Cal Poly SLO University Grows Under 4 Presidents
Former Cal Poly President Warren Baker recently died at the age of 84.
The University of San Luis Obispo has grown over the decades through the vision and commitment of staff and leaders like Baker, who have led the campus for more than three decades.
California Polytechnic School was established as a vocational high school in 1901.
In 1933 the school was struggling, with just over 400 students enrolled.
The Great Depression had sapped the state budget, and the isolated rural school had few friends in Sacramento.
The California State Legislature cut funding for female students at Cal Poly beginning in 1930.
Although she repealed the law in 1937, the school would not admit women again until 1956.
Ben Crandall, who was president of Cal Poly from 1924 to 1933, said in the 1933 El Rodeo Yearbook message that the school was being reorganized.
High school and college programs were eliminated when Cal Poly became a two-year agricultural-focused technical and vocational school.
“Naturally, it is with regret that the vision of a large technical institute on the Pacific coast must be abandoned,” Crandall wrote.
My grandfather Lionel was a student at Cal Poly and a member of the football team at the time.
Lionel had grown up in Colusa, growing grain and rising before dawn to hitch teams of mules to harvesting equipment.
My grandmother Betty said she fell in love with Lionel when she saw him leaning against a shovel at a project.
They married and started a family, but their return to Colusa was not successful, in part due to a series of bad weather setbacks.
They moved to San Luis Obispo County and Lionel got a job with Cal Poly on farm staff.
Occasionally, I would meet a student who recalled fond memories of working with my grandfather at the farm shop.
Lionel was also part of a team of volunteers who helped with Department of Agriculture tri-tip barbecues in the Cal Poly grove next to the train tracks.
Lionel retired after 33 years working on campus, including many years in charge of agricultural operations. His retirement was announced on January 13, 1976 at Cal Poly Reporta typed ballot.
When Lionel came to Cal Poly as a student, he had 400 classmates. When he retired, the student population was 15,000 students.
Lionel worked under Cal Poly’s longest-serving president, Julian McPhee, who was in charge for 33 years. My father attended school during his tenure.
McPhee led Cal Poly through the Great Depression, World War II, and a major expansion to become a four-year college.
The college opened operations for the branch that would become Cal Poly Pomona after receiving its first donation of $1 million. (There is now a third Cal Poly, located in Humboldt.)
However, frugality was a habit.
Most of the buildings on Cal Poly’s San Luis Obispo campus from the McPhee era are stark and unadorned.
Perhaps because the school fought back after being nearly wiped out of the state budget, the staff had something to prove.
McPhee’s successor was one of its top administrators, Robert E. Kennedy.
Kennedy oversaw Cal Poly during the Vietnam War, when anti-war protests rocked the campus, and guided the school through the process of becoming a state university.
His tenure included the establishment of a college of architecture, and more modern multi-story buildings began to appear on campus.
Kennedy retired in 1979. His replacement was Warren Baker, who was the youngest University of California president in history at 40.
Baker was also a bit of a headache for the old-timers. He didn’t stop to chat as he walked at a run, head bowed, deep in thought, from his house to the administration building.
Some complain that they have not seen much of the new president.
During Baker’s tenure, dilapidated buildings were demolished and replaced.
According to Cal Poly Library University History Timelinenearly every year or two of Baker’s tenure as president has been marked by a new building or major gift.
The breadth and variety of projects the university tackled under Baker’s leadership were unparalleled. They included approximately $1 billion in new facilities and renovations and the acquisitions of the Cal Poly Pier near Avila Beach and the Swanton Pacific Ranch near Davenport.
Baker’s tenure included forming the partnership between Cal Poly, the City of San Luis Obispo, and the foundation that established the Performing Arts Center on the edge of the university’s campus.
Despite being busy, Baker was seen taking time to be with one of his kids at basketball camp or playing catch before a Babe Ruth game.
Cal Poly achieved a more national profile by beginning to appear on top lists beginning in 1993 with US News and World Report.
In addition to an increase in financial scope, the university moved to Division I collegiate athletics and added a Doctor of Education program and a wine and viticulture program.
Undoubtedly, the Baker presidency left a lasting legacy.
When I came to campus in 1979, the same year Baker started, agriculture was more specialized than it was when my grandfather and father graduated. I couldn’t see a path for me in this school.
I thought I was good at science, but soon found out I was a C student at best in that area.
Fortunately, there was a journalism program at Cal Poly encouraged by Kennedy. There, at the student newspaper, I found mine.
The robust university that began as a vocational high school over a century ago still helps students prepare for their future, wherever they land in the world.
However, the big issues facing Crandall and his successors were vastly different from those faced by current Cal Poly president Jeffrey Armstrong, who was already running the university when my son Scott attended. And Cal Poly is a very different place.
Universities need to find ways to keep the classic lessons alive and relevant; prune branches of study that are no longer productive and grow and adapt to the times.
But Cal Poly’s core philosophy – “Learning by Doing” – lives on.