Cal Poly candidate No. 2 stresses environment

Tribune photo by David Middlecamp

The second of three new Cal Poly presidential candidates to visit the campus emphasized Wednesday the need to protect and sustain the Earth’s natural environment while finding new ways to develop technology and grow the economy.

Describing his vision for Cal Poly’s future, Thomas Skalak, the vice president for research and professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Virginia, said during his campus visit that Cal Poly can become the global leader in experience-based learning.

“My vision for Cal Poly is to encourage innovation across disciplines,” Skalak said.

Presidential candidate Robert Palazzo, provost and chief academic officer of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, came to Cal Poly on Tuesday, and Jeffrey D. Armstrong, dean of the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at Michigan State University, visits today.

Skalak said he earns a salary of $275,000 per year at the University of Virginia and feels confident in the ability of the California State University system to determine an appropriate salary offer.

The University of Virginia has about 21,000 undergraduate and graduate students compared to 19,000 total students at Cal Poly.

Skalak’s ideas about cross-discipline collaborations include potential solar energy applications, new media projects that could include working with companies in Hollywood and Los Angeles, and finding ways to develop educational partnerships with emerging high-performing economies in Central America and South America.

Skalak has led the University of Virginia in a number of projects, including a venture summit for the past two years that helped to build relations between investors and university-related companies, leading to $20 million in investment in on-campus startup companies.

And Skalak helped coordinate the university’s Bay Game, which allowed students and faculty to participate in a simulated role-playing activity related to the Chesapeake Bay watershed that involved participants taking the positions of local farmers, policymakers and developers.

A member of Wednesday’s public forum asked Skalak if he was overly concerned about the corporate aspects of building relationships in a public educational institution.

Skalak said the “public mission of the university shall always remain intact” but also noted that universities can share similar goals with companies, including nonprofits, and that endowments can be built through partnerships.

In his vision statement, Skalak wrote that “connections with California corporations and alumni leaders, global alumni, East Coast and foreign-based alumni, and sovereign wealth funds should be enhanced.”

Noting that he lives on a small organic farm in Virginia, Skalak spoke about the need to encourage sustainability of the Earth’s resources, including balancing seafood consumption with sustaining the fisheries.

Skalak also fielded questions of a lighter nature.

In response to a question about what literature he reads, Skalak said he enjoys Niccolo Machiavelli and Ivan Turgenev — writers whose characters are faced with decisions that test their personal integrity, which is what “higher education is all about.”