Building a university
On its 10th anniversary, CSU Channel Islands ahead of its time
By Hannah Guzik 08/30/2012
When J. Handel Evans arrived in Ventura County, he was told to build a university.
He was told there was no money. He was told there was no suitable land. He was told there wasn’t even much community support.
There was only him, and a handful of backers, and the dream of having a university for the young adults in the region.
At the time, January of 1996, this was the largest county in the state without a four-year, public college. Plans had been in the works since 1965, when the state Senate passed a bill calling for a university here, but the plans kept falling through, again and again.
The California State University system had spent years preparing to build a campus on a Ventura hillside near downtown, only to have newly elected City Council members scrap the idea at the 11th hour.
And so, in the mid ’90s, fed up and eager, CSU officials told Evans they had waited long enough. It was time to build California State University, Channel Islands.
It was his job to figure out how.
Evans did just that, in the span of six years, securing the Camarillo State Mental Hospital after then-Gov. Pete Wilson elected to shut it down to save cash. Evans, the university’s planning president, built faculty housing near the entrance of the campus and used the income to finance remodels of classrooms. He attended every Rotary and Soroptimist meeting, drumming up support for the new school. He turned his nothing into CSUCI.
The university that almost wasn’t is turning 10 this month, and as administrators and alumni celebrate how far the campus has come in its short life, we’re taking a look back at its history and the people who have shaped it along the way.
This is the story of the university that grew out of the community, and of the setbacks, revelations and sweat along the way. More than 6,800 students have now graduated from the college, some winning national accolades, some quietly going about their professional lives. They are artists, teachers, doctors, scientists and actors. They live and work among us, but, 10 years ago, they likely would have headed somewhere else for college, or simply not have gone at all.
Searching for land
It all started on Aug. 24, 2002, when the campus welcomed its first students. As the 500 transfer students milled around the buildings still in the process of being converted from hospital to classroom, university president Richard R. Rush took a deep breath.
“The first day, I thought, ‘Wow, what an opportunity this is,’ and, then, ‘Holy cow, are we going to make it in a timely manner?’ ” he said. “Today I am deeply gratified by all the people that I serve here with and by the community. We were able to make it happen.”
The idea of building a public university in Ventura County actually began with a death, about 100 years before the doors opened on One University Drive in Camarillo. In 1911, Nancy Ann Donohoo Taylor, owner of the Taylor Ranch property on the hillside near the Ventura River and Highway 33, willed a third of her assets to the founding of a university in the county. But in the days following her passing, her children successfully contested that portion of her will, and the hope of building the college in the immediate future died too.
It took more than 50 years for the idea to take hold again. When Robert J. Lagomarsino, a Ventura native, was elected to the California Senate, he began to champion the cause at the state level.
“I just thought that because of Ventura County’s size and importance and the fact that we’ve always been leaders in many things, that we should have a university,” he said. “I thought there should be a state institution somewhere between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara.”
Lagomarsino, who later served in the U.S. House of Representatives, and Assemblyman Burt Hansen co-authored Senate Bill 288, calling for the establishment of a four-year college in Ventura County.
Gov. Pat Brown authorized a site study and, four years later, CSU officials bought 425 acres in Simi Valley for the future university. It was to be the first of three sites they would try to build on, before finally finding the fourth, which happened to have buildings already on it.
By 1975, then-Gov. Jerry Brown decided to sell the Simi Valley site to help the cash-strapped state, netting more than $3 million for the property, but setting the future CSUCI back yet again.
The CSU system funded another site study, searching for a home for the university. In 1988, the CSU Board of Trustees started negotiating to build on a portion of Taylor Ranch, the same property Nancy Taylor once owned. They drew up plans, they assessed the environmental impact, they lobbied the city for support.
But again, it was not meant to be. Two years into the negotiations, newly elected members on the Ventura City Council nixed the idea, citing a wide range of complaints, including that the university might damage the hillside. After that, Evans said he heard a medley of complaints, from the worry that students might encroach on secret surfing spots to the concern that the college might cause traffic snarls in the city.
“I heard all sorts of rumors,” Evans said. “I never did find out what the real reasons were.”
Building from nothing
Two sites shot down, CSU officials were wondering if they would ever find a place to build their university in Ventura County. After forming a 35-member community panel to evaluate building options in 1990, they moved to acquire part of a lemon orchard, the Duntley/Chaffee property on Central Avenue in Camarillo.
“I was sent out here because, at the end of ’95, they decided they were going to make one more swing at it,” Evans recalled.
When Evans arrived, he remembers there being a lot of lemon trees and little hope of building there.
“There were 200 acres of lemon trees that people were talking about making into a campus, and the problem was, when I was given the assignment, I was told I had to do this and there was no money,” he said.
It was the closing of the mental health hospital, about which Evans had terribly mixed emotions, that offered him the answer he had been seeking.
Erich Pearson (center) was among the first three graduates in May 2003.
He remebers enjoying the tiny class sizes at the time.
“I can’t tell you how divided this community was about the closing of the hospital,” he said. “People had been in there for 30 years, having come with brain injuries as children, and their parents had brought them there from all over the country and then settled into Ventura County. Now they were being moved.”
The hospital had about 700 patients and 1,500 staff members, so it was extremely expensive to run, Evans recalled. Even though the governor had made the decision, when the university expressed interest in the property, it was accused of helping to close the hospital. Evans said that couldn’t have been further from the truth and, had it been his decision, he would have acted differently.
