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CSUN at 40 / 1958 -- 1998

Mirror of a Changing Valley

The shifts--both cultural and geographic--that have shaped Cal State Northridge through its first four decades reflect the transforming landscape and population of the region it serves.


NORTHRIDGE — Del Stelck turned onto Nordhoff Street on a hot August day more than 40 years ago to report for duty as a professor of history at what was then the San Fernando Valley branch of Los Angeles State College.

He saw a squash field. When he turned down a dirt road marked "Zelzah," a tree limb blocked the path. He had to get out of his Chevy station wagon and move it before he could go on.

At last, he spotted a flagpole.

"I figured that I must be there, then," Stelck remembered. "I knew there wasn't going to be much. I spent my first hours on campus jumping across ditches."

Today, more than 27,000 students attend the school. Around that flagpole, more than 100 buildings have sprouted on 353 acres. More than 1,400 faculty and 1,700 staff work there.

"This place grew more rapidly than any other place I've ever heard of," said Blenda J. Wilson, president of Cal State Northridge.

The same could be said of the San Fernando Valley. The Valley that was home to horse farms and orange trees--with groves once covering 15,000 acres of land here--now has about 1.3 million residents, enough people to form the sixth-largest city in the country.

But the metamorphosis of CSUN--as well as the Valley--is about more than numbers. It is a modern American tale:

* In four short decades, tens of thousands of people received college educations they would not have had access to before.

* Almost all of the first students were white, and now more than 60% are other races and ethnicities.

* Both the university and the surrounding Valley rebounded from a devastating earthquake faster than anyone could have imagined.

The saga started in 1955 when the Valley branch of Los Angeles State College, which eventually became Cal State Los Angeles, held classes in rented space at San Fernando High School. Three years later, on July 1, 1958, the satellite program broke away to become San Fernando Valley State College.

From the beginning, Valley State served the nontraditional student. Classes were filled with housewives returning to school and men just out of the service. The students generally were older than the professors. The common joke--based on observation--was that professors had to look both ways before crossing the street for fear of being run over by a student on his way to work.

Even the campus site was selected to serve students who couldn't live in dorms away from home for reasons of finance, family or both. Nearly everyone commuted.

If students were diverse in terms of age, gender and background, race was a different matter.

The bustling iconic suburbia of "Leave It to Beaver" was firmly entrenched by the mid-'60s in the Valley, a place where politicians still said "Los Anjeleez."

Restrictive housing covenants and common practice made sure this particular American dream was almost lily-white. The results were reflected in the complexion of Valley State. As late as 1967, only 23 blacks were enrolled at the campus of 15,600 students. Eleven students were Latino.

When the social upheaval of the 1960s reached Valley State, it may have caused a greater shock than at institutions with longer traditions of protest, such as UC Berkeley.

So when African American students angry about underrepresentation of "blacks and browns" at Valley State took 34 staff and administration personnel hostage in November 1968, the campus, the city and even the nation were stunned. If unrest could reach the Valley, the thinking went, it could reach anywhere.

"Uneasy Peace at Valley State," declared a Life magazine spread, complete with black-and-white photos of grim students and anxious administrators.

Some Valley State faculty supported the students, even choosing to march with them in protest as the Vietnam War dragged on. But on some parts of campus, as in the Valley as a whole, the so-called Generation Gap remained wide.

"I think many of us just couldn't understand what the protesters were trying to say," said Stelck, now 78 and retired.

A farm boy from Iowa, Stelck and thousands of other World War II veterans had attended college on the GI Bill. "Many of us had been so grateful just to be able to go to school that as students we wouldn't have ever complained. When I went to college, I was so happy I would have kissed the ground under me."

But the Vietnam War and the GI Bill generations did share something in common--at least at Valley State.

Just as the GI Bill helped the nontraditional student, so did California's Master Plan for Higher Education, which mandated that Valley State and other California State University schools educate students who fell in the top third of their high school classes. The top 12% of high school students were directed to the more prestigious University of California.

"I think the California Master Plan for Higher Education was one of the most brilliant strategies I've ever seen," Wilson said. "I think it changed education."

It also changed society, helping to usher in an era in which a high school education alone was no longer enough.

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