The Genesis of WLAC
At West Los Angeles College, students can complete a degree or certificate in about two years. But for there to be a West Los Angeles College, it took more than 10 years of plans, meetings, battles, compromises, and roll-up-your-sleeves hard work by community leaders, determined planners and education pioneers. West Los Angeles College isn’t just a community college, it is a college for, and from, the community.
A NEW COLLEGE WAS NEEDED: In 1959, ten years before West would first open its doors, the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education agreed to consider the viability of placing a community college in West Los Angeles and authorized a site study. At that time, the LAUSD Board oversaw programming for K-12 schools and the “Junior Colleges.”
There were already six community colleges in what would become the Los Angeles Community College District: Los Angeles Community College near Hollywood, Los Angeles Trade-Technical College near USC, East Los Angeles College in Monterey Park, Pierce College in Woodland Hills, Los Angeles Harbor College in Wilmington, and Los Angeles Valley College in the San Fernando Valley. But, the closest college to the Westside was crowded Santa Monica College and that would not do. West Los Angeles communities wanted their own campus, they would have to work for it.
Five years later, in 1964, after ongoing site analysis and community discussion, the Board of Education purchased land for the future home of West Los Angeles College at $3.5 million in unincorporated Los Angeles County. But it would be 5 years more before the site was occupied. Protests over the Vietnam War and Civil Rights became the norm across much of the country. Civil unrest hit home when the Watts Riots exploded in Los Angeles, stemming from dissatisfaction over high unemployment, inadequate schools and inferior living conditions in the African-American community. In 1967, partially in response to those concerns, South Los Angeles received the college it had been demanding. The construction of Southwest College was moved ahead of West.
West Los Angeles and Culver City residents took notice of the power of passionate, organized efforts. “If (South LA) can get one, we should too,” one resident demanded at a public hearing.
OBJECTIONS TO THE NEW COLLEGE:While most of the feeder communities were enthusiastic about the prospects of the proposed college, there was some resistance. Some on the Westside feared the college would bring more African-American students and residents west and cause property values to plummet due to “white flight.” Santa Monica College feared a significant drop in enrollment. And there was push back from MGM Studios which owned an adjacent property and still used the area for filming. Scenes from Gone With the Wind were shot on MGM Lot 3 which sat on part of the college’s land parcel.
But progressive, proactive Culver City home owners and organizations convinced their neighbors to embrace change. By 2014, Culver City was one of the most diverse cities in Los Angeles County with consistently high home prices. Likewise, West has become an incredibly diverse institution.
THE COMMUNITY RALLIES: However none of this was known yet as meetings preparing for the college began. What was known, and what almost all factions agreed on, was that West Los Angeles needed its own community college. Even MGM realized that there was a greater good to be gained by giving up its site. Culver City leaders pressed the Board of Education to move forward with WLAC through postcards, letters and telegrams and numerous Culver City representatives and others spoke out at a Board hearing. Represented were the Culver City Community Coordinating Council, the Culver City Committee for Better Education, and the Culver City Council. Also present were the President of the Culver City Board of Education, the President of the Culver City Chamber of Commerce, the Chief Administrative Officer of Culver City, and the Superintendent of the Culver City Unified School District.
SITE APPROVED – HIRING & CONSTRUCTION BEGIN: Finally, in May of 1968, the LAUSD Board of Education approved approximately $2.5 million to begin building. An aggressive plan was to open the college in January 1969. Morris J. Heldman, a chemist from the University of California at Berkeley, and the former Dean of Admissions and Guidance at Pierce College, was named as the college’s first President.
WLAC Psychology Professor Dr. James R. Marks recalled some of those early “pioneer” days. “In 1968, some 250 experienced professors decided to apply for a position in the new college… 38 professors were selected as the new faculty members. Those around in those days recall being somewhat amused when they arrived at the location in which they were to be interviewed, and it turned out to be the Culver City Jail …Immediately, one was impressed by President Heldman’s forthright description of the College as a place where we professors could forge new curricular and instructional approaches to higher education.”
Culver City was kind enough to lend out several other buildings to use for admissions, staffing and other administrative needs while construction continued.
Dr. Norman Chapman was Dean of Instruction and President Heldman’s associate in the planning of WLAC said, “I tried to get the finest instructors we could. And, I think we had one of the finest faculties any college could ever have.”
Meanwhile, the construction crews faced an unusual battle with the elements – the winter of 1968-69 saw historic rainfalls. The hope of a January start for WLAC was pushed back after a record-breaking 9-day period saw nearly 50 inches of rain fall in the area, resulting in construction delays for the college, and area landslides and floods that killed 91 people. The Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA) declared parts of Los Angeles national disaster areas, and the National Guard was brought in to assist in rescue and recovery operations.
Obviously, construction progress was slowed, but the can do spirit of the college’s administration and early staff seemed to have spread to the construction crews as well. A mere 240 days after construction began, work was finished on the Administration Building, the Admissions area, the Bookstore and temporary classrooms.
It was time to Go West
This is an edited excerpt from “West Los Angeles College 1960s through 2010s”