“It was a very, very sad occasion,” he said. “I went to a number of the public hearings and, I have to tell you, from my perspective, I would not have closed the hospital.”
Still, when the decision was made, Evans saw an opportunity. He was trained as an architect and, a few years earlier, had helped convert a military fort into CSU Monterey Bay.
The state corrections department was also vying for the hospital property so it could build a prison. But, Evans recalled, the community stepped in.
“The people of Ventura County thought it would make a better university th an a prison, so we started to work on acquiring the hospital,” he said.
He went out on what he calls “the rubber-chicken circuit,” visiting every major community club meeting and trying to sell the idea.
“Eventually, things prevailed and we actually took over the site,” he said.
Then-state Sen. Jack O’Connell, a longtime advocate of the university, proposed legislation allowing the university to develop the front of the campus with faculty housing.
The rents and proceeds from the construction were used to offset the costs of the university, finally allowing the campus to blossom.
“We were going around garnering support, and eventually that support turned into a torrent and people started to rally around, and we got quite a large amount of money to support facilities.”
O’Connell said his family’s history with the property dates back more than 50 years. His mother worked as a nurse at the state hospital and he can remember her leaving their Oxnard home in the mornings and saying, “I’m going to work at the campus.”
“She always called it that, even back then in the ’60s,” he said. “She said it would make a beautiful college campus some day.”
Ruth O’Connell Kent, now 87 and living in an assisted-living facility in Camarillo, was thrilled to see the university open and served on a university advisory committee for several years prior, O’Connell said.
“She’s very, very proud of that campus,” he said.
The university opened its doors just five years after acquiring the land, a feat O’Connell calls “the miracle on Lewis Road.”
Graduating first, Erich Pearson was among the first three graduates of the university, in May 2003. All three transferred in to the university and had just a year left of classes.
Pearson remembers enjoying the tiny class sizes, sometimes with only seven or so. CSUCI has nearly doubled in size to 1,200 acres and has undergone more than $223 million in building and renovation projects to transform the dilapidated 1930s hospital.
But because the university is relatively small compared to others in the CSU system, it is still known for having a close-knit culture, similar to that of private schools.
The university has also provided a path to college for some who might not have made it otherwise. About 27 percent of those admitted are first-generation college students.
Anchored just minutes from Oxnard, the campus also serves that city’s large Latino population. CSUCI has been designated as one of only 293 Hispanic Serving Institutions in the nation by the U.S. Department of Education for having more than 25 percent Hispanic enrollment.
Since graduating in 2007, Kosta Grammitis (left) has spoken at the UN and TEDx as well as several space and communications conferences. Projects he has worked on have been awarded TIME’s best invention of 2009, Vodaphone’s Wireless Innovation Award and a Google Innovation Grant.
About 48 percent of students come from Ventura County, and 87 percent of graduates say they plan to remain in the area, according to CSUCI. The university says it has created more than 1,200 jobs, helping to boost the local economy by approximately $144 million.
But the distinction Rush is most proud of, aside from the fact that the university was able to open at all, is that it received accreditation from the Western Association for Schools and Colleges at the earliest date possible and for the longest period possible. The WASC reviewers told university officials that they were creating a “campus of innovation,” showing an “institution-wide commitment to and implementation of learning-centered practices that place it far ahead of many much older and better-established universities within the CSU, state and nation.”
Creating a degree
A number of CSUCI graduates have received distinction, but one standout is Kosta Grammatis. The 27-year-old, who graduated in 2007, has spoken at the United Nations and TEDx, as well as numerous space and communications conferences. Projects he has worked on have been awarded TIME’s best invention of 2009, Vodaphone’s Wireless Innovation Award and a Google Innovation Grant.
Grammatis, who grew up in Simi Valley, almost didn’t make it to college, but CSUCI was one of the few schools that accepted him.
“I wasn’t really the best student, but after a few professors caught on to the work that I wanted to do, I received a research grant and I was allowed to do my own thing, which I don’t think you get to do at other universities,” he said.
The science buff created his own major, sought internships and won the CSU research competition two years in a row for a platform he built in the sky to do pesticide research.
CSUCI President Richard R. Rush
Since graduating, he’s worked on projects involving bionic eyes, satellites and spacecraft, and is now the founder of A Human Right, a nonprofit that works to ensure that people who want Internet access can receive it.
Had the university not taken a chance on a student with poor grades but aptitude, it might have been a different story, Grammatis said.
“If I didn’t have my experience at CSUCI, I doubt I would be where I am today,” he said. “I’d probably be dead or something — I certainly wouldn’t be living my life to the fullest extent. CSUCI helped me realize my potential.”
Evans likes to think the university is helping thousands of students realize the same thing, in their own way. But the story of the university that almost wasn’t isn’t over yet, and the next chapters won’t be easy. There is, once again, very little money, this time due to the economic recession. There are still repairs to be done, buildings to be constructed and new majors to be added.
This time around, though, there is a wealth of community support. And there is a university, where before there was none. There are students learning each semester. There are graduates going off and shaping the world. And that, as far as Evans is concerned, is a lot.
“On that first day I arrived, I didn’t know how we were going to pull it off, but I think after a few weeks and a few months went by, I got so much support from the community that I knew we would do it,” he said. “We just had a lucky streak.”