change Magazine which ranked undergraduate schools on the percentage of doctoral candidates they have supplied, Occidental ranks lower than many of its California competitors, including its closest rival, Pomona College, also celebrating its centennial.

Fewer Graduate Students

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