SMC Celebrates 90 Years

On October 22, 2019, Santa Monica College celebrated 90 years of excellence, a dynamic history of growth and of making dreams come true for thousands of students. Perhaps fittingly, the College also held the ribbon-cutting for the SMC Student Services Center—the largest of its kind in California—on the same day.

For the first time in nine decades, almost all core student support services are housed under one roof in the signature gateway building on Pico Blvd., which also opens up the main campus to the community. The 90th anniversary event was headlined by a keynote talk given by Darroch “Rocky” Young, former SMC Vice President and retired LACCD chancellor—if you missed it, check out the YouTube video on our webpage.

Throughout its history, SMC has mirrored the highest ideals of what makes community colleges a cornerstone of democracy in America. The College holds an unbroken 28-year record as the leading transfer institution to the University of California. The breadth of SMC’s academic offerings is astounding: the most recent count shows 180 Associate Degrees, Certificates of Achievement and Department Certificates, plus a Bachelor of Science Degree in Interaction Design.

The College’s mission today also extends to providing news and culture-defining programming through our NPR radio station, KCRW, and bringing the world’s best artistes to Los Angeles through The Broad Stage at the SMC Performing Arts Center. And, not to forget a vital part of SMC: the Emeritus Program helps older adults continue to experience the joy of learning and growing. At SMC, we believe that learning never stops.

For more info on SMC’s 90th anniversary and a timeline of noteworthy events, check out smc.edu/90. In addition, SMC in Focus dove deep into the Marketing department’s archives, and is delighted to present a slightly edited version of an article that ran in the Fall 2004 Schedule of Classes, on SMC’s last landmark anniversary: the 75th! Please note that the article is reproduced, with the omission of quotes and some content for brevity, almost exactly as it appeared in 2004. Enjoy!

SMC: A Community’s College (From Fall 2004 Schedule of Classes)

Santa Monica College is a place where anyone can rejuvenate their academic career, a mission it shares with all community colleges. We provide the classrooms to give the single mother the ability to return to meaningful work and the laid off worker the high tech training he or she needs to get a good job.

Although the community college was once viewed as merely the 13th and 14th year of high school, over the last 75 years SMC has become much more than that: the College is the gateway for first generation college students; the site for lifelong learning, a growing trend in education since the 1980s; and the place where the transformation of society into an information network is occurring: computer training and media technology are helping students keep pace with a world that is changing at a quicksilver pace.

SMC is also a place of academic achievement: students transferring from SMC have continued their studies at such prestigious universities as Smith College, New York University, Stanford University, UCLA and USC, just to cite a few. The breadth of SMC’s curriculum today would stun the students of seventy-five years ago: genetics and molecular biology, marketing research and consumer behavior, advanced scriptwriting, data structure with java, conflict resolution skills, perspective for animation and interactive design, bio-ethics, and oracle programming, just to name a few of our recent class offerings.

And while the terms ‘vocational schools,’ ‘technical colleges,’ ‘colleges,’ and ‘junior colleges’ have unfairly carried connotations of a second-class education, learning a skill, mastering a craft, and honing an art are things that a good two-year college should be able to provide to any student willing to learn. And Santa Monica College is such a place. And more.

“Santa Monica College educates the whole person,” said Kevin Starr at the library’s groundbreaking ceremony in 2002. “It’s one thing to be a sort of ‘great intellectual,’ say professional things, et cetera, and be absolutely oblivious to the practical necessities of life. One the other hand, it’s an equally bad situation to be so totally practical that you lack a sense of the speculative dimensions of life, the life of the imagination, the life of the spirit, the finer landscapes of human culture. The two-year community college program—and Santa Monica College, in particular—has stood for the continuity of knowledge. That knowledge, as we human beings encounter it, represents a continuity from the practical to the speculative and back again. It’s a circle. You can’t divide one from the other. That ideal of thinking well and doing well—the idea of understanding and doing as part of the same act is at the core of this institution. I think that’s extraordinarily important and represents a great high civic and educational ideal.”

In the Beginning…

It may be difficult to imagine the dimensions of the college when it opened its doors in 1929, especially given the 20,000-plus students and hundreds of faculty that swarm through the campus now: three classrooms on the second floor of Santa Monica High School, 153 students, and eight faculty members. There was something else that was significant about 1929 as well: while it was the bellwether year that rang out the Roaring Twenties and ushered in the Great Depression, it was also a landmark year for education in Southern California: ’29 was the year that UCLA, Loyola-Marymount University, and Santa Monica Junior College (as it was called then) were all established.

