It was 1969. Fresh out of chemistry graduate school at Purdue, 26-year-old Phil Bailey was job hunting. Working page-by-page through a directory of the nation’s colleges and universities, he selected 125 places he could see himself teaching — institutions known for a focus on undergraduate education rather than high-profile research. On his little Olivetti typewriter, he hand-typed 125 letters and sent them out.
A state school in a small town near the beach in California interviewed him over the phone and offered him a job in the chemistry department. Accepting the job sight unseen, he and his wife, Tina — also with a new chemistry doctorate — packed up to move across the country.
At the time, Bailey couldn’t have known that that arbitrary beginning was the start of a journey that would define his career and transform the institution he was joining.
“Phil has been a great mentor to me since I arrived here at Cal Poly,” says Cal Poly President Jeffrey D. Armstrong. “He taught me what Learn by Doing is and what it means to have a single-minded focus on student success.”
Retiring this year at the end of 48 years at Cal Poly, Bailey is leaving a legacy that includes several major campus building projects with a final one currently in development; a campus-wide focus on undergraduate research as a powerful teaching tool; several of the largest donations in university history; and perhaps most importantly, thousands of student lives touched by his personal connection.
From the beginning, Bailey was passionate about connecting with students. “It was everything I wanted to do,” he says of the culture he found at Cal Poly, where teaching undergraduates was the highest priority. “I was teaching chemistry to students who often didn’t much care for chemistry, or at least they didn’t know they did. But I was able to win them over — and it was fun.”
Bailey quickly discovered that focusing on students individually provided an opportunity to discover better ways to get concepts across. “Students would ask questions in my office hours, and I’d try to come up with another way to explain it than I had used in class,” he says. “It was rewarding, and sometimes I’d think, ‘why didn’t I teach it this way from the start?’”
“Phil wasn’t just a teacher and mentor to these students — he was a committed supporter and personal friend.”
— Warren J. Baker, Former University President
That relentless focus on student success has been a hallmark of Bailey’s career, growing from interactions with individual students to quickly include larger impacts on college- wide and eventually even campus-wide curriculum. Bailey was associate dean of the College of Science and Mathematics (COSAM) when in 1983 he was asked to serve as interim dean. Two years later, then-university president Warren Baker invited Bailey to a meeting to offer him the job permanently.
“I was very impressed with Phil,” says Baker. “His focus was on students, and he had a keen insight into their needs. He also had strong support from the faculty in the college, so it was an easy decision.”
Another thing that Bailey brought with him was a strong belief in undergraduate research — something that was not always done at the time, even on a campus focused on Learn by Doing.
“When I came here, there wasn’t a great deal going on in engaging undergrads in research,” says Baker. “Phil had a vision for how this could be done and how valuable it would be, and that the faculty needed to be supported to add this dimension to the curriculum.”
As Bailey’s responsibilities grew, so did the scope of the projects he undertook on behalf of student success. Tina Bailey, a noted science educator in her own right who spent nearly a decade as head of Cal Poly’s chemistry department, thinks that the success of many of his undertakings is due to a combination of optimism and humility.
“He was always positive. He was always hopeful,” she says. “He never thought of himself as being a visionary, but it turns out he had a better vision than he imagined.”
Growing up in a segregated Austin, Texas, in the 1940s and 50s, Bailey witnessed the prejudice and inequality that shaped even the smallest daily interactions. He recalls organizing a banquet as senior class president in high school and discovering that the owner of the restaurant wouldn’t allow his black classmates to enter. He negotiated for the entire class to walk into the restaurant together, shielding the black students in the middle of the group until they all made their way to the banquet room, which was separate from the main dining room.
“What I did would be inappropriate today, but probably was not bad for a scared 17- year-old in 1959,” he says. “I was embarrassed later that I didn’t realize at the time how courageous those black students were to enter an all-white restaurant, and the risk their families took in bringing them there.”
Experiences like that resonated with Bailey throughout his life, and have shaped his approach to serving students at Cal Poly. Above and beyond his duties as an educator and administrator, he has been a tireless advocate for black, Latino, LGBT and undocumented students.
Because of his efforts as an ally, he has been invited to speak at the Black Student Commencement and the Lavender Commencement, graduation events celebrating black and LGBT students. He also recently won the Giving Back Award from INSIGHT Into Diversity Magazine, a national publication dedicated to issues of inclusion in higher education.
President Baker notes that Bailey’s commitment to the success of underrepresented students was evident from the beginning of his career.
“Phil wasn’t just a teacher and mentor to these students — he was a committed supporter and personal friend,” says Baker.
“When Phil leaves, it’s going to be important to make sure we continue to have the kinds of people who will make those students’ success a priority.”
