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CSU Vote Paves Way for Ventura County Campus


LONG BEACH — Ending a decades-long wait, California State University trustees took a crucial step Wednesday toward launching a public university in Ventura County by agreeing to take control of a shuttered mental hospital in Camarillo and convert it into a college campus.

The unanimous decision by the 24-member Cal State governing board brought a standing ovation from dozens of university boosters on hand for the historic vote, and even reduced a few longtime supporters to tears.

"This is the milestone we have been waiting for for so long," said Ventura business leader Carolyn Leavens, struggling to maintain her composure after the decision. "It's as if we have been holding our breath for such a long time."

The trustees' vote, contingent on the governor's willingness to contribute $6.5 million next year for operating expenses, comes more than 30 years after Cal State University officials first targeted Ventura County as the future home for a four-year campus.

After repeated setbacks, Cal State planners last year began drawing up a blueprint for taking over the 720-acre Camarillo State Hospital complex of Spanish-style buildings and turning it into the university system's 23rd campus.

Yet Wednesday's board action stopped short of immediately converting the now-shuttered hospital into a full-fledged, four-year university to be called Cal State Channel Islands.

Instead, Cal State officials agreed that the hospital will first become the new home for the Ventura County satellite campus of Cal State Northridge, which now holds mostly evening and weekend classes for about 1,400 full- and part-time students.

Under the plan, it will remain an extension of Cal State Northridge until it attracts enough enrollment--about 6,000 full- and part-time students--and funding to support itself.

Still, Cal State planners were delighted to finally get moving on the long-delayed plans, saying they expect student population to swell when the new campus opens in early 1999 and offers a broader curriculum.

"It's been so difficult at times to get here," said Handel Evans, president of the developing Ventura County campus. "But through it all, we kept reminding ourselves that the goal was to provide educational services for people who do not have them. What finer goal can you have?"

Indeed, Ventura County is the most populous county in the state without a four-year public university. And despite its relative affluence, it lags far behind counties of comparable size and wealth when it comes to shepherding students to college.

Armed with such information, more than 50 university supporters turned out Wednesday to show their support for the campus, wearing red-and-white buttons that read "Yes! CSUCI YES!" Nine of them got a chance to speak before the vote.

"This is a great opportunity for myself and for my fellow students," Ventura High School junior Josh Medrano told the trustees. "It is an opportunity to better our futures, and the futures of our children. Please pass this project; we desperately need it."

The delegation was led by a trio of state legislators--Sen. Jack O'Connell and Assemblymen Brooks Firestone (R-Los Olivos) and Nao Takasugi (R-Oxnard)--each of whom urged university trustees to push forward with the proposal.

In fact, O'Connell, a San Luis Obispo Democrat, has written a bill to transfer the hospital property to the Cal State University system and allocate an additional $607,000 to accelerate plans for the conversion. That bill was approved by the Legislature earlier this month and is awaiting Gov. Pete Wilson's signature.

"This is a major, major step in the history of Ventura County," O'Connell told the trustees. "It really is a golden opportunity for our area, and you have the strong support of the Ventura County community."

As the conversion proposal made its way through the planning process over the past year, some Cal State officials raised concerns about the level of community support for the budding campus.

Earlier this year, Trustee William D. Campbell of Newport Beach questioned the community's commitment to a new campus, recalling past battles over proposed sites for the state university.

But Campbell said Wednesday he was convinced, in part by the large turnout, that Ventura County was now ready to embrace a university campus.

"I thought it was wonderful," said Campbell, who along with the other trustees joined the standing ovation that followed the board's vote. "It was the culmination of a lot of work and effort on the part of the community, and I have to applaud them for that."

The scene outside the board room after the vote was one of sheer jubilation. Civic leaders and legislators pumped fists in the air, traded hugs and handshakes, and then sought Evans to offer congratulations.

"Way to go!" said Takasugi. "This was a big one."

"Thank you," Evans responded. "Now send money."

The campus president was only half-joking. Although the trustees' action sets the stage for launching the Ventura County campus, the real test will come next year when legislators hammer out the fiscal 1998-99 budget.

That budget is expected to include the $6.5 million needed to operate the campus on the grounds of the state hospital. And if it does, Cal State officials will then start moving onto the site.

"This is a huge, huge load off our shoulders," Evans said. "But it's really just the end of one phase and the start of another. Really what we have now is a campus. Now we've got to build a university."

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