The sun-drenched cluster of white buildings above Pacific Coast Highway known today as Pepperdine University was not always the ubiquitous sentinel overlooking Malibu it may now seem. In the new memoir, “The Malibu Miracle,” former Pepperdine President William S. Banowsky provides a behind-the-scenes account of how a dying college in inner city Los Angeles reincarnated itself, in the space of a few years, as an elite liberal arts university in Malibu often designated “the most beautiful campus in the United States.”
Banowsky focuses on the years between 1968 and 1978, the last eight coinciding with his tenure as president, when the school made the move to Malibu.
The president emeritus briefly traces the school’s history in Los Angeles, arguing that years of financial troubles and larger social phenomena in 1960s America converged to force Pepperdine officials to make the crucial decision to leave the original 34-acre campus in the Vermont Knolls area. Founded in 1937 by George Pepperdine, a devout businessman who started the Western Auto Supply Company, the school known then as George Pepperdine College experienced moderate success until its founder’s 1951 bankruptcy forced administrators into a pattern of borrowing money from the endowment fund every year to cover operating costs. The college’s fortunes continued to wane until what Banowsky describes as the “death blow” to the Los Angeles incarnation of Pepperdine, the 1965 Watts race riots. Raging just blocks away from campus, the nearly week-long riots that left 34 dead, more than a thousand injured and $100 million in damage, crippled the school’s efforts to recruit new students, due to safety concerns.
The college’s president at the time, M. Norvel Young, soon appointed a search committee-which included Banowsky, then occupying a Church of Christ pulpit in Lubbock, Texas-for prospective sites to build a new undergraduate campus. On a tip from a friend, Young located a parcel of 138 acres in Malibu owned by the Adamson family, which they agreed to donate in order to elevate the value of their surrounding property. In 1968, Young recruited Banowsky to the school as executive vice president, and together they embarked on a wildly successful fundraising campaign. Targeting wealthy conservative donors who identified with the school’s Christian mission, Banowsky and Young came up with the funds to build a new campus in Malibu. One donor in particular, Blanche Seaver, a widow whose husband made a fortune in the oil industry, donated money for the initial construction. She eventually contributed her entire estate to the school, valued at more than $300 million.
Rick Gibson, Pepperdine’s associate vice president of Public Affairs, believes this was no accident.
“I have rarely been in the presence of such charisma,” Gibson said of Banowsky. Banowsky’s cultivation of other high-profile conservatives such as California Governor Ronald Reagan helped to bring in even more donors. James Wilburn, who came to the university in 1970 and is now dean of the School of Public Policy, recalls that Banowsky “had the ability to move around the city of Los Angeles … and really raised the visibility of Pepperdine very rapidly during that period.”
After cataloguing in “Miracle” the number and magnitude of lucky breaks that facilitated the school’s phoenix-like reincarnation in Malibu, Banowsky concludes there is only one explanation: divine intervention. In addition to the original land grant, for instance, a propitious accident of timing allowed builders to erect an entirely new campus in only 36 months. Three-and-a-half million cubic yards of earth were moved by bulldozer and dynamite before the Malibu campus opened in 1972 as the new Seaver College of Pepperdine University. Sixty days later, the recently created California Coastal Commission established much stricter environmental codes that would have made such dramatic excavation impossible. The new policies effectively shut down plans by the Adamson family for a housing development surrounding the campus, which worked out to Pepperdine’s gain. Eventually the family donated the rest of the land to the school, which today comprises 830 acres overlooking the ocean. Additionally, Banowsky cites with relish a 2004 survey in Seventeen magazine that ranked Pepperdine as the safest campus in the country, 39 years after the Watts riots almost forced it to close.
“For it to be at this place now, in the minds of many people, is nothing short of miraculous,” Gibson said. “Nobody is saying that this is all because of God, but it does yield the people on this campus a real sense of purpose.”
Regardless of how it got there, some Malibuites were not pleased when Pepperdine arrived.
“Except for one exclusive family’s land gift, Pepperdine arrived uninvited and under widespread suspicion,” Banowsky dramatically acknowledges.
Wilburn believes the tension arose “partly because Pepperdine emerged so rapidly,” and also because the monumental challenges of funding and constructing the campus distracted Banowsky and others from reaching out to local residents.
“They didn’t take the time or have the time to let the Malibu community learn about who they were. I think even Bill Banowsky would admit, if he could do it over again, that he would take more time to let the community get to know him.”
However, Wilburn believes that initial friction has long subsided.
“Today Pepperdine has worked very hard at being a good neighbor, and I think our students for the most part have been good neighbors as well,” Wilburn said, pointing additionally to the cultural opportunities such as the school’s theater and art gallery of which Malibu residents can now take advantage.
Another legacy of the period that has stoked lingering controversy is Pepperdine’s association with Republican politics. Banowsky, an avowed Republican who admits to harboring political ambitions at the time, writes that the school’s affiliation with conservative politicians and their benefactors was a necessary marriage of convenience. In short, they would associate with whoever would donate money. Banowsky and Young even traveled to Iran in 1977 to bestow an honorary doctorate upon the Shah, who promptly bestowed a gift of one million dollars upon the school.
Gibson offers a historical perspective as well. “There was so much unrest [in the Sixties], and a lot of that unrest was making itself present on college campuses. A lot of conservative people were troubled by that, and here was a pretty small, narrow conservative school that energized people like Mrs. Seaver and others like her connected to the Republican Party. It is not surprising to me that the values of the university aligned with conservative ideas.”
“The Malibu Miracle” can be bought online at themalibumiracle.com. It can also be purchased at Amazon.com, Diesel, A Bookstore and the Pepperdine University bookstore.