SMC was rocked out of its home by the Long Beach Earthquake of 1933: this won’t be the first time that a California tremblor transforms the course of the College’s development. But it shouldn’t be cruelly omitted from the annals of history that while the College was located at Garfield Elementary, Joy Shiland Rutherford composed the college hymn: yes, believe it or not, there is such a creature as the Santa Monica College hymn!

Dislocated by the earthquake, SMC was housed temporarily in a tent city with wood floors and canvas roofs—buckets were placed on the floor for leaks on rainy days and classes were simply canceled when it rained too hard (ah, those were the days). The tents at this campus (the campus was affectionately referred to as Splinterville) were eventually replaced by bungalows, but in 1940 the Santa Monica Board of Education, in a prescient move which assured the future of the College and conferred the status of real estate geniuses upon the Board’s collective heads, approved the purchase of a site along Pearl Street between 16th and 19th Streets for $1,650 an acre—now those were the days!

Although it would be another 12 years before the first building would open for students at the Pearl Street location, the College continued to grow during the interim. In 1945 the College changed its name to Santa Monica City College; this change reflected the inclusion of both Santa Monica Technical School and the adult education component of the Santa Monica Unified School District into the College.

1945 also marked the end of the World War Two, the G.I. Bill and an influx of veterans to universities and colleges all over the country, a trend that Santa Monica City College certainly wasn’t exempt from. One important landmark that marked that year was the establishment of CRW (the Community Radio Workshop), an effort to teach broadcasting to servicemen returning from the War. The Community Radio Workshop evolved into the College Radio Workshop; the station was languishing in a state of disrepair and neglect when the savvy Ruth Seymour became general manager in 1978 and transformed it into KCRW, possibly the most vibrant radio station in the entire National Public Network and a symbol of the College throughout Southern California and the nation.

The first facility to open at the Pearl Street campus was Corsair Stadium in 1948—this probably had more to do with the relative ease of constructing a football stadium that the educational priorities in the post-World War Two America. A ground-breaking ceremony for the new campus finally occurred in 1950; two years later, the first building opened at the present site (at that time the address was 1815 Pearl) and the campus was dedicated on April 25, 1952. By the 1959-60 school year, enrollment had jumped to a tad over 10,000 and Santa Monica City College was starting to earn its reputation as a first-rate educational institution and prime transfer point to major four-year universities.

Santa Monica City College Becomes SMC

Santa Monica College dropped the “City” from its title in 1971, reflecting the fact that SMC was serving the Westside of Los Angeles area rather than simply Santa Monica. The Emeritus College opened in 1975; in an unrelated development, this also happened to be the year Corsair students elected the first male homecoming queen (who was aptly named Goldie Glitters). There were other signs that the times they were a-changing: enrollment was up to 16,502 in 1976 and SMC hired a new president in ’74: Dr. Richard Moore, an iconoclast who instigated active recruiting of minorities (minorities now constitute approximately 65 percent of SMC’s student body), and oversaw the separation of the College from the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District, leading to the creation of SMC’s own district, charter, and board. At last, the College was autonomous, its own distinct educational entity.

In 1979, SMCC first earned the distinction of being the number-one transfer college for UCLA, a distinction it has held ever since. Success also brought more students to SMC (24,000 in 1989) and the College outgrew its campus. The Airport and Madison Campuses were added in 1989 and 1990 respectively, and enrollment just kept burgeoning, hitting the 26,000 mark in 1994.

Prior to then-president Dr. Richard Moore’s announcement that he would be leaving SMC to become president of the Community College of Southern Nevada in Las Vegas, an earthquake rocked the greater Los Angeles area in January of 1994, dealing an especially severe blow to the Santa Monica area and virtually destroying the Science Building—once again, a tremblor would have a major impact on the College. Partially funded by a $23 million grant from FEMA, the new science building opened in 1999. In September of 1998, the Academy of Entertainment and Technology opened at 1660 Stewart Street, a site purchased from the Gemological Institute of America for $8.8 million.

Rolling Stone Magazine named SMC among “Ten of the Best” community colleges in the county in its October 1998 issue. Although it is untrue that this designation had anything to do with the fact that John Densmore, the drummer for The Doors, was a student at the College in the 1960s and even played the snare drum in the Corsair marching band, it does bring up the subject of celebrity, and this being Los Angeles, the thespians lead the way in that category. Dustin Hoffman went to the College and the two-time Oscar winner displayed his loyalty to his alma mater by chairing a $20 million capital campaign for SMC in October of 1999—he was also spotted guest-teaching one of the College’s acting classes in the winter of 2004.

