September 25, 1998 Vol. III, No. 3

The Early Years: Family Feeling and a Chance to Begin Anew

Excerpted from Suddenly a Giant: A History of California State University, Northridge
by John Broesamle
Reprinted by permission.

Students began arriving in droves. By the time San Fernando Valley State debuted as a college in its own right in the fall of 1958, it already had 3,526 of them. A campus-wide vote had confirmed that students would identify themselves as Matadors, with colors red and whiteŠ.

"We used to call it 'the friendly campus,'" ["Red"] Williams [Director of Admissions] remembersŠ.

Under [Dean Delmar] Oviatt's direction, an entire lower division curriculum had to be created. New majors developed continually. Unlike today's academic arrangement by schools, the academic realm was originally broken down into divisions, each of them under a chair.

Faculty and administrators saw each other constantly. Originally, for instance, there were weekly meetings of the 40 instructors. When registration occurred, the whole faculty appeared, since registration and counseling were considered their responsibilities. Registration kept going until all the students had programs, even if this meant running into the night. Apparently no qualified student was turned away.

The pace of things was frenetic. "I think," Williams recalls, that the first catalog was put together "in a week."

Among the faculty-comparable in total number to one of today's good-size departments-spirits ran high. "There was a lot of socializing," [Education professor Betty] Brady recalls. "People socialized across department and discipline lines because we were a small group." They made efforts to invent instant traditions. "There was a sense of great pride."

Most of the founding faculty had known each other at L.A. State, and the new campus displayed such élan in part, [English professor John] Stafford observes, precisely "because we all knew each other and agreed on many things. We exchanged opinions on matters fromŠmany different points of view. Academically, it was much more stimulating than to have just or mainly your own department people that you talked with."

Colleagues didn't peer over one another's shoulders. Keeping the unit requirements for majors within bounds, faculty encouraged students to take courses in different fields.

"It was a time of much more optimism," Stafford continues. "Everything was new. We could do things more as we wanted to and as we thought would be academically justified. I think we had a feeling that we had the chance to make of this a great institution,Šsomething we could do with much more optimism at that time because it looked as though the state would be financing the institutions better."

For a few years, anything seemed possible, a rare chance to begin afresh: new college, new curriculum, new career. Many spoke, and seriously, of turning this into the Harvard of the WestŠ.

"One of the remarkable things when we got started," [English professor Mitchell] Marcus points out, "was the cooperation between administration and faculty." ŠDuring the days before a Faculty Senate emerged, an ecumenical "General Faculty" concept briefly flourished-the general faculty drawing together professors, administrators, librarians, and highly placed staff. There was even a faculty-staff-student dance band.

In a way, it all resembled a family. John Stafford, for example, describes it thus. Before arriving in 1958, he had taught at an array of universities in this country and abroad without experiencing the closeness of the early setting at Valley State.

Spouses fittedŠ right into the family. Some of the wives organized shopping pools.

But Stafford adds this: "At times, later, when we grew larger, the administration would use the term 'family' to keepŠthe faculty from saying what it should say. It was 'family' in a more repressive sense." He found Oviatt to be especially fond of the family metaphor in this second meaning. "We were a family, and he wasŠkind of [the] patriarch of the family."

Additional undercurrents ran here and there. From the beginning, as Stafford puts it, there erupted "the usual interdisciplinary battles." Partly offsetting these, "we got so that we could discuss all kinds of opposing opinions, and even humorously at times, without offending anyone and without feeling that we had to be especially diplomatic about it. It made faculty meetings much easier because we already knew pretty much what opinions would be."

Other things proved nagging, though. Like a low-grade virus, mediocre salaries became a perennial issue. There was also the inordinate number of students per faculty member (the "student-faculty ratio"). And-though at least some faculty thought it might lighten in time-the 12-hour teaching load hung over each semester like a gray cloudŠ.

In retrospect, the family or community era was a relatively brief period in the university's history. Those who had experienced it much lament its passing, but conventional academic concerns increasingly began to hold sway.

"I found that the faculty were primarily interested in their discipline," [then President Ralph] Prator comments, "that the institution as a whole was down the ladder of importance as far as they were concerned. And therefore to keep the concept of the institution as a whole in the foreground, the members of the administrative staff had to take a very strong position with respect to this idea, sometimes in conflict with what the faculty would like."

September 25, 1998

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