Candidate for Cal Poly president visits campus

The first of three new candidates to visit Cal Poly as it searches for a president said he felt confident he could make the transition from a smaller private East Coast university to one of California’s most esteemed state universities.

And Robert Palazzo, now provost of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., said he believes it’s crucial to develop positive working relationships with faculty after receiving some criticism from professors at RPI for suspending the New York school’s faculty senate in 2007.

Palazzo visited Cal Poly on Tuesday to speak with students, faculty, staff and the public. He called the university a “model organization for science and technology.”

He also expressed his view of the importance of a liberal arts education, which he said is vital to understanding social issues and making appropriate decisions about how to use technology.

The two other candidates for the position — Thomas Skalak, vice president for research and a professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Virginia, and Jeffrey Armstrong, dean of the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources and professor of animal science at Michigan State University — will visit Cal Poly today and Thursday, respectively.

“I think it’s important for the rest of the state to know and see what you are doing here,” Palazzo told an audience of Cal Poly and community members. “From what I see, Cal Poly is championing the principles of excellent education.”

Palazzo said he’s withholding comment on any possible salary negotiations for the Cal Poly job. He currently earns a compensation package of $510,000 per year in his position with RPI, according to guidestar.org, a website that reports financial information on nonprofits.

Cal Poly’s interim president, Robert Glidden, makes about $328,000 annually excluding a car and housing allowance.

According to their respective websites, RPI has about 6,500 undergraduate and graduate students, and Cal Poly has about 19,000 total students.

Palazzo said he feels comfortable about making a transition to Cal Poly from RPI — which operates as a nonprofit with a board of trustees — by applying successful academic activities and operations on a larger scale.

He also said that his experience at the University of Kansas, where he served as chair of the Department of Physiology and Cell Biology, was important to his understanding of public education.

Palazzo also cited his experience working with Congressional leaders in Washington, D.C., as president of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology. He said he’s confident in his ability to work with legislators in California to garner funding.

Responding to a question about the role of “shared governance,” namely faculty’s input in university administration, Palazzo said that he was thrust into a difficult situation at RPI of ongoing friction among faculty, administrators and the Board of Trustees.

In a published paper on academic freedom filed by RPI faculty members Nancy D. Campbell and Jane F. Koretz, Palazzo was cited as the newly appointed provost who suspended the faculty senate in August 2007 because members voted to include nontenure track faculty in decisions on how to advise the administration.

The university’s Board of Trustees directed the faculty senate to change its constitution to limit the definition of voting members to tenured and tenure-track faculty, according to Campbell and Koretz. When the faculty refused, the administration shut the senate down.

“At the heart of the debate were the disenfranchisement of nearly 200 faculty,” the professors wrote, adding that efforts to resolve the situation left them “exhausted and bitter by a process that seemed designed to demoralize” them.

But Palazzo said that he’s making every effort to work with faculty at the university to come up with a solution and re-establish the faculty senate.

He doesn’t anticipate similar problems at Cal Poly. Palazzo said, he would strive to establish a positive relationship with faculty, which he called “crucial.”

“I don’t envision this same problem at any university in the U.S.,” he said. “I think it’s crucial for the sake of the university and faculty to have good communications and joint stewardship.”