But Hoffman wasn’t the only major Hollywood star to attend SMC—the legendary James Dean also took classes at the College and even played for the Corsair baseball team in the early 1950s, although his near-sightedness kept him on the bench during most of the action. Sean Penn, winner of the Oscar for Best Actor in 2004 for his performance in “Mystic River,” also took a number of courses at SMC. And we mustn’t forget the current governor of California: shortly after moving to Southern California from his native Austria, Arnold Schwarzenegger earned 72 units at SMC before moving on to success in Hollywood and Sacramento.

In fact, the Governor spoke to his old SMC English professor, Dick Dodge, several times in a week during last year’s Recall campaign. Dodge, who died last Halloween after teaching at the College for thirty-six years, also taught Dustin Hoffman, and Dean Martin’s son, Dino, who once brought his agent with him to class. There are other notable alumni as well, not all of them from the theatrical arena: Lenny Krayzelburg, winner of two Olympic gold medals in the 2000 Games in Sidney, Australia; Walter Cunningham, who went on from SMC to become an astronaut on the Apollo 7 mission; Nathan Myhrvold, who started taking courses at the College while he was a sophomore at Santa Monica High School, and studied physics with Stephen Hawking at Oxford University before becoming second-in-command at Microsoft and developing the Windows program; and Alvan Ikoku, who was accepted as a Rhodes Scholar while attending Stanford University.

2004 and Still Going Strong

The last five years at the campus have seen the continued evolution of the best community college in the county. And, despite several bleak years for California’s economy, SMC has managed to forge ahead with a number of major projects.

The Santa Monica Swim Center, an aquatic resource for the entire community, opened in July 2002; and a new campus at Santa Monica Airport—with four buildings on 10.4 acres was purchased for $30 million (only $29,973,600 more than the price of the Pearl Street site in 1940). The Admissions Building moved off-campus to an 18,000-square-foot building at 2714 Pico, relieving some of the stress of over-crowding on the main campus. And the library was remodeled and expanded at a price of $27 million—at its opening ceremony, KCET personality and host of “California GoldHuell Howser noted that a library is part “of the quintessential California dream, a dream of knowledge, learning, and advancement. A library is a place where ideas are percolating and where previous positions and stances are challenged. When I travel across the landscape of this state, I see lots of monuments, lots of marble, lots of grand edifices. But nothing demonstrates more clearly what a community believes in, stands for, and puts their faith in, than their schools, their museums, and their libraries. This new building is the heart and soul of this campus.”

Faith in SMC has been repeatedly reflected by the generosity of the residents of Santa Monica: the latest demonstration of that faith occurred in March of 2002 when voters overwhelmingly approved a $160 million bond measure—Proposition U passed by a 70 percent vote, clearly a vote of confidence for the work the College has accomplished over the years.

But in the final analysis the achievements of a college must be measured on the effect the institution has had on its students, and in this regard SMC is one resounding success story. The College has transferred countless students to major universities, including such educational institutions as UC Berkeley, Smith College, New York University, and Stanford University. Yes, the College remains the number-one transfer point to UCLA, but it is also the number-one transfer college to USC, Pepperdine and Loyola-Marymount University as well. And countless students have found their path here, their particular enthusiasm, a focus that will provide a livelihood for them as well as a source of nourishment for their intellect and their soul.

If that sounds like a claim that lacks credibility, just listen to the evidence: “I just love the Academy of Entertainment and Technology!” says Angela Buitendacht, who relocated to Southern California from South Africa to study at SMC. “It’s like my family, and I know all the lecturers and everybody else. It’s amazing to be around people who have such fire.” Or Mike Walecka: “I didn’t get into any of the big schools right out of high school, but I heard SMC has the best transfer rate to UCLA. That’s where I’m headed.” Or Christine Cortez, a first-generation college student: “My education is going to mean nothing but opportunity for me. No one else in the family has gone to college, and because of that, they’ve had to struggle.”

As SMC maintains its dedication to meeting the expectations of its students, its growth remains a dynamic process. Art and culture programs have been set up between SMC, UCLA, and the Los Angeles Opera; the College’s nursing program has instituted partnerships with Cedars-Sinai, Kaiser Permanente, and UCLA Medical Center; the early childhood education program has a partnership going with Easter Seals and a dozen local providers; and SMC has had dozens of internships at a wide array of businesses and institutions, including the White House. SMC’s Emeritus College is virtually a second home for thousands of senior citizens, providing life-long learning opportunities in diverse fields. The Emeritus College (long housed at a site adjacent to the city’s Second Street parking structure) recently moved into a new 24,000-square-foot building in downtown Santa Monica. Currently under construction on the main campus is a new theatre arts building; up next will be a new liberal arts building. If those 153 students and eight faculty members from the Class of 1929 could magically return and visit the campus now, they’d be astounded at what has grown from those second floor classrooms down at Santa Monica High School.

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