In the fall of 1964, 463 students enrolled in Cuesta College’s first classes, offered at night in classrooms at the old San Luis Obispo Junior High and Atascadero High School.
Classes were later offered in shambled barracks leased from Camp San Luis Obispo while the college founders worked to make a permanent campus a reality.
Today, Cuesta College has two campuses and educates more than 10,000 students a year.
Despite its humble beginnings and local roots, the college was part of a massive expansion of higher education in California in the 1960s.
Never miss a local story.
Through cyclical economic downturns and budget cuts, the community college has persevered and become an integral part of the county to both students achieving academic goals, and residents seeking their own personal growth.
“The college’s history is a good reminder of how resilient Cuesta College is,” President Gil Stork said. “No matter what we’ve been dealt, somehow we make it work, and we meet the needs of students. I am very proud of that.”
As the college emerges from a years’ long struggle to retain its accreditation, it has become a model for other colleges throughout the state facing similar challenges.
To commemorate the college’s 50th anniversary, The Tribune asked past leaders to reflect on its history.
In the spring of 1964, three men, long vested in education, ventured to San Luis Obispo to establish the new junior college, approved by county voters on April 16, 1963.
Merlin Eisenbise, president, Frank Martinez, vice president of instruction and George McGinnis, vice president of business services, shared a small office at the County Office of Education before renting an office of their own.
Arlene Chandler was hired shortly after as the first female faculty member. She had worked at Cal Poly as the associate dean of women but resigned from that post when her husband, Everett Chandler, was promoted to dean of students there.
“There needed to be only one Dean Chandler at Cal Poly,” Chandler said. “It was not a good idea for our marriage or the college.”
She was hired by Martinez to teach in Cuesta College’s social sciences division.
“Frank’s requirements were simple: You had to love students, there was no feeling superior to them and you had to be a good teacher, and he checked out our references to make sure,” Chandler said. “Consequently, he built a superb staff.”
Chandler described the new faculty members as enthusiastic, cooperative and supportive of each other. “We were proud to be there and we felt like a team. The students were energetic, and so were we,” she said.
Faculty and administration worked side by side to be successful, she said.
“We were all working in pretty much sheds, the old barracks, and the administration was in the ‘head shed,’ ” Chandler said. “We made the most of what we had.”
Chandler said that registration was higher than anticipated, and faculty was still being added the first day of classes.
She taught a plethora of classes, including history and sociology, and later introduced a course on marriage and family relations.
“At the time, it was a sensitive course, and they took a chance that I could teach it and not turn the community upside down by being too radical,” Chandler said. “We were encouraged to be creative and start new classes.”
She eventually started a parenting class, the first of its kind in the community college system, and later became the division chair of human development and started the childhood development program.
The era was also a time of social awakening with the start of the counterculture.
“I had one boy who would only wear a sheet to class,” Chandler said. “There was also a huge controversy over hair as men began to grow it long. It was an adjustment to what became the hippie movement.”
The momentum of the newly formed college continued.
“At the time, we didn’t know what we were doing,” Martinez said, referring to his role as one of three co-founders of the college. “It was from one crisis to the other, and we faced criticism for everything we did.”
But the college took root and was drawing students faster then it could hire faculty.
“It was a strong period of organizing and a defining time for the college,” said Martinez, who served as president from 1977 to 1989.
The era also marked the transition from the old campus, with classes taught in barracks on land leased from Camp San Luis to its existing location along Highway 1.
However, it was no easy feat to determine the new location, Martinez said, with the community debating and broiling over where it should be located.
“The community was glad to have us here, yet there was struggle and conflict because everyone wanted us,” Martinez said. “There was animosity throughout the county, but the board finally decided the best location was at the camp because it offered things that no other site offered, like utilities, fire and police protection and roads. It was the benefit of the entire district to establish the first site where we are now.”
Ultimately, voters approved several bonds to pay for the construction of the new campus, and by the mid-1970s, it began to emerge — but only after the first attempt at a bond failed.
Interestingly, the first building to be erected was the men’s locker room. Other buildings soon followed, including a science complex.
And just as quickly as the college began to flourish, a major shift in funding, the passage of Proposition 13, hampered some of its ambitions.
“It changed a lot of the things we were trying to do,” Martinez said. “It took away the community tax available for the use of service for the community, which meant programs such as concerts or lectures were no longer available because we wouldn’t levy the five-cent tax.”
It was then, in 1977, that the football program was eliminated to cut costs.
“There is a popular and comical expression at Cuesta that the college has been undefeated in football since 1977,” Martinez said.
The decade began slow, still adjusting to the new funding challenges facing the college.
However, Ed Pearce, the college’s first dean of vocational education, doggedly pursued grant money to continue growing the college’s offerings.
“I wrote lots and lots of grants,” he recalled.
Those federal grants helped pave the way for permanent offerings in the areas of welding, auto body and fender repair, home health aid and construction.
Pearce said the development of the college’s engineering department was one of his highest achievements.
The state recession in the early 1980s led the college to take a hard look at the classes being offered and make cuts. But ultimately, enrollment continued to grow, and funding eventually improved.
