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
"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
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
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
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
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. …