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School Once Going to Seed Now Sprouting New Hope

November 29, 1987|BOB WILLIAMS | Times Staff Writer

When the trustees named Thomas Lakin president of Los Angeles Southwest College in March, 1986, they attached "acting" in front of the title. It underscored a widespread belief that he--and the institution--might not be around very long.

Enrollment at the predominantly black two-year college had plummeted to 2,900 students--a 64% loss in five years--making it the smallest in the nine-campus Los Angeles Community College District.

Waiting for the End

Programs and staff had been cut. Classrooms stood empty in the campus' only permanent building, a massive, four-story structure stretching along Imperial Highway near Western Avenue. Scarred by graffiti and surrounded by weeds, it had begun to look like an abandoned fortress.

"The place was really at a low point," a district official said. "People there just seemed to be putting in their time, waiting for the end."

Less than two years later, new programs have been added to the college's curriculum, enrollment is up 60%, and nobody is talking about closing Southwest. And the "acting" has been removed from Lakin's title.

For Lakin, a 43-year-old New York native with a UCLA doctorate who had been a vice president at Los Angeles Trade-Technical College, it was a once-in-a-lifetime challenge. "Not everybody gets a chance to save a college," he said. "The scary part was that I knew my career was on the line."

The college, founded in 1967 in the aftermath of the Watts riots, had been billed as an educational ladder of opportunity for blacks in the ghettos of South-Central Los Angeles and surrounding areas.

It flourished for a while in the late 1970s after the long-delayed completion of the first permanent building in 1973. By 1981, enrollment had reached a peak of 8,000.

Then the slide began.

Some blamed Proposition 13, which dried up funding needed to continue construction on the 71-acre campus so it could compete successfully with older colleges. The district's short-lived experiment with an earlier semester start in August cut into enrollment, as did the state's imposition of a first-ever tuition fee.

Assemblywoman Maxine Waters, who represents South-Central Los Angeles, blamed "weak leadership" and the "low priority given to the needs of black communities." Southwest, she said, had become "another dream deferred."

Others blamed the community, saying that people there didn't want their own college enough to support it. They pointed out that inner-city students were driving past Southwest by the thousands on their way to other community colleges, such as El Camino and the Santa Monica and West L.A. campuses.

In 1985, the state's Little Hoover Commission, after looking at the college district's budget and management problems, pointed to the elimination of Southwest as part of the solution. A county grand jury reached the same conclusion.

When Lakin arrived at Southwest, there were so many problems he wasn't sure where to start.

He bought a batch of weed pullers, issued them to his staff and invited the educators to join him in attacking the wild plants that had taken over the grounds.

"That got our attention," said Major F. Thomas, an assistant dean and Southwest veteran. "We weren't sure he was serious until he shouldered his own weed puller and led the way. Before long, we even had some rose gardens planted."

Quoted From Song

At his first formal staff meeting, Lakin quoted from the lyrics of "This Is It," a Kenny Loggins song in which an ailing father is urged to rise from his sick bed and fight for his life.

"It was do-or-die time for Southwest, too, and I wanted the people here to know it," Lakin said. "I told them we had to turn this place around fast, or very likely the college and everybody working around here would be history."

A number of people moved on immediately. Lakin replaced the college's 10 top administrators, except Thomas, with his own handpicked team--people he had come to know and trust in his 12 years as a district teacher and administrator.

He fired the old maintenance crew and told the new workers that their job tenure depended on daily victories against weeds, graffiti and dirty floors.

Joining the Parade

Several employees suspected of drug dealing were invited to leave, Lakin said. Campus security was reorganized and strengthened.

In sending Lakin to replace Walt McIntosh as president, the college board had decreed that enrollment must rise by at least 20% in two years. Few around the campus believed it could be done.

To reach the enrollment goal, Lakin started an all-out recruiting campaign that extended through the summer last year. His daily calendar filled with speaking engagements at area high schools and before community groups. Potential students were pulled aside, wherever they could be found, for a review of their educational needs and goals and told about financial aid available at Southwest.

Expanded Bilingual Programs

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