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Libraries Open New Chapter at Chapman

August 16, 2004|Joel Rubin | Times Staff Writer

Books were on James L. Doti's mind 13 years ago when he stepped to the lectern for his inaugural address as president of Chapman University.

"I said then that key to Chapman's future would be building a new library," Doti recalled. "It took awhile, but we did it."

Chapman officials expect that when classes begin at the end of the month, the doors will open at the $25-million Leatherby Libraries -- the nearly complete centerpiece to a multimillion-dollar overhaul of the university nestled in Old Towne Orange.

Doti and his newly hired library dean, Charlene M. Baldwin, say the new building is a crucial element to the school's push for academic excellence.

Baldwin's excitement is palpable as she race-walks through the five-story, 100,000-square-foot building. She points proudly to the Internet portals that will connect 175 computer stations and presses her face against the window of a locked multimedia room to see if the plasma television has been installed.

The building, named after one of Orange County's leading philanthropic families, which donated $3 million to the project, will house nine libraries for various disciplines.

Perhaps most striking is the starkly designed room on the top floor to hold texts and databases for the school's Holocaust studies program.

The building will hold about 200,000 volumes, a total that can't compare with the 1.5 million at UC Irvine's main Langson Library.

The library, which will open after 66 weeks of construction, is at the center of the campus and replaces a two-story building that was 37 years old and one-fourth the size.

"We cannot expect to attract first-rate students and faculty without providing a first-rate library," Baldwin said.

The new library is the latest addition in a campaign to redefine Chapman. In the 1970s and 1980s, it teetered on the edge of collapse as a debt-ridden college that enrolled anyone able to pay tuition. But under Doti, Chapman has expanded into a university with accredited law and business schools, new buildings and an endowment nearing $150 million.

With the growth have come students who average 1,200 points on the SAT, a 200-point increase over the last decade, a jump unmatched by any American university, according to Doti.

Along with the library, construction crews also are putting the final touches on a new interfaith center for religious study, a student dormitory and expansion of the school's music center.

In October, the university will break ground on a $32-million film-school facility that is expected to significantly raise the program's stature.

Chapman's evolution has not been without growing pains -- the roughest at the law school. After opening in 1995, it twice failed to gain accreditation, and its founding dean resigned within two years. In 1998, after improvements to the law library and increased academic rigor, the American Bar Assn. accredited the law school.

More recently, Chapman abandoned plans in March to merge with Western University of Health Sciences in Pomona when the two schools could not resolve differences over power sharing and the name of the combined school. The merger would have greatly expanded Chapman's relatively undeveloped science programs.

None of this, however, is on Baldwin's mind these days. She said she is too preoccupied overseeing moving crews as they wheel shrink-wrapped carts filled with books and other items into the new library.

Striding into the sunlit lobby of her new domain, Baldwin smiled at the smell of fresh paint. "A library should be more than just at the physical center of a campus. It should be its intellectual heart as well."

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