September 25, 1998 Vol. III, No. 3

Prator Remembers: Young College Quickly Takes Root

Institution's Founding Leader Recalls Demands for Land and Teachers to Serve Students

Editor's Note: Ralph Prator served as the founding president of San Fernando Valley State College, now Cal State Northridge, from 1958 to 1968, resigning when he felt his primary job-building the campus-was over. He presided over an era of extensive growth, with enrollment increasing from about 3,500 to about 20,000. Excepts from a recent interview with Prator follow. A different version of the interview with Prator, along with complementary interviews with the two subsequent presidents, James Cleary and Blenda J. Wilson, will appear in the fall issue of Northridge magazine.

The Pressure of Growth

In 1958 we consulted with the telephone company and the Southern California Gas Co. as to how fast the population of the Valley was going to grow. It was just explosive. So we were well aware at the outset that we were going to grow extremely rapidly and that we didn't have nearly enough land to accommodate the kind of student body that we were going to have. So we had to start almost immediately to get more land and prepare for this explosive growth.

If we were allowed to grow at the rate we projected, we would be at 50,000 students by the year 2000. And that, of course, would have meant (and at the time we knew this) we would have been the fastest growing institution at least in California history.

One blessing was that we were growing so quickly (and other state colleges were, too), that we could make contact with private facilities for building architecture [rather than going through a state agency]. We were fortunate in getting [Richard] Neutra, who was one of the nation's premiere architects, and he did the Fine Arts Building. Later on a separate architectural firm designed the rest of our buildings.

We could depart rather sharply from the normal architectural plans of other institutions like Cal State L.A. and Long Beach. Our architectural style was theoretically unique to the San Fernando Valley. For example, since it was a part of the Mexican heritage, a lot of brick was used in the early buildings, simulating the adobe concept, and we had courtyards, which were popular in that style of architecture.

Acquiring Land

One other thing was very important. We had our eye on Devonshire Downs [on what is now the North Campus] since we knew we were going to have to get a lot of property. We had to get the fair [that took place there] abolished and then get that land deeded to us.

Consequently, we had to go to Sacramento frequently to gain as much influence with the Legislature as we could. Through the efforts of Allan Miller and Lou Cusanovich, practically all the legislators in the Los Angeles area supported our efforts to get Devonshire Downs. Then we had to have 70 acres {between the existing campus and the] Devonshire Downs property. So we had to get that deeded to us and purchased.

We got something in excess of 300 acres eventually, which is what the campus has now.

One interesting sidelight. As I said, we had to have a lot of influence in Sacramento. We entertained the governor, Pat Brown, and I remember vividly taking him on a little trip when he came down to see us. We stopped at the corner of Lassen and Zelzah and looked out over this land that we hadn't yet acquired. I commented that if he stopped somewhere on Wilshire Boulevard and looked out over the existing campus of UCLA, this is what he could envision [on our campus] in about 10 years time. And he looked at me in absolute amazement and said, "You dreamer, you."

And I said, "Well, governor, with your help it can come true."

Hiring Early Faculty

In the early years, [then Dean] Del Oviatt and I would do all the recruiting. I would leave the day after New Year's and go directly to the University of Illinois. The next day I was at the University of Minnesota; the third day, at the University of Wisconsin; the fourth day, at the University of Michigan; and then the balance of the two weeks, I was at Ohio State and other institutions.

Del would go up to New York and Boston to the east. We planned this particularly because the weather was so bad back there during those weeks that when we brought the pictures of the college with the kids in their shirt sleeves, and the balmy weather, it was an aid to our recruitment. And I would see as many as 30 prospects in a day.

We were not always able to hire the best candidates because the competition was so keen. Del Oviatt said, "Our growth was such we had to hire a new faculty member every Monday and Wednesday just to keep track of the growth."

The supply is much more plentiful now than it was then. People in the sciences, physics in particular, you just couldn't find them. They were going into industry. They were paying more than we could afford to pay.

College to University

State colleges initially were considered teachers colleges, but we were growing so rapidly that we needed other majors. We were aware early that we were going to have to consider changing our status from college to university. Rather early, we had a committee called the Committee of 17 (Charles Kaplan was the chairman), and they made a study of the administrative structure that would be most pertinent to the responsibilities that we envisioned the institution having. They concluded that we were going to move from what we had at that time, divisions, to schools and colleges. We would have a School of Business, etc.

This meant that we were in reality a university and not a college any longer. A college tends to specialize in a particular mission and a university is a collection of missions.

Location, Location

We were fortunate in being located where we were in the fine arts, particularly in music. We were so close to Hollywood and these tremendous resources. We were fortunate in engineering because of our location to key industries and of course in education. The growth was so fast in the Los Angeles complex that teachers were very much in demand, and we had many services to render there.

Some of our departments tended to prosper because of the people in them. Geography, for example. I would say we probably have one of the best departments in the United States in geography.

The department chairman in education, Wayne McIntire, was instrumental in starting the deaf program. A member of his family was deaf, and he had a tremendous empathy for the welfare of this person. Since there were no services really around to speak of, he started (in a very preliminary way) this deaf program. It caught on, and his successor was very aggressive, and so the program grew like crazy.

-Mayerene Barker

September 25, 1998

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