SI Vault
Rick Telander
May 23, 1977
Overlooking Malibu's movie colony, Pepperdine University sparkles like a country club. Only problem: critics fear it may also be overlooking study for sport
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May 23, 1977

School Of Soft Knocks

Overlooking Malibu's movie colony, Pepperdine University sparkles like a country club. Only problem: critics fear it may also be overlooking study for sport

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Dr. William S. Banowsky, the athletically built 41-year-old president of Pepperdine University, gestures at a vista that includes school buildings, mountains, stars, big-city lights and the Pacific Ocean. He is about to respond to a question that has to do with hypocrisy—a practice that Pepperdine has lately been accused of. Indeed, in recent years Pepperdine has been accused of many things, including willfully turning itself into a sports factory at the expense of loftier educational goals.

"Look out there," Banowsky says grandly. "The lights of Los Angeles and Malibu against the ocean—absolutely spectacular, isn't it? I've been to a lot of places. I was at the French Riviera last summer, but it can't compare with this. Our land here goes from sea level to 1,700 feet. That development property off to the right is divided into half-acre lots, and each lot goes for between $60,000 and $100,000. This is the most beautiful place in the world."

As a minister in the Church of Christ, a columnist for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner and a former Republican National Committeeman from California, Banowsky is well versed in the meaning and usage of words. His reply, evasive as it may seem, approaches policy at this posh Southern California university: when in doubt, show them the campus.

It is true that the school is visually stimulating to the point of making one forget hard realities. Everything is clean and vivid. The students are the embodiment of good taste. There are no campus guerrillas, no wild-eyed poets, no Indian headbands, no unbuttoned shirts. "I would say the basic Pepperdine student is a middle- to upper-middle-class white who is not too intellectual, owns his own car and is sort of wanting to bust out," says student newspaper editor Don Risolo. "The males are about six feet tall, tan, with blond hair and mustaches. The girls are fashion-conscious, good-looking, chic and tend to wear tight slacks." Because everyone lives, eats and socializes with everyone else, and because most Pepperdine students are active in intramural and beach sports, the appearance of the student body is one of decided healthiness.

The vision of wholesomeness is somewhat deceptive, however, for in recent years Pepperdine has been beset by a number of internal problems, which caused President Banowsky to occasionally show people the campus rather than respond to their questions.

There have been problems with money (as a result of a vociferous protest, professors received a small salary increase for 1976-77; the school was investigated by the State Attorney General's office for alleged improper funding and shady financial deals, but later cleared) and there has been criticism for "abandoning" the original Los Angeles campus following the move to Malibu in 1972. There have been complaints about the burgeoning size of the school ( Pepperdine's enrollment at all schools, including a branch in Heidelberg, Germany and one in Orange County, has risen from less than 3,000 a few years ago to 9,000 today) and about its future as a Church of Christ-affiliated institution. And there are those who are unhappy about the athletic escalation.

When he founded the school in 1937, the late George Pepperdine, president of Western Auto Supply Company, visualized nothing so grand. A millionaire and a devout member of the Church of Christ, he wanted to establish a private liberal arts "Christian college" loosely affiliated with his church. He created a small, tacky campus in southwest Los Angeles, dotted with palm trees and a thousand or so students, financially stable but largely uninspired intellectually, esthetically or athletically.

But when the university opened the campus at Malibu, the famed home of surfers and movie stars, conditions changed. Now, perched like a white bird several hundred feet above the Pacific Coast Highway and the surf, Pepperdine visually declares itself ready for the big time. Academically, it is beginning to move that way. Esthetically, it needs a few more trees. Athletically, it is there.

In the 4� years it has been at Malibu, Pepperdine's success in sports has been phenomenal. Earlier this month the men's volleyball team, with three U.S. National Team members, finished third in the country. Last year the baseball team won its third consecutive West Coast Athletic Conference crown, a dominance that ended with the formation of the Southern California Baseball Association, a tougher league. The new balance is reflected in Pepperdine's 18-24 record so far this season. Four members of the 1976 team are now in the majors. This month the tennis team won the WCAC title for the fifth straight time and is ranked eighth in the nation. The 1975-76 basketball team, led by 6'10" Brazilian Marcos Leite, had a 22-6 record, won the conference title and made it to the West Regionals of the NCAA championship before losing to UCLA. (This season the Waves were 13-13 and came in sixth in the conference.) Last fall the water polo team, in its second season, was ranked seventh in the U.S.

The women's teams, formed just two years ago, are also on the move. The volleyball team is representative. Because of its progress in just one year, it did not participate in the AIAW national small college tournament held at Pepperdine last December. The women were so good they were allowed to play in the major college tournament in Austin, Texas, in which they finished fourth.

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