At Quake's Epicenter, A College Climbs Back Northridge, Calif., University Fights on without Its Buildings. after Earthquake, Classes Open as Usual - Almost Series: COVER STORY

Article excerpt

RISING from the rubble of America's worst-ever urban disaster, it might be called the country's first "virtual university."

From a tan Winnebago on the north edge of campus, Blenda J. Wilson, president of California State University, Northridge, looks out on a 10-city-block campus, now nearly a ghost town of cracked, scaffolded, and canvas-covered buildings.

Sprawled across what used to be the wide-open parking lots that served 30,000 faculty, staff, and students are row upon row of mobile homes, 400 in all. As they creak up and down makeshift wooden ramps and follow color-coded maps to numbered trailers, tent-covered lounges, and mobile restrooms, the backpack- and briefcase-toting masses are engaged in a comeback that would make Wile E. Coyote proud.

"If ever there was a testimony to the commitment of education through creativity and talent under physically devastating circumstances, this has been it," Ms. Wilson says.

On Jan. 17, the same 6.8 magnitude temblor that leveled highways, homes, and businesses across the sprawling San Fernando Valley became the costliest disaster ever to hit a United States institution of higher learning.

In 40 seconds, all 52 major buildings here were rendered unusable, including every office, lab, classroom, and storage facility - tallying an estimated $350 million in damage. The core of campus has become almost empty of students, as no major building is yet reoccupied and many have contents that are still inaccessible.

"If this is the most significant hit to a university in the history of the world, then we intend this to be an equal demonstration of how people can overcome adversity when their cornerstone of culture, education, is threatened," says Elliot Mininberg, vice president for administration and finance.

While water pipes were still gushing, and aftershocks were still sending gusts of rubble dust into the dry desert air, Wilson, still in her first year as president, shocked students, faculty, and the media alike by announcing that the university would open for classes within four weeks.

The goal that Wilson came up with - and that many say is helping to coalesce deeper commitment from faculty, staff, and students - can be seen in the slogan on a bumper sticker of a passing vehicle: "Not just back ... better: California State University, Northridge (CSUN)."

The earthquake came during winter break, two weeks before spring classes were scheduled to open Jan. 31. Just two weeks late, by Feb. 14, the university rented, transported, and installed 400 single-story temporary structures at a cost of $5.5 million and began classes.

To ensure that students would be there, the university had to retrieve all student and faculty records, which were buried in the most severely damaged campus building, the computer center. Climbing through a fourth-floor window the day after the quake, CSUN employees were in the structure when a major, 5.7 magnitude aftershock hit. The shaking knocked several people to the ground but did not cause a dangerous cave in.

By transporting the tapes to a sister campus in Fresno, administrators were able to continue class selection, with prospective students punching in course-request information on touch-tone phones. Course schedules and color-coded maps were printed courtesy of Los Angeles's second-largest newspaper, the Daily News.

The hardship has inspired a bonding circle of staff lauding faculty, faculty lauding students, and students lauding staff. "There is a much better appreciation and understanding of how interrelated this campus is, how important every level of participation is to making it run smoothly," says Kaine Thompson, director of the university news bureau. "There is a strong feeling that spirit will carry over into making this a better place in the future."

The pages of this comeback saga are being written at the same time most of its participants are faced with the devastation of their homes and possessions. …