1980s A Boundless Vision
Over the years, Westmont grew and gained strength despite nearly overwhelming difficulties. Each decade brought new challenges: finding a campus, gaining accreditation, building new facilities, and increasing enrollment. Always the college struggled to offer the best possible program with limited resources. Through it all, the vision that guided people like Ruth Kerr, Wallace Emerson, and Roger Voskuyl stayed clear and focused. The 1980s brought increasing national recognition to Westmont for its academic excellence and Christian commitment. But challenges remained, and Westmont’s fifth decade became a time of refocusing the vision for the future.
In the 1970s, Westmont sought permission to grow to 1,200 students, succeeding at last in 1976. Actually enrolling that many became a major trial of the 1980s. Santa Barbara County had mandated gradual growth, setting limits for each year until 1985 when it allowed 1,200. At first, enrollment rose steadily, in line with the limits. But in the fall of 1982, it dropped sharply and fell 171 students below the ceiling. Losing tuition from so many students created a budget deficit and serious financial problems.
Westmont received fewer applications for admission during these years, and more students left at the end of each semester. Retention (the percentage of first-year, sophomore, and junior students who return the following year) reached a record low in 1982 and 1983.
What happened? Demographics, cutbacks in financial aid, inflation, and recession together created a nightmare for private colleges. The baby-boom generation had grown up, and the number of 18-year-olds began declining. When Westmont needed more students, fewer were available. In addition, the Reagan Administration reduced federal financial aid, putting private colleges out of reach for many families. An unhealthy economy plagued with inflation and recession simply made matters worse.
Westmont’s survival depended on recruiting and retaining more students. The financial crisis of the early 1980s became a catalyst for evaluating every aspect of the college’s program.
In response to federal cuts in financial aid, Westmont started its own loan program and offered more student scholarships. Each year, the college committed more money to scholarships and loans ($2.6 million in 1990), and officials continue to seek funding for these important programs.
A deficit in both 1982 and 1983 forced administrators to trim expenses. They eliminated several positions, reduced counseling services, froze salary increases, and required each department to make additional cuts.
Dean Tom Andrews and a faculty committee scrutinized the curriculum. Existing programs had to meet four criteria: quality, centrality to Westmont’s mission as a Christian liberal arts college, marketability, and cost. After several months of study, they recommended reducing staff in music and political science and adding faculty in art, drama, and economics and business. The proposal included a new computer science major and an expanded engineering/physics major.
These changes shifted resources away from more costly, less popular programs to those in greater demand. In a Horizon article, Andrews explained, “The most crucial thing is that we serve our students and society well through programs of the highest quality and that we maintain the flexibility to meet the changing demands of the times.”
The class schedule also came under review. The academic year included two semesters and a four-week Interterm, with classes meeting every day except Wednesday. Professors argued that this arrangement failed to provide large blocks of time for research and study. Also, Interterm put a strain on faculty who had to prepare for classes outside their disciplines. So the faculty approved a new calendar that eliminated Interterm and created a 3-2 weekly schedule (65-minute classes Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and two-hour classes Tuesday and Thursday). In place of Interterm, they developed Mayterm, an optional six-week program at the end of the school year.
Faculty benefited from the new schedule, and so did students. As Professor Brendan Furnish noted, “If faculty have larger blocks of time, then students will also.” The 3-2 plan made better use of the limited classroom facilities and allowed the College to offer more courses for the growing student body. Not only did students find it easier to get the classes they needed, but with school ending in May, they got a jump on the summer job market.
With the rise in enrollment, the campus had become crowded and less attractive to students. When speculating on the drop in enrollment, Dr. Ed Potts, director of institutional research, commented to the Horizon, “Chickens usually die down to the size of their coop.” Westmont needed more dormitories, more classroom space, and bigger dining commons.
So the college embarked on another decade of building. With a gift from the Kerr family, the old D.C. became the new Kerr Student Center, with more seating capacity, a snack bar, a lounge, and student offices. Spring Sing Hill became “New” Dorm, and the college purchased the Ocean View apartments. The Whittier Science Building, a gift from the Whittier family, and the Art Center provided space for the natural sciences and visual arts. The former chemistry and biology buildings underwent renovation to house the physics and mathematics departments. Better facilities made it easier to attract new students.
Westmont also expanded its academic advising and orientation programs to help students adjust to life at college. At the same time, the Career and Life Planning Office offered more assistance in making the transition to graduate school or the work place.
All these changes strengthened Westmont’s program. But prospective students needed to hear about the quality of education at Westmont. As Dave Morley, the new director of admissions, noted in 1983, “The college has failed to sell itself.” He began an aggressive marketing campaign, sending admissions counselors out to spread the word about Westmont. Within a year, the pool of prospective students jumped from 3,700 to nearly 9,000, and the number of applications rose as a result.
In the fall of 1984, Westmont enrolled a record 1,109 students, including 570 new students. In just two years, enrollment increased exactly 200 students. The college didn’t admit everyone who applied – the Admissions Office never lowered standards. The qualifications of the new students remained as high as earlier classes.
