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Professor's Chronicle Takes a Hard Look at History of CSUN : Education: Historian cites importance of school, but also says it hasn't lived up to founders' visions.

December 12, 1993|JOHN CHANDLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NORTHRIDGE — For four years, John Broesamle toiled on nights and weekends, conducted dozens of interviews and spent countless hours poring over thousands of pages of dusty documents.

Now that he's completed his task, he has some rather unusual things to say.

In a new book, "Suddenly a Giant," Broesamle has written the first published history of Cal State Northridge. The chronicle spans the campus' humble 1956 beginnings in a squash field to its current rank as what he calls the most important institution in the San Fernando Valley, a claim perhaps enhanced by the fact that the university sponsored the project.

But Broesamle, a 25-year veteran history professor, didn't stop there. And in a rather blunt critique, he goes on to conclude the university has never lived up to the visions of its founders. He adds that it has sometimes wandered and lost its academic focus and has never gained the national reputation it might have if located somewhere besides the Valley which "lacks a center of gravity."

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"CSUN is the Valley's most important single institution, and one which . . . should in itself be a major force for regional identity . . . As of today, though, the full possibilities remain far short of realization," Broesamle writes, blaming a variety of internal and external factors, in the conclusion of his 187-page book.

The work is the result of an initiative by university administrators in the late 1980s to sponsor a 30-year retrospective of the campus. Because he was trying to finish a book on politics 15 years in the making, Broesamle only reluctantly signed on as author in 1988 out of fear the CSUN history would die because no other faculty members volunteered.

To CSUN's credit, Broesamle says he was promised academic freedom in writing the book and "that went unchallenged and unquestioned." One thousand copies were printed by the university's own Santa Susana Press, and more than 400 have been sold in the past several months, enough for the book to already break even, university officials said.

The book weaves its story relying on the accounts of 43 past and present administrators, faculty members and students interviewed by Broesamle, newspaper accounts over the period, and university documents, although he said the latter were in short supply. The book is divided into chapters that roughly deal with decade-long periods.

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It no doubt will surprise some to learn that CSUN's founders had serious visions of building their institution into "the Harvard of the West," writes Broesamle, a 52-year-old Ojai resident. But they were to be disappointed, as were others who had hoped to see the place evolve as a small and intimate liberal arts college.

Over the years, Broesamle concludes, CSUN has suffered from a system that made state colleges poor relations to the better funded University of California schools. Additionally, the university itself has failed to make clear choices about its future, and has had to endure coming into being only after such local behemoths as UCLA and USC were already well established.

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Those weighty issues aside, the book also paints a colorful history of the Northridge campus. And to the good, Broesamle says of the university, "Given its slender resources, the remarkable thing is the number and diversity of roles which Northridge carries out with competence and even distinction."

One story in the book has hopeful backers of a San Fernando Valley college site in the 1950s aiding their cause by holding a dinner for about two dozen state legislators at the Brown Derby restaurant. And accounts from the 1970s recall nude streakers making the front page of the campus newspaper and a pig being sponsored for homecoming queen.

But the campus' "one defining moment," Broesamle said in an interview, indisputably came on Nov. 4, 1968, when a group of black students seized the college president's office, holding him and about three dozen employees for about three hours and thrusting the campus into the national spotlight during a time of student unrest and protests.

The episode was sparked by discontent over an earlier incident in which a white volunteer football coach at the college kicked or shoved a black player during a game to get him back on the sideline. Frustrated with a lack of response to their complaints, the black students rounded up a group of administrators and marched them to the president's office.

In the end, the students forced the president to sign an agreement committing to establish an Afro-American studies department on campus, recruit more minority students and employees and not press charges against the protesters. The affirmative action policies came to pass, but 28 students were later prosecuted for kidnaping and false imprisonment.

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