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Interview

VAL/INTERVIEW/1stjc/mark2nd By WADE DANIELS Contributing Reporter Cal State Northridge President Blenda J. Wilson is credited with successfully guiding the university through perhaps its greatest crisis the Jan. 17, 1994 earthquake that damaged most of its major buildings and threatened cancellation of the spring semester. Wilson marshaled near- and far-flung contacts to find temporary classroom structures so school could continue. Now the school faces another crisis. It’s called “Tidal Wave II” and it refers to the crush of children of Baby Boomers reaching their college years. In fact, the wave has already hit CSUN, Wilson says, with so many applications submitted for fall that the school stopped accepting them in mid-March rather than the usual June or July (current enrollment is 26,104). As this takes place, CSUN and other public schools are grappling with a projected decline of funds for public education over the next 10 years, from about 10 percent of the state’s general fund to about 5 percent. In strategizing to ease this funding squeeze, CSUN plans to lease 20 of 65 underused acres it owns north of campus to a developer who would build a 220,000 square-foot shopping complex called University MarketCenter. Wilson says the project will yield the university about $1 million a year in usable funds at virtually no risk. Question: You wrote recently that the MarketCenter development will retain business being lost to other upscale developments in places like Pasadena and Santa Monica. Why is that? Answer: Santa Monica and Pasadena are developing more responsive ways of attracting business to their communities. The kinds of tenants that our developer has talked to about locating on the north campus are very desirable tenants. Q: Such as? A: The example that has been used is something like a Bristol Farms or something like an OfficeMax or Office Depot. We cannot be specific about names because they’re not willing to sign contracts until they know we’re going to build. The issue is, if they don’t come here they will go to other towns or parts of the Valley that are trying to attract them. Most of the stores in the Reseda corridor, other than large supermarkets, are stores that are 1,500 or 2,500, perhaps 10,000 square feet, max. We’re talking about the anchor tenants (at MarketCenter) being in facilities that are 25,000 to 50,000 square feet. There is not that kind of land available on Reseda at all other than the land we have. Q: Some merchants along the Reseda Corridor are still concerned that this will not benefit them and might hurt them. After dozens of meetings about the project, has the gap narrowed? A: What I’ve been reading in letters to the editor or people who are quoted, is about a half dozen voices … and I don’t think it’s unfair to say that their opinions are strong and they have presented them frequently and in a public way. Last Thursday or Friday, the United Chambers (of the San Fernando Valley) group had a discussion where they asked that we do more planning around the project, and even that was a 19 to 14 vote with four people abstaining. So it was not a uniform majority of the United Chambers groups. I don’t dispute that there’s an impression that there’s a considerable amount of opposition. But our analysis suggests that it really is quite localized around a few issues, the environmental impact being most important, and to a certain extent a fear within the retail community that this would be competitive with existing business. Q: I spoke with a professor on campus here who suggested that it is an odd way for a state educational institution to raise money by leasing out state land for a retail center. What do you say to that? A: I think it does seem odd to people in Northridge and perhaps to people who have been in California for a long time, where for the most part until very recently the state was able to provide very generous resources for higher education. California has been advantaged for many years in its growth of an exquisite higher education system based almost entirely on state funds. If you were to go any place else in the United States, you would find that the development of university-owned land for a variety of purposes, including income which is what our development is about is not at all uncommon or new. The question is, when you have a very rapidly increasing enrollment demand and an almost certain decline in state resources, what are your alternatives? One is to raise student fees, which the public has said they don’t want to do. Another is to do private fund raising, which we and every other institution are going to do in a more professional serious way. And the third is to use what investment people call “idle assets,” and these are idle and ugly assets which have remained idle and ugly for 40 years while people speculate about what might be a wonderful thing to build on the land with resources the university doesn’t have. Q: CSUN has the fifth largest business school in the nation, with more than 5,000 undergraduates and a few hundred graduate students. Is there any customizing of the curriculum or programs to suit local needs? A: What I know is that in the last couple of years the school of business and economics has done a strategic plan analyzing their program in relation to the needs of major industries that graduates would be likely to enter. The most immediate, interesting and I hope fruitful such example is a collaboration between the College of Business and Economics, the College of Engineering and Computer Science and the College of Arts, Media and Communication. (This would) identify all of the post-high school and community college career lines, jobs and positions that would be required by the entertainment industry, since we see that as the anchor industry, if you will, by comparison with defense and aerospace in years past. The three colleges actually were meeting today with the human resource people from DreamWorks to make sure that the curriculum that is designed for our entertainment institute reflects the kind of training and kind of skills that DreamWorks and other companies see a need for. Q: While we’re talking about keeping the university in touch with the community’s needs, I’m told you host salons at your house. A: I host about four a year with a provocative speaker to spark conversation, and everything is off the record and non-partisan. They are contemporary issues rather than educational issues, per se. For example, we had a discussion recently about Valley secession and invited legislators, community leaders and obviously faculty and students, some alumni. Q: In the long wake of the 1994 Northridge earthquake, I see that CSUN is still operating with a fair number of bungalows such as the one we’re sitting in, your office. Is the study process still impeded by the damage? A: No. The educational process is not impeded at all. If anything, it has been enhanced because those aspects of the university that required specialized equipment or laboratories or technology have been repaired at a higher level of state of the art than they were before. Q: For example? A: We’ve wired all of our buildings that have been repaired with fiber optic cables so computer access is available where it wasn’t before. In our business education complex our classrooms are smart classrooms, with video and television monitors and the ability for faculty members to use … overhead projection as they teach. Q: There’s a good deal of attention to your performance here at CSUN from your peers in the academic world. Apparently, there is talk that farther on down the road you might end up administering an Ivy League school. A: (Laughs) No. I don’t think so. I worked at an Ivy League school, I worked at Harvard for 10 years as the associate dean for the graduate school of education, so I know what that’s like. My personal commitment as an educator is to comprehensive urban universities.. I mean large multi-purpose universities that have large undergraduate programs and some graduate programs and an age range of 16 to 80, with programs that are pure research, basic research as well as applied research…. All of those things I like about Cal State Northridge. SPOTLIGHT: Profile: Blenda J. Wilson Snapshot: Position: President of California State University at Northridge Born: Perth Amboy, N.J., 1941 Education: Ph.D, Higher Education Administration, Boston College, 1979; Institute for Educational Management, Harvard Business School, 1970; M.A., Education, Seton Hall University, 1965; B.A., English, Secondary Education, Cedar Crest College, 1962 Most Admired Person: Her mother, Margaret Wilson. “If my mother were born in a later generation she would have been the president of the United States.” Personal: Married, no children

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