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 inaccessible.
``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 (CSUN).''
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 began classes.
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 Daily News.
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 future.''
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. Most employees and students live within commuting distance of the campus, which is just blocks from the quake's epicenter. Two students were among 14 who died in the collapse of one apartment complex across the street.
``It's literally unbelievable that they got back this quickly,'' says Kindra LeKander, a senior graduating this semester in child mental health. ``I was really afraid they wouldn't be able to offer the courses I need to graduate.''
Within days of the quake, trailers were placed in clusters in parking lots that ring the campus. Chaos reigned in early days as logisticians tried to coordinate class schedules with available students, teachers, and trailers. On opening day, some classes were held beneath trees and in open fields.
Three days after the opening, Vice President Al Gore Jr. made a welcome appearance, pledging federal support and helping to spotlight the campus for all-out assistance. ``This college has been hit harder than any college ever in history, and yet you've bounced back faster and more completely than anyone,'' Mr. Gore said. CSUN officials are counting on the federal government to pay 90 percent of recovery costs, including the costs of renting portable classrooms.
CSUN is the fourth largest of California's 20 state university campuses. That network occupies the middle rung of the state's three-tiered secondary education system. Community colleges occupy the lower rung and the University of California's nine research campuses (including the University of California, Los Angeles - UCLA) the higher one. In return for $1,440 per year in tuition, long recognized as one of the country's better education bargains, CSUN offers bachelors' degrees in 50 fields and masters' in 40.
But the state of California has been having its worst budget problems since the Depression: fees have doubled in four years and will rise another 20 percent in coming years. Now the question for many here is, how well can the university uphold the quality of those degrees in the short term? And how many students will continue, undeterred by loss of facilities, to attend in the long term? Because of higher fees, attendance had already dropped about 3,000 from fall 1992 to fall 1993.
Besides the inconvenience of smaller classrooms, logistical problems, and lack of equipment, the largest hurdles for the moment are the loss of the main library, science labs, and computer equipment. Until those are replaced, students are being shuttled to nearby hospitals and other facilities, as well as cross-town libraries at the (private) University of Southern California and UCLA.
``It's really a drag,'' says Edgardo Carias, a sophomore studying business administration, who takes the 60- to 80-minute shuttle-bus ride to the UCLA library three times a week. ``But I need a place to do research and a place to be quiet and study. No place on campus offers that now.''
A member of the campus Latino Business Association, Mr. Carias says such clubs are in danger of folding because most have nowhere to meet regularly.
`THERE might be some argument that if you don't have a library, you don't have a university,'' says Robert Marshall, an archivist with the University Library's Urban Archive Center.
Interviews with students and faculty found a majority who say the institution is stumbling through with flying colors, considering its handicaps. Most concede a lower quality of education in coming months - owing to poor acoustics and lack of teaching aids from blackboards to overhead projectors to computers. But the prevailing attitude seems to be that the crisis has provided the opportunity to obtain facilities that are closer to state-of-the-art than those that were destroyed. ``We haven't achieved `better' yet,'' Dr. Mininberg says. ``But you are going to see a larger step forward in such things as educational programming, fiber-optic connections, and cable TV than if this [earthquake] didn't happen.''
For now, the university is coping week by week. Faculty members have been forced to improvise course work, because they cannot retrieve syllabuses and notes from damaged buildings.
``It was a real strain trying to communicate in here,'' says James Allen, a professor of geography who has had to lecture in one of a half-dozen tents known as ``tension domes.'' His students are not getting the education they deserve, he says, because exercises in demographic projections and migration models require computers that languish in unknown status in a damaged building.
``I can't show slides,'' he says, looking up toward a translucent ceiling where sunlight floods in, ``because I can't make it dark in here.''
Progress is made each week - more blackboards, air conditioning, additional desks, better lighting - but it's easy to find those who say that both the news media and university officials are putting too positive a spin on a dire situation.
In another parking lot behind the student union, in a wood-covered mobile home, Paul Bond, editor of the campus newspaper Daily Sundial, and a handful of reporters type stories into a half-dozen computers perched on lunch tables. ``It's hard to produce a daily newspaper with production facilities a quarter-mile away,'' he says, directing a reporter to where advertising and layout operations are crammed unceremoniously into a windowless storage room behind the university bookstore.
``School this semester is a downer,'' says Mr. Bond, a senior majoring in journalism. ``We pay the same price as other state universities that are not in this situation.... You'd think we would get some kind of break.''
Bond describes a chaotic campus life highlighted by long walks between classes, forced by the placement of trailer classrooms around the edges of campus. With 13 credits needed to graduate this semester, Bond dropped eight because he felt that bad acoustics and lack of equipment were hindering his ability to get the education he needs.
Because his newspaper is assembled in a different location than it is written, many errors have been made, he says. On two consecutive days, the same sports pages ran, and one day a box appeared with no picture in it.
Dr. Werner Horn is also disgruntled. The math teacher is one of 45 faculty members who must share six desks in a mobile unit at the south end of campus, far from where math classes are held. Professors visit the mobile unit for mail and to split office hours according to highly detailed charts.
But it's also easy to find those who feel the present situation is high adventure - a mild inconvenience in which the goals of education are being met.
In a dirt parking lot at the south end of campus, freshmen Paul Pate and Kincaid Smith warm up for Jazz/Music 306 in one tension dome known affectionately as the ``tent-like-thing.'' Their saxophone and trumpet riffs are barely audible amid a cacophony of drums, piano, and trombones inside the tent. ``It's horrid in here; the sound is just awful,'' Mr. Pate says. ``But this will pass. I have no plans to leave, because CSUN has one of the best music schools around.''
And math department staffer Susan Widelitz says of her new quarters: ``We feel safer here in a one-story trailer than a fourth-floor office. Earthquakes, you know.''
And several faculty say the forced chaos has heightened a sense of community on campus, dropping previous barriers between staff and faculty. That has been forced by day after day of intense review of every matter from toilet replacement to prioritizing curriculum.
``Institutions of this size are not inclined to accept change easily,'' Mininberg says. ``But when you have an earthquake foisted on you, people are more willing to discuss alternative ideas, share more, and not be so entrenched. There's a break in ... parochial protectionism.''
There has been no break in spring semester, however, as students are foregoing the usual week-off jaunts to the beach and points south to make up for their late semester start. Graduation will be one week late as well (June 6, 7, and 8), but fall semester will be back on schedule (beginning Aug. 28).
By then, one question will likely be settled: whether the university mascot will be changed from ``matador'' to ``quakes.'' The issue is hotly debated before the student senate and in editorials: pro and con responses are running about 50-50, Ms. Thompson says. ``Some have never liked the image of the bullfighter, others say the natural disaster should not be dignified,'' she says. ``Right now, it's a healthy diversion.''