The past president of Pepperdine University likes to take note of two campus landmarks: the place where U.S. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist played tennis and the evergreen planted by President Reagan. The first, he says, is known as the Supreme Court. The second is the Reagan Bush.
Those designations are made in jest, but Howard A. White, the grandfatherly historian who tells the tale, also has plenty of serious stories to repeat about Reagan Administration connections to Pepperdine.
Rehnquist, for example, found out about his confirmation as chief justice while he was teaching law students there; the law school dean passed him a note with the news of the Senate's vote. Arthur Laffer, creator of the "Laffer Curve" that came to symbolize Reaganomics, spent two years at Pepperdine recently before leaving to go into business.
Draws Big GOP Speakers
The school regularly draws big Republican speakers, including First Lady Nancy Reagan, economic adviser Beryl Sprinkel, who announced Friday that he will resign as chairman of the President's Council of Economic Advisers in November, and former Secretary of State Alexander Haig. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, a Reagan appointee, is scheduled for December.
And among the donors who give Pepperdine $1,000 a year are Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III, former White House aide Lyn Nofziger and Ronald Reagan himself.
Pepperdine has not attained the academic luster of a Stanford, a UC Berkeley or a UCLA--a status that its administrators crave. But the Christian school in the Malibu Hills, which is marking its 50th anniversary this weekend with a variety of celebrations and ceremonies, is becoming known for more than its production of Olympic water polo players and its prohibitions of on-campus drinking and dancing.
In less than two decades, Pepperdine has transformed itself from an obscure South-Central Los Angeles college of 1,500 to a thriving seaside university with 2,500 students and satellite schools pushing total enrollment past 6,000.
There is little dispute that the changes are directly related to administrators' solid ties to the Republican Party in general and the Reagan Administration in particular--ties that are at least as strong as the school's links with the Churches of Christ. The rise of Pepperdine parallels the rise to national power of the California Republicans first courted by college officials in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a time when other campuses were engulfed in turmoil over the Vietnam War and an assortment of radical causes.
"Pepperdine didn't change its politics," said William Banowsky, who was university president in the 1970s. "Its politics just became less disreputable."
But the pervasive Republican atmosphere has become a matter of controversy on campus as well as off. Dissident faculty and students and even some high-ranking administrators question the wisdom of such a political tilt at a school with ambitions for national prestige.
"Whatever a student's tentative conclusions about politics, they need to be challenged," said Paul Randolph, a history professor who describes himself as a moderate Democrat. "But here, one of the limiting factors is that the student who comes from a staunchly conservative background will probably escape that challenge."
Active in GOP Circles
Many of Pepperdine's administrators have been active in Republican circles, either before or during their tenure at the school. They range from conservative to moderate.
Banowsky, for example, was appointed by then-Gov. Reagan to be Republican National Committeeman for California. He also conducted high-profile flirtations with candidacies for Congress and governor. John T. McCarty, who died in 1985, was a director of the American Conservative Union and Pepperdine's vice president for development. Michael F. Adams, vice president for university affairs, is a former Senate aide to Howard H. Baker Jr., now Reagan's chief of staff. Former President Gerald R. Ford is an active member of the Board of Regents.
Top university officials are also involved in efforts to nurture a new generation of traditionalists. Chancellor Charles B. Runnels organizes "Youth Citizenship Seminars" for high school juniors that feature big-name conservatives such as commentator Bruce Herschensohn and singer Pat Boone. Regent Margaret Martin Brock, whose name adorns the university president's house, is an important Republican fund-raiser. She regularly donates hundreds of tickets for Pepperdine students to attend high-powered Republican affairs.
The resulting network of connections has been important in attracting the big-name speakers, who in turn have lured donors to fuel Pepperdine's advance. "Republicans either have got more money or are more willing to give it away," ex-President White said.