Three years later, Westmont reached – and exceeded – the limit set by Santa Barbara County with an enrollment of 1,217. The Horizon noted, “If you’ve experienced the line at the D.C., the lack of convenient parking spaces, or an unexpected third person inhabiting your room, then you may have noticed – Westmont is packed!” The college had 28,000 students on its applicant list, and the Admissions Office was becoming more selective. The SAT scores and grade point averages of new students began to rise.
Once again, Westmont met one challenge only to confront another. With plenty of applicants, the college found it difficult to stay within the limit. To manage enrollment better and receive the income from 1,200 students each semester, Westmont asked for the flexibility to average enrollment. After three years of hearing and review, the County approved this request in 1991.
Fund raising became increasingly important to Westmont during the 1980s. As the college could no longer increase enrollment, only two sources of new income remained: increases in tuition and larger gifts. To avoid huge hikes in tuition, college officials put more effort into fund raising.
In 1982, Westmont completed a three-year capital campaign that raised $8.6 million for buildings (such as Kerr Student Center), endowment, and operating expenses. These funds supported financial aid programs and closed the gap between the cost of education and what students actually paid in tuition.
The college launched a second campaign for $16.28 million in 1988. Secretary of Labor Elizabeth Dole delivered the keynote address at a dinner announcing the drive in 1989. Gifts to the campaign created endowed funds for faculty salaries, scholarships, and loans, and supported academic programs and new facilities.
Together, the two capital campaigns strengthened Westmont’s financial situation. Endowment alone grew from $768,557 in 1975 to $3,774,073 in 1985 and $7,346,514 in 1990.
As Westmont approached its 50th anniversary, it began receiving national recognition. In 1986, “U.S. News & World Report” listed Westmont among the top ten regional liberal arts colleges in the nation. The Carnegie Commission subsequently moved the college to its Liberal Arts I category which includes the best and most selective liberal arts colleges in the country. President David Winter made a list of the top 100 college presidents, and Westmont appeared in “Best Buys in College Education.” “Parents of Teenagers” magazine rated Westmont the number two Christian college in the country.
Increasing enrollment to 1,200 students certainly contributed to Westmont growing stature as it allowed the college to expand its program. New majors included art, communication studies, computer science, engineering/physics, French, international studies, Spanish, and theatre arts. Both the sciences and the arts grew substantially. The new Whittier Science building gave biology and chemistry majors greatly improved laboratories and new, state-of-the-art equipment.
The Art Center, a restored Deane School building, provided a home for the growing visual arts program with a gallery, a lecture hall, and two sky-lit art studios. The late artist Corita Kent exhibited her works in Reynolds Gallery and helped Westmont dedicate the building in 1986.
Westmont also renovated Deane Chapel. When the college purchased the Deane School in 1966, officials planned to tear down the buildings and erect new facilities. Only two were in use, and the others sat empty and neglected, requiring major repairs. But William Woollett, a retired architect with a passion for California’s architectural heritage, urged Westmont to restore the Deane School. His vision caught on, and in 1980, Santa Barbara declared the buildings historical landmarks. In the future, Westmont plans to finish the work of restoration.
In the 1980s, students decided to become more involved in Santa Barbara as a witness to the community. Miki Abbott ’89 and Celeste Kirk ’87 organized “Reach Out” in 1987, a day when students volunteered for non-profit organizations, doing a variety of odd jobs. Abbott commented in a Horizon article, “Helping the community should become a local tradition.” “Reach Out” has continued each year, and many students have also participated in the annual Montecito Beautification Day.
Enthusiasm for ministry and volunteer service in Santa Barbara grew – by the end of the decade, Christian Concerns included 27 different ministries. Outreach to the homeless, teenage mothers, the elderly, and the Latino community joined traditional programs like Sidewalk Sunday School and visits to Hillside House and St. Vincent’s School. The work of Potter’s Clay, the annual outreach to the poor in Ensenada, Mexico, also continued and expanded. By the mid-1980s, more than 500 people – nearly half the student body – participated each spring. As always, students developed and ran these programs themselves.
The sports program reached new highs in the 1980s. Women’s tennis and soccer teams won NAIA national championships (1982 and 1985), and men’s basketball reached the NAIA “Final Four” in 1984. Warrior teams consistently claimed NAIA District 3 championships and competed in national tournaments. Westmont athletes also won honors for scholarship and sportsmanship.
When Wallace Emerson assumed the presidency in 1940, he dreamed of building a college that would attract such national recognition. The honors Westmont reaped in the 1980s grew from more than 40 years of tending a vision for academic excellence and Christian commitment. Although college officials refined this vision in the 1980s, its essence remained unchanged.
Despite the achievements of the 1980s, Westmont faces a multitude of challenges. The college must complete the campus, build the endowment, and attract 1,200 qualified students each year. In the world of the 1990s and the 21st century, accomplishing these goals will require dedication, perseverance, and vision. Fortunately, God is faithful, and He cares about Westmont. With His help, Westmont will continue to grow and prosper.