NORTHRIDGE — Just in time for the fall semester of 1956, as Dwight Eisenhower sat in the White House and the first baby boomers were turning 10, a tiny, new college sprouted on a patch of squash fields and orange groves in the far-flung Los Angeles suburb of Northridge.
The campus, now a busy hub for more than 25,000 students and a key player in the California State University system, begins its fifth decade of classes today.
But despite enormous advances in prestige and size, Cal State Northridge at its 40th anniversary faces hard financial choices, growing friction with its neighbors and lingering trouble from the 1994 earthquake.
And on the academic side, there is discord in the ranks of professors over how to deal with the growing number of students who lack basic skills.
Still, administrators note that there are many reasons to be thankful.
Enrollment is creeping upward after a post-quake low, and a retail project known as the University MarketCenter will provide a much-needed source of additional revenue and opportunities for student employment.
The university plans to commemorate its birth as the San Fernando Valley Campus of Los Angeles College of Applied Arts and Sciences, an outpost of what was to become California State University at Los Angeles, with a Sept. 8 brunch to honor the original faculty. On Sept. 11, several founding faculty members and former students hope to reenact the flag-raising ceremony from the campus' opening day.
For the retired educators, it is a time of reflection, an opportunity to look back at CSUN's humble beginnings and an occasion to marvel at what it has become.
"It's been my life," said Del Stelck, a history professor from the day the college opened until his retirement in 1988. "I'm so proud of the campus and our achievements."
Bill Schlosser, a former theater professor, recalled in an interview the ankle-deep rivers of mud that would flow through campus on rainy days and the constant struggle for space. Leave for work a little late, he said, and you might be stuck beside a slow-moving freight train blocking the only routes to campus.
One of the biggest challenges then, as now, was to find a way to keep pace with the college's growth, said Stelck.
Enrollment projections were eclipsed by the thousands of students who poured into the college each fall as the years passed.
The population continued to grow pretty much unabated--reaching 31,575 students in 1988. The university blames the Northridge earthquake for much of the subsequent drop in enrollment, but Lorraine Newlon, CSUN's director of articulation, admission and records, said the numbers are creeping back up.
By late last week, student enrollment was 25,675, Newlon said. At the same date in 1994, the number was 23,461.
This year, she said, administrators expect enrollment to reach 26,500 students by the end of the registration period in September.
"The benefit to the university is not so much the numbers," said CSUN President Blenda J. Wilson, "but the encouragement and confidence that is expressed when students and families choose to send their children here when we still have visible damage from the earthquake."
Despite the encouraging signs of recovery, however, challenges remain. Quake repairs will require another two years.
And the university continues to struggle with large numbers of incoming freshmen who are unprepared for college-level English and math as well as disagreement among faculty members over how to address the problem.
Because the university trains elementary and secondary school teachers, professors should take a hard look at the methods they are espousing, said David Klein, a mathematics professor.
"The whole CSU system is the biggest teacher trainer in California," said Klein, an eight-year CSUN veteran. "What we teach our future teachers is what they're going to teach our students."
Klein, a back-to-basics proponent who criticizes new methods for teaching math as "fuzzy," is waging his battle on the Internet and in discussion groups with secondary school math teachers.
"I hope that people are going to wake up and go back to high standards," he said.
By contrast, faculty President Jim Goss said that instead of blaming grade school teachers, the university should concentrate its efforts on improving CSUN students' skills after they arrive.
"Our task is really to try to teach them so that when they leave here, they'll be the kind of graduates we've always had," he said.
Goss, chairman of the religious studies department and a professor since 1969, added that faculty members hope to increase outreach efforts at local schools and to identify "simpler things we can do to start assessing students and what their needs are before they graduate" from high school, he said.
As an example, he said potential CSUN students could take the university's required entry-level mathematics test during their junior year of high school to allow an additional year of preparation if their skills are deficient.