PALM DESERT — The drill for building a new state university campus usually goes like this:
The local community argues the need for it, lobbies the state for approval and money, and then waits years for something to happen, getting in line behind everyone else who wants to build a new campus or improve an existing one.
Sometimes, the process can be speeded up if an existing facility can be renovated. In Ventura County, the California State University system is converting Camarillo State Hospital into a university campus; in Monterey, it acquired the old Ft. Ord Army base.
But in Palm Desert, supporters of higher education don't want to wait in line.
They want to build a college campus the really old-fashioned way--from the ground up, and with private money.
Thanks to $9 million in private gifts and a donation of land from the city of Palm Desert, civic boosters believe they are on their way to creating their own California State University campus, and the only four-year college in the Coachella Valley. For the time being, the contributions are helping develop permanent college facilities operated by Cal State San Bernardino on land along Interstate 10.
No other public university campus in California has been launched exclusively with private funds, state officials say.
"Not very often do you have the chance to do something like this--start a new university," said Peter Wilson, the college administrator overseeing the project.
A growing number of upper-division college degrees have been offered in the valley since 1986, when Cal State San Bernardino opened a small satellite campus with 80 students on the grounds of the local community college, College of the Desert.
Wilson was named dean of that campus in 1990, and has watched its enrollment grow to 800. So congested are the temporary facilities that some students attend college classes at night at a nearby middle school.
Wilson and others believe enrollment will skyrocket when the Coachella Valley satellite campus of Cal State San Bernardino can move into its new building on Frank Sinatra Drive at Interstate 10.
Officials hope to begin construction of the building in August, with an anticipated December 2001 completion date.
The fledgling campus will remain, perhaps for years, a Cal State satellite; the establishment of an independent Cal State Palm Desert is not currently on CSU's radar screen.
"Demonstration of community support and commitment helps in establishing new campuses," said Richard West, senior vice chancellor for business and finance for the university system. "But there are no plans at this time to make it a separate campus. It's too early for that. In the future, if the region's growth sustains itself, it might be worth doing."
Still, the success in privately financing the permanent satellite campus speaks volumes about the commitment the region has for establishing its own, independent public university.
"Our city has been blessed with financial resources, and we want to use them for the betterment of the future of the valley's citizens," said Palm Desert Mayor Buford Crites. "Of all the things a city can invest in, for the economy of both our own city and the entire region, the single best investment is education. Shopping malls and car dealerships come and go, but a university is permanent, and will benefit a community for 100 years and more."
The benefactors who have contributed the start-up funds agree. They, along with educators, hope the campus will serve local high school graduates, including many who could not afford to go away to college.
"I've been to graduations, and I've heard Rhodes scholars--including women who had to put themselves through school--speak about the value of education, and I just think we should make it as easy as possible for people to go to school," said Florence Rigdon, a Rancho Mirage resident who donated $1 million toward the effort.
"It's virtually impossible for a lot of kids in the valley to go to college now, and this will be a tremendous opportunity for them," she said. "It isn't that I have all that much money--probably a lot less than others out here--but I've been careful with it, and always dreamed of being able to do this one day, to see the valley grow, and getting a university here, putting us on the map."
The same spirit enveloped other benefactors.
The initial $3-million gift for the campus was made in June 1997 by the Mary Stuart Rogers Foundation. Funded by its namesake, an heir of the Carnation Co., the Modesto-based foundation has contributed to other educational projects around the state, and has long offered scholarships to students in the Coachella Valley.
In April 1998, the R.D. and Joan Dale Hubbard Foundation contributed $500,000. R.D. Hubbard was founder of AFG Industries, a window glass manufacturer, and was chairman and chief executive officer of the Hollywood Park Racetrack until its sale six months ago. He is the majority owner of the Big Horn Golf Club in Palm Desert.