Cal Poly president hopeful backs hands-on learning

Jeffrey D. Armstrong speaks Thursday at Cal Poly.
Jeffrey D. Armstrong speaks Thursday at Cal Poly. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

The last of three finalists for Cal Poly president visited the university Thursday and talked about his enthusiasm for a learn-by-doing education and vowed to “listen, listen, listen” if he gets the job.

Jeffrey D. Armstrong, dean of the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at Michigan State University, opened his comments at a community forum by saying that Cal Poly can play a role in solving the world’s housing, food and energy problems as the world’s population is expected to grow to 9.3 billion by 2050.

“I am a product of a learn-by-doing education as a graduate of Murray State University where there’s an emphasis on hands-on learning,” said Armstrong, who was raised on a beef cattle, swine and tobacco farm in western Kentucky. “At Cal Poly, I think there’s room to expand on its greatness and to think, every day, ‘What’s best for Cal Poly?’ and ‘What will further students’ success?’ ”

Armstrong followed visits this week to the campus by Robert Palazzo, provost of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York; and Thomas Skalak, vice president for research at University of Virginia.

Armstrong earned a salary of about $241,000 at Michigan State last year, according to Collegiate Times, a Virginia Tech student newspaper that operates a salary database of universities across the nation.

Armstrong said Thursday that he’s aware of the possible salary range for the Cal Poly president position, which he said is likely to be in the $300,000s, and of California’s tough budgetary times, but didn’t comment specifically on what he’s looking for in compensation.

Similar to the other candidates, Armstrong spoke of the need to ensure diversity and retention of minorities on campus, the need to improve funding by building relationships with Cal Poly alumni and private corporations, and vowed to carefully consider input from others around him.

Armstrong said key questions that a president and campus groups will need to answer in coming years include how many out-of-state students — who pay more in tuition — to allow; whether and how to engage in educational partnerships with foreign countries; and what potential avenues exist for increasing student fees to help cover budget deficits.

Armstrong — who has been criticized by the activist group People for Ethical Treatment of Animals for his advocacy of cage farming — said Thursday that he supports a “holistic view” of “sustainability” that includes consideration of various farming options and consumer choice.

Sustainability refers to the practice of using existing resources without threatening the ability of future generations to do the same.

Bruce Friedrich, PETA’s vice president for policy, said Thursday in a telephone interview that Armstrong has been a leading advocate for industry groups that Friedrich believes tortures chickens by using cages to house them, which he doesn’t believe is a responsible view.

“There’s not a humane group on the planet that agrees that cage farming is safe for animals,” Friedrich said. “The animals go insane, and they’re harmed physically.”

But Armstrong has defended his position on caged farming, writing as a leader of the United Egg Producers advisory committee that the birds can be treated humanely under guidelines a group of scientists — formed by the committee — established.

“My view is that the consumer should have the choice, but that how to farm should be based on science and facts,” said Armstrong, who has served as a consultant on animal welfare to the McDonald’s fast-food chain.