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Campus History

Since its founding in 1989, California State University San Marcos has been dedicated to student success, social mobility and innovation. Through first-year programs, learning communities, internships, undergraduate research and much more, the university works to foster deep learning and academic success by engaging students in meaningful and innovative educational experiences. Located on a 306-acre hillside overlooking the city of San Marcos, CSUSM is the only public four-year comprehensive university serving North San Diego, Southwest Riverside and South Orange counties.

Filling a Need

As early as the 1960s, business and civic leaders in North San Diego County advocated for the development of a state university in the region. State Sen. William A. Craven began lobbying for a public university to be built in the region long before he was elected to the State Assembly in 1973.

In 1969, California State University Chancellor Glenn S. Dumke issued a report that detailed the need for a new university campus in North County. Working with local business and civic leaders, Craven obtained state funds to begin a satellite campus for San Diego State University in 1978, paving the way for the opening of a campus at Lincoln Middle School in Vista that served 148 students. By 1982, the satellite campus needed more space to meet growing demand and moved to an office building on Los Vallecitos Boulevard in San Marcos.

With enrollment continuing to increase at SDSU North County, CSU trustees purchased the future permanent home of CSUSM — the Prohoroff Poultry Farm in San Marcos — for $10.6 million in 1988. A year later, Gov. George Deukmejian signed Senate Bill 365 into law, officially reconstituting the SDSU satellite campus as California State University San Marcos — the United States’ first comprehensive public university to be founded in two decades.

The Early Years

When Bill W. Stacy was named CSUSM’s founding president in September 1989, he got right to work assembling faculty, building a curriculum, recruiting a student body and planning construction of the a physical campus.

CSUSM opened in August 1990 in rented office space with 448 juniors and seniors, a dozen faculty members and nine majors. In 1991, seven students were awarded the first Bachelor of Arts degrees in campus history. And, in fall 1992, the permanent campus opened following the completion of Craven Hall, Academic Hall and Science Hall I.

By the time Stacy left in 1997, the university had a student body of almost 4,500 and offered 19 bachelor’s degrees, 15 teacher credentials and eight master’s degrees.

CSUSM saw continued growth under Alexander Gonzalez, who was appointed as Stacy’s interim replacement in 1997 and was named the permanent president two years later.

Gonzalez oversaw the opening of several new buildings, including University Hall, Science Hall II, the Arts Building and the first on-campus student housing. In 1998, he also established the department of athletics, which debuted with six teams – men’s and women’s golf, men’s and women’s cross country, and men’s and women’s track and field. Athletics welcomed an on-campus home in 2003 with the opening of the M. Gordon Clarke Field House, made possible by a pledge of $1.2 million from Helene Clarke in honor of her husband.

A Growing Campus

Following Gonzalez’s departure in 2003, the university welcomed the person who would become its longest-serving president, Karen S. Haynes.

CSUSM averaged a new building every year for more than a decade during Haynes’ tenure, including:

  • Kellogg Library, which was bolstered by generous support from Jean and W. Keith Kellogg II.
  • Markstein Hall, which was made possible by a pledge of $5 million from Ken and Carole Markstein for the home of the College of Business Administration.
  • Center for Children and Families, a state-of-the-art day care and preschool facility offering quality child care for students, faculty, staff and the community as well as providing meaningful real-world learning opportunities for CSUSM students.
  • McMahan House, a special event and conference facility funded by a generous $4.4 million donation from JoAn and Richard McMahan.
  • University Student Union, the 90,000-square-foot hub of student life on campus.
  • The Sports Center, home to Cougars men's and women's basketball and women's volleyball.

Haynes also oversaw the launch of numerous programs and initiatives, including the California Indian Culture and Sovereignty Center, which fosters collaboration and understanding between the university and regional American Indian communities; the CSU Shiley Institute for Palliative Care, named in recognition of longtime supporter Darlene Marcos Shiley and dedicated to increasing access to palliative care by educating current and future health professionals; and ACE Scholars Services, a one-of-a-kind program to support former foster youth

Haynes’ tenure also saw CSUSM successfully launch and complete its first major philanthropic campaign, Forward Together, an ambitious effort to raise $50 million.


While CSUSM discovered and honed its voice over its first three decades, the university’s fourth president, Ellen J. Neufeldt, is ushering in the next 30 years.

Innovation has been one of Neufeldt’s main pillars since she arrived in July 2019. Among her early accomplishments was the founding of CSUSM’s Innovation Hub, which supports the community by addressing societal needs through innovative practices and partnerships situated at the intersection of diversity, inclusion and student success, with a focus on enriching the intellectual, civic, economic and cultural life of our region.

CSUSM remains firmly committed to diversity and inclusion, receiving the Higher Education Excellence in Diversity (HEED) Award from INSIGHT Into Diversity magazine, the oldest and largest diversity-focused publication in higher education, for the eighth straight year in 2021. 

The university also stands among the national leaders in the social mobility of its graduates, ranking 32nd nationally out of almost 1,500 schools measured in the 2021 Social Mobility Index by CollegeNET. The index measures the extent to which a college or university educates more economically disadvantaged students at lower tuition and graduates them into good-paying jobs.

About half of CSUSM students are underrepresented minorities, and 54% of graduates are the first in their families to earn a bachelor’s degree. One in nine students is a veteran, service member or military-affiliated dependent. CSUSM is also a major contributor of bachelor’s degree holders to the region’s workforce, with more than 80% of students remaining in the region following graduation.

Youthful and enterprising, CSUSM has an unrivaled track record for success. Today, the university is fueling more than $458 million into the region each year and supporting thousands of jobs in industries ranging from retail to real estate.