The Last Word

Cal Poly Was Built to Grow

President Armstrong on his predecessor's legacy and the university's future

President Jeffrey Armstrong and President Emeritus Warren Baker smile while holding a framed medal

President Armstrong presents President Emeritus Warren Baker the Cal Poly President’s Medal of Excellence at the 2013 dedication of the Warren J. Baker Center for Science and Mathematics. Photo by Brittany App.

Warren J. Baker, Cal Poly’s President Emeritus, passed away on October 7, 2022. It would be difficult to overstate President Baker’s impact on Cal Poly, and through the university on the state and on higher education.

During his tenure, which began in 1979 and continued for a remarkable 31 years until 2010, President Baker helped to transform Cal Poly. Enrollment increased by 30%. Cal Poly was first recognized by U.S. News as the best masters-level public university in the West, and has held that ranking for the past 30 years. President Baker oversaw the construction of the Cerro Vista and Poly Canyon Village housing developments, the Performing Arts Center, and many other campus facilities. His final major project as president was to secure the funding for, and celebrate breaking ground on, the Warren J. Baker Center for Science and Mathematics, which is now the second-largest building on campus.

President Baker always built for the future, not merely for the present. He oversaw the university’s first comprehensive fundraising campaign, as well as the creation of the Cal Poly Plan and the College-Based Fee. The 2001 Campus Master Plan that he led set the standard for similar planning at the other CSU campuses and beyond. In short, President Baker saw that Cal Poly could grow, that it needed to grow, and that he could help it to grow both its current capacity and its capacity to grow more in the future.

It has been a privilege and a blessing to follow President Baker in office. His is a legacy well worth preserving and expanding. It is as true today as it was in 1979 that Cal Poly needs to grow. The university needs to grow because our society grows continually and presents new challenges, whether those challenges take the form of inflation in prices, an increasing population, or rising expectations about who can and should attain a four-year degree. Inescapably, standing still would not preserve our current excellence, but would ensure that we fall behind.

President Baker saw that Cal Poly could grow, that it needed to grow, and that he could help it to grow both its current capacity and its capacity to grow more in the future.

At its best, a university forms a virtuous circle in which faculty and staff excellence attract excellent students, whose achievements encourage even greater degrees of excellence and whose tuition and fees (along with state support) help to provide good jobs at competitive wages for the university’s employees. Over the past 30 years, measured as purchasing power, state support has fallen by more than 25%, which has strained Cal Poly’s ability to maintain that virtuous circle. To maintain, and grow, that harmonious relationship among the many people who make up the university, we will need to grow our revenue, and one of the few ways that we can achieve that is by increasing the number of students enrolled.

Such growth would be a fitting continuation of President Baker’s legacy. However, as he realized during his presidency, more students require more units of housing, more classrooms, more labs, and more dining facilities. President Baker built so that Cal Poly could grow. Once again, our current physical resources are at or over capacity and need to expand. But expanding that capacity will take both time and financial resources, and the pressure to grow won’t wait. To grow in the immediate future, we must be bold and creative.

Perhaps we could increase total enrollment without increasing the number of students on campus at any given time, for example through initiatives that we have been discussing, such as year-round operations, increased virtual class offerings, or partnerships with our two local community colleges. During the current academic year we need to continue these important conversations about the future we want for Cal Poly and how to achieve it.

Such conversations honor the legacy left to us by President Baker, while adapting, as he did, to meet the needs of the times. I look forward to partnering with all of you in creatively meeting these challenges.