“It was a hard time, but it was clear that there would always be a Cuesta College,” Pearce said.
Pearce was innovative, and extended the college’s offerings through partnerships with the community, creating a small business management center to help struggling business owners.
In the 1980s, the swimming pool complex was added, and aquatic sports followed.
Cuesta was also the first of six community colleges in the state to get grants to teach classes for foster youth. The college partnered with the California Conservation Corps to offer classes to those youth.
Community programs flourished with diverse offerings such as harmonica, College for Kids and recreation programs.
The college continued to thrive under the leadership of its third president, Grace Mitchell.
“It was a good set of years,” said Pete Hagan, who was the director of matriculation and research in the 1990s. “Looking back now, it was kind of a golden set of years for the college.”
The college had continued to grow, both in students and faculty, and Cuesta was on the map as a place for students who wanted to transfer to Cal Poly.
“Space was so tight that staff was clawing just to get use of closets to put desks in for a little office space to work with,” Hagan said.
Mitchell saw how impacted the college was and created a master plan, got it approved and started constructing buildings, he said, adding that “space became a non-issue.”
Hagan, who specialized in matching students’ needs with courses best suited for them, said the college made tremendous advances in the technology used to get students on a successful path.
He worked directly with the math and science departments, which were concerned at the time with the high failure rate of students.
“Taking a new student, no matter age 18 or 60, and getting them in the right classes the first semester would make them more successful,” Hagan said. “The notion was to match their interests and skills with appropriate starter courses so they would gain a feeling of success at the end of their first semester.”
Student success rates began to improve.
“In those years while money wasn’t flowing — well, it never flows in education — there was money to do things,” Hagan said.
Mitchell embraced the demand for a campus in the North County, and began establishing plans for one.
“That facility is directly a result of all her efforts,” Hagan said. “She was a fantastic president. She gave me maneuvering room and support when needed.”
There was strong community support, he said.
“In the North County, there were people with all those vineyards — all that money that vineyards generate — who dressed in blue jeans and drove beat-up pickup trucks, but could write you a check for $100,000 if they so chose,” he said. “The South County was pushing, too, but they didn’t have the money, and they weren’t as organized.”
Hagan went on to retire in 2004 in the first of several early retirement incentive programs that were meant to save money.
“A lot of wisdom went out the door in the form of experience that year,” Hagan said. “I remember a Rand study that said California was headed for serious trouble budget-wise, and I thought at the time they were right on. That is when the problems in the early 2000s began to really manifest themselves.
“Of course, we didn’t know it at the time, because you don’t know the golden years until they aren’t there anymore, but then you look back and say ‘Boy, those were good years,’ ” Hagan said. “That is how life is.”
The 2000s and beyond
Every decade of the college’s history has suffered some sort of economic downturn, but the recent downturn was more elongated, Stork said.
“It was a very marked time in history,” he said.
The first decade of the 21st century marked the beginning of drastic change both internally and externally — driven by the recession in California in the middle of the decade and a revamping of accreditation standards by the U.S. Department of Education, Stork said.
Internally, the college began to struggle with rickety leadership for the first time in its history.
Mitchell retired, and Marie Rosenwasser became the new president in 1999. Under her leadership, the college’s master plan, its blueprint for growth, was updated twice.
The college also took a risk, Stork said, by investing in new facilities such as the Cultural and Performing Arts Center on the hope that a bond would pass.
The $310 million bond measure — designed to expand the campus in the North County with new buildings, start an official South County campus and build out and improve structures on the main San Luis Obispo campus — failed in 2006 and led to Rosenwasser’s resignation.
“The startling reality, that if the process is not 100 percent calculated correctly it can lead to a long-term setback, became clear,” Stork said.
And for the first time in the college’s history, it had unreliable leadership. David Pelham was hired in 2008 as the college’s fifth president but left in 2009.
That instability occurred at the college during a tumultuous struggle of keeping its accreditation.
“The big roller coaster in 2000 was the rapid and consistent change in leadership,” Stork said. “Losing long-term seasoned Cuesta College leaders and a quick series of turnovers at all levels of the executive branch fed into the college’s struggle with accreditation because it was never really able to sustain the planning processes,” Stork said.
The first 10 years of the century was also marked by reductions in the number of courses offered and increased charges for community programs.
“We were everything to everybody, and had to re-adjust our focus,” Stork said. “Community service programs were no longer a part of the focus handed down by the board of governors, but we weren’t prohibited from offering programs. It just became pay to play.”
At the start of the decade, the college was chasing enrollment and adding programs, Stork said. By the end of the decade, cuts across all programs had to be made.
“The college finally had to bite the bullet and change the size of its footprint to support the degree programs deemed necessary,” he said.
Now, with buildings more than 40 years old, the San Luis Obispo campus is in dire need of renovation, Stork said.
“The infrastructure on the San Luis Obispo campus is being held together with Band-Aids,” he noted. “A bond is still needed. It is in my hope chest as president to be able to successfully pass one.”
Reach AnnMarie Cornejo at 781-7939. Stay updated by following @a_cornejo on Twitter.