Warren Baker era at Cal Poly is greater than sum of its parts

Tribune file photo by Joe Johnston

For the first time since he was 40, Warren Baker on Monday won’t have the multifaceted job of leading one of California’s best-regarded universities.

After 31 years, he’s retiring as Cal Poly’s president. Today is Baker’s last official day.

Former Ohio University president Robert Glidden will take over Monday as the university’s interim president, and a new search for Baker’s permanent replacement will begin this fall.

A previous search failed to yield a suitable candidate, and the California State University board opted to start the process anew.

Under Baker’s watch, more than 100,000 students graduated, the campus saw more than $1 billion in new facilities, and Cal Poly’s endowment of $131 million ranks atop all CSU campuses.

“We’ve been fortunate to have high-quality leadership from Baker for three decades,’’ said Unny Menon, a Cal Poly engineering professor and academic senator. “To get a successor as good is tough.”

Frank Martinez, Cuesta College’s president from 1977 to 1988, was on the initial screening committee that selected Baker from five finalists.

“There was no doubt in our mind that he was by far the best,” Martinez said. “This proved to be true by his performance through the years.”

A polytechnic university

Baker, now 71, noted that a collaborative working environment on campus and new challenges kept him engaged.

As programs such as architecture and engineering built national reputations, Baker sought to continue the learn-by-doing model established in 1901 by the university’s founders. Recent senior projects, for example, include architectural renderings for a new homeless care facility, a design for an off-road wheelchair for travel on hiking trails, and a water decontamination device to assist Third World countries.

“Under Warren’s direction, Cal Poly emerged as one of the nation’s premier polytechnic universities, with an outstanding reputation for graduating students who are highly sought after by employers,” CSU Chancellor Charles B. Reed said.

Baker credited faculty members for their integral part in developing 20 new majors, 72 minors and 15 new master’s degree programs during his tenure.

“Our graduates are contributing to a growing demand for an educated work force and innovation,” Baker said. “I think people sometimes don’t realize how important industries, such as agriculture, and technology and science, are to the economy.”

Overcoming budget challenges

Cal Poly’s next president will clearly face ongoing financial challenges stemming from the state’s budget crisis.

Public funding once covered 90 percent of Cal Poly’s costs to educate a student; it covers about 50 percent now, Baker said.

Student fees and private donations help pay for costs the state can’t support — making more courses open for enrollment so that more students can graduate on time.

Grants from public and private sources also bring in additional revenue.

He acknowledged that budget constraints in recent years have placed a greater burden on faculty. “Faculty teach more and have less time for professional development, which enables them to keep up with advances and best serve students.”

To generate more funds to support programs, in 1982 Baker and university officials sought to grow Cal Poly’s endowment.

Last year, the Forbes Professor Endowment covered $100,000 in faculty salaries in engineering, the Unocal Chair Endowment paid $53,000 for faculty salaries in the College of Science and Mathematics, and the Paul Orfalea College of Business fund provided $1.2 million for Cal Poly business programs.

Baker said that a number of funding considerations will be on the table in the future, including possibly charging students more in majors with higher career-earning potential — such as engineering. And Cal Poly likely will need to continue increasing student fees.

“The fact of the matter is that we’re in tremendous competition for state funds with sectors including the jail system and health care,” he said.

The future

Baker plans to spend more time with his four children and eight grandchildren. Cal Poly, he believes, is on the right path and will add students to meet growing demands for an educated work force.

“I don’t see Cal Poly becoming a 40,000-student campus, but we’re not landlocked and there’s room to build that some other campuses don’t have,” he said.

When Baker started in 1979, the campus had 14,684 students compared with 19,325 students enrolled in fall 2009.

Baker said the new president should have a solid grasp of Cal Poly’s polytechnic programs, but also recognize the importance of disciplines such as liberal arts. As well, “the next president will be someone who listens to the faculty and understands their aspirations,” he said.

Baker said he’ll continue to support organizations seeking to improve education in science, math, and technology — including the U.S.-Mexico Science Foundation that was established by Congress jointly with the federal government of Mexico. He sits on the foundation’s board of governors.

“For the last 30 years, I have been extremely fortunate to work with such outstanding colleagues,” Baker wrote to the Cal Poly campus community. “. …What we have accomplished together over the past three decades could not have happened without this cooperation and the mutual respect that exists in our community.”