Bailey’s service to minority students is part of a larger commitment to meeting students’ needs — far beyond the scope of classroom knowledge. “The number one thing about Phil and Tina is that they care about students, not just as students but as people,” says Armstrong. “I’ve never met a more caring couple.”
Ask anyone who has worked with Bailey through the years, and you’re likely to hear about an aspect of his service to students that truly stands out among educators. Over the years, he and Tina have provided a home for dozens of Cal Poly students who might otherwise have been homeless or forced to leave the university. Most of those students were at risk because of pressing financial problems. Among the first were refugees from the war in Vietnam, followed by students from all walks of life facing circumstances they couldn’t overcome on their own, including undocumented students.
Victor Vilchiz (Chemistry, ’96) was one of the many students who lived with the Baileys over the years. The first person in his family to attend college, Vilchiz found himself facing extreme financial hardship, to the point where he was considering dropping out. He was working as a tutor in one of Tina’s chemistry courses, and mentioned his situation to her. Right away, the Baileys offered Vilchiz a room in their own home, and he moved in with them that weekend.
“When you come to Cal Poly, they tell you you’ll be joining the Mustang family — but with Phil and Tina, you’re joining the Bailey family for real,” says Vilchiz, who still calls the Baileys Mom and Dad more than 20 years later. “It doesn’t matter where you come from, it doesn’t matter what you look like, there is a sense of unity in that family.”
After the Baileys helped him overcome a period of deep uncertainty regarding his future, Vilchiz ended up going into the “family business,” and today is head of the chemistry department at Virginia State University, a historically black institution.
“I still call him, not just for personal advice, but for professional advice,” he says. “They became not just my family, but my mentors in the profession. I was so blessed to have them.”
“I don’t know what to tell you except that when you come across a student who is facing a challenge that is hard to overcome, it just seemed to me as a faculty member that your job is to help them be successful in whatever way you can,” says Bailey of the many students in whom he’s taken a personal stake over the years. “As I took more leadership positions, it turned out that I had more avenues for doing that.”
Both Bailey and Baker are fond of telling the story of the meeting in 1985 in which they discussed Bailey taking over as COSAM dean.
“He told me, ‘Warren, I’m not a fundraiser. If that’s what you have in mind for me as dean, you might as well go ahead and pick someone else,’” Baker says. “I told him, ‘Well, we’ll fix that for you.’”
Despite his initial protests, Bailey’s tenure as dean has been marked by a long string of ambitious projects successfully funded by donors who caught and came to share his enthusiasm.
By any measure, one of his most notable achievements is the development and eventual construction of the cutting-edge Baker Center for Science and Mathematics. Completed in 2013, the building was the result of 20 years of planning and preparation, which involved working closely with faculty to find out what resources and facilities they needed to best educate students.
“I’ve seen other institutions that will get some money and just start to build, without seeking faculty input,” says Tina Bailey, who developed the lecture-lab hybrid “studio classrooms” that are among the Baker Center’s most innovative features. “With this building, we all participated in creating that vision — faculty, staff and students.”
Even beyond campus, Bailey’s vision for engaging undergrads made ripples. President Baker, who served on the board of the National Science Foundation (NSF), brought of officials from that group to campus to see what Cal Poly was doing.
“They were very surprised, and as a result of what they’ve seen us doing, engagement of undergraduate students in research has become a bigger requirement for many NSF programs and grants,” says Baker.
“That’s something I don’t think Phil really recognized, that what he was doing has had that kind of nationwide impact.”
The culture of undergraduate research that Bailey helped launch continues to make an ever-widening impact. Most notably, it recently inspired the historic $110 million gift by alumnus Bill Frost, aimed at supporting undergrads in research. The gift will fund the creation of yet another building on campus, this one dedicated to student-faculty research.
It’s 2017. Phil Bailey is sitting in his of office in the administrative suite of Faculty Offices East — a building that wouldn’t exist without him. It was the first construction project he oversaw as dean.
He’s been typing an email of tips and encouragement for freshmen science and math students, a ritual he’s performed every week or so for years. Students are usually very appreciative, he says, and will stop him in the halls to chat about the latest message.
“I’m down to my last few emails,” he says. “Hopefully the next dean will not only continue to do that, but do it better. It’s going to be hard for me to give that up.”
Of course, as integral as he’s been in the Cal Poly community for so long, he’s not really giving up everything. He plans to continue to manage the use of the funds from the Frost gift to develop programs and facilities dedicated to fostering undergraduate research, and hopes he can be involved in some capacity as an advisor.
But the thing he will miss most is pretty obvious to anyone familiar with his legacy at Cal Poly. “As dean, I have responsibilities to the students — there is a reason for them to have to come and see me from time to time,” he says. “I really enjoy the people I work with. But the students are what I’m going to miss most.”
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