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SMC Strong After 75 Years

By Susan Reines
Staff Writer

September 10 – It started with 153 students on the second floor of the local high school, but over the next 75 years Santa Monica College has grown into a 38-acre main campus with satellite buildings that serve 25,000 students, 2,600 from other countries.

As it ushered in its 75th birthday Friday, SMC can celebrate its standing as one of the nation’s top community colleges, boasting an emeritus college for seniors and the state's best transfer rate to the University of Southern California and the University of California.

Enrollment is high, students are being challenged and a powerful field of seven candidates is running for three seats on the College Board of Trustees in November.

"In 75 years, Santa Monica College has changed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people," said SMC President Dr. Piedad F. Robertson. "We're proud of our service to the community, our tradition of academic excellence and our alumni."

But despite the achievements, SMC faces new challenges, including grappling with the fallout from a recent budget crisis that created deep rifts between the trustees, administration and faculty.

It also must convince Santa Monica and Malibu voters -- some of whom are worried the college’s expansion is contributing to traffic and parking woes -- to approve a $135 million bond that will renovate college buildings and add play fields and educational facilities in the two communities it serves.

This is not the first time SMC -- which leaped back from a devastating earthquake in 1994 -- has faced major challenges.

In 1933, shortly after moving from the classrooms at Santa Monica High to its own building at 7th and Michigan, an earthquake rendered the college’s new home uninhabitable.

But SMC was undeterred. "Classrooms" were set up in tents and bungalows next to the defunct building, and students good-naturedly termed their new campus "Splinterville."

The number of students and course offerings grew, and the college built up its sports programs as well.

Bill Werner, an alumnus who is now a dentist in Santa Monica, recalled playing on the SMC tennis team against other community colleges during the 1949-1950 school year. The team made the national championship in Modesto that year, and Werner recalls driving there on back roads because the freeway was not yet built.

The quality of education at SMC, Werner said, was outstanding. "The teachers were on average probably at a higher level than at USC (where he transferred) -- not to take anything away from USC," he said.

One of the best professors during college was his father, who taught math at SMC for forty years, Werner said.

Because his father taught there, the college was a part of his life as long as he could remember, Werner said. He served as president of the SMC Foundation in the 1990s, and he still asks the students who come into his dentist's office how they like the school.

"A lot of my patients have gone to SMC and they have nothing but praise," he said. "There seems to be a very positive attitude toward SMC. I don't think there's probably a community college that can compare to SMC in the country."

Werner said his older patients rave about the emeritus college, which began offering courses for older adults in 1975. "They think this is the best thing since popped corn," he said.

A few years after Werner attended SMC, in the midst of the Korean War, the college moved to what is now its main campus at 19th Street and Pico Boulevard. The college stayed strong and kept growing through the tumultuous Vietnam War era.

"They were interesting times," said Larry Naylor, who attended SMC during Vietnam and now runs Naylor Paint in Venice. SMC didn't get as involved in the raging political movements as schools like UC Berkeley because of the commuter nature of the college, Naylor said, but that didn't mean SMC was quiet.

"It was just a lot of political discussions, a lot of strikes," he said.

Naylor’s family has deep roots at SMC. His father received an AA degree from the college soon after it opened in the1930's and Naylor's daughter is now in her second year at SMC.

Though the college has grown exponentially, both he and his daughter found that the quality of teachers and courses remained strong.

Between the time Naylor finished at SMC and his daughter entered last year, the college opened two satellite campuses and was rattled by the Northridge Earthquake in 1994.

The earthquake hit hard, but the college rebuilt and managed to land on Rolling Stone's "Ten of the Best" community colleges just four years later.

Since the 1990's, SMC has opened a new science complex, renovated its library, purchased land for another satellite campus near the Santa Monica Airport and begun offering online courses. Its plays have been selected for prestigious festivals and its professors have won awards.

Gordon Newman, an SMC alumnus who worked as Dean of Admissions for a quarter century before retiring in 1996, said the college has maintained its high academic standard as the student population ballooned because SMC's strong reputation attracted good professors.

Newman said the college has had the luxury of choosing from highly qualified applicants to fill positions because "when you have a community college that's always had such outstanding faculty and percentages of students that transfer, it's not hard” to get good teachers.

In addition to having a good reputation, the college pays well and regularly evaluates teachers, said Don Girard, who has been the college’s director of marketing for 16 years.

"So the good keeps getting better," he said.

The college has grown in the past ten years by integrating with community institutions, said Girard, who was recently promoted to Executive Assistant to the President.

For example, the nursing program has tripled, largely because of expanded coordination with hospitals, and the college has started a program in downtown Los Angeles that gives students hands-on training in textiles.

For all its positive growth, last year's budget crisis was hard on SMC, and there was grumbling as some programs, such as the automotive, welding, and fire technology, were cut.

Dina Cervantes, an SMC student who is the college's "student trustee," said she has had a great experience at SMC. "I advocate for SMC everywhere I go," said Cervantes, adding that students were concerned about the loss of the automotive and other programs.

"We lost a lot of students because the programs were cut, or students had to completely change their majors, and we've had a lot of complaints," said Cervantes, who took automotive classes.

Cervantes said the professors of the programs that remain have been outstanding, though.

"I've had really good teachers who have been very inspirational," she said.

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