It’s come a long way

Butte College—from a bunch of trailers in Durham to the largest community-college campus in the state

Mark Hall started teaching at Butte College in 1971, back when classes were held at an old high school in Durham while the district scrounged up money for a permanent campus.

“It was very, very interesting because it was a former high school and we were right next to the railroad tracks,” Hall reminisced. “Every half an hour the trains would go by and everyone would just stop—you couldn’t hear yourself think.”

Butte College has come quite a ways from its modest beginnings.

Back in 1967, after years of discussions with the State Board of Education, Butte County and finally a vote during the 1966 general election, the Butte Junior College District was born. (The “Junior” was later dropped in favor of “Community.")

Chico State couldn’t possibly meet the demands of the baby boomers, who had reached college age, and when Butte College opened its doors in 1968, administrators expected 800-900 students. That fall, 1,994 people enrolled in classes. There were 44 full-time instructors and more than 60 part-timers.

“My first class was taught in a single-wide trailer,” Hall said. “It was a speech class. It was so cold in there—we didn’t have heat—so we all had to wear sweaters all year ’round.”

It was all part of starting from scratch back then, Hall said. The students even helped to put together makeshift desks when the furniture failed to arrive on time.

“Our vice president for academic affairs would do all the scheduling for the entire college himself,” Hall said with a chuckle. “He had cards on the floor of his office, and he mapped it all out.

“I don’t think the system would have it that way these days. We were very informal, we were feeling our way and making up the rules as we went along. Now we’re a lot more bureaucratic and have lots more procedures.”

When the site was chosen for Butte’s permanent campus, it was decidedly placed near the geographical center of the county. It took a few years and bond measures to secure the plans and funds to actually begin building, however.

In 1971, ground was broken off Durham-Pentz Road. Just a year later, the college gained accreditation by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges—despite the fact most of its classes were held in portable classrooms.

“I was in one until last year,” Hall said of the portable classrooms. “The admin building is still a building that came from the old campus.”

Apparently they weren’t as temporary as they originally thought.

In 1973 the site was designated a wildlife refuge. Just a year later, the Durham-Pentz Road campus opened for business with almost 6,000 students. Growth, it turned out, would be a constant in the years to come. This fall, Butte College enrolled 20,504 students.

“It used to be that everybody knew everybody,” Hall said. “Now we’re so huge I hardly know anybody out here. We’re just so big, so spread out.”

In fact, at more than 900 acres Butte College is the biggest community college, geographically speaking, in California.

The 1980s proved difficult financially, with several waves of funding cutbacks from the state. There were layoffs, and student fees were for the first time imposed—in 1984. The ‘90s, however, would turn out to be quite prosperous.

The school’s first computer lab opened in 1990, the same year the football team won the Fresno Producers Bowl and the Chico Center on Cohasset Road opened its doors.

The past 17 years have brought nothing but growth to the district that serves two counties and upwards of 20,000 people. The last decade especially has been dedicated to advances in sustainability; completing a solar array project in 2005 and hosting its first-ever statewide sustainability conference in August of this year.

Hall is now one of only five instructors left from the old campus. When the library expansion was completed last year, he moved out of the old portable building and into a fresh, new space. He teaches radio and television production, so up-to-date equipment is particularly important.

Hall said his favorite thing about teaching at Butte College is “The students more than anything else. I do a lot of hands-on production courses so I really get to know them quite well. I see them go out and get internships and jobs and I follow their careers. I get satisfaction seeing people be successful.”

“I bet there are thousands of Butte College grads working in Butte and Glenn counties,” Hall said.

And that makes him proud.