Cal Poly has a new president

Jeffrey Armstrong, who was named Cal Poly’s next president by the California State University Board of Trustees on Wednesday, said he’s “on cloud nine” and looking forward to continuing the school’s learn-by-doing philosophy while also seeking to diversify the student body, fill some key positions and engage the university’s deans and department heads in strategic planning for the future.

“One of my major goals is to listen and learn,” said the 51-year-old Armstrong in a phone interview. “Cal Poly is known for producing resourceful professionals and innovative leaders.”

Armstrong, currently dean of the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at Michigan State University, will succeed interim President Robert Glidden, who took over for retiring president Warren Baker in August. Baker had served as president since 1979.

In his new role at Cal Poly — which starts Feb. 1 — Armstrong may face additional budget cuts as California lawmakers grapple with a fiscal crisis. At Michigan State, he tried to deal with potential cuts by introducing a plan to shrink departments and cut staff, which is still being discussed.

Armstrong’s background also includes agricultural advocacy, for which he faced criticism from animal rights groups.

His salary was not disclosed Wednesday but will be announced at the January meeting of the CSU Board of Trustees, Cal Poly spokeswoman Stacia Momburg said.

Glidden earns a $328,200 annual salary, which is about what Baker earned.

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 Wednesday that he hasn’t decided whether he’ll live on or off campus.

Armstrong, who has been at MSU since 2001, also led the Department of Animal Sciences at Purdue University from 1997 to 2001 and held various positions at North Carolina State University from 1986 through 1997.

“He is quite aware of global issues; he’s quite aware of educational issues in the U.S. and California. But primarily, he’s a learn-by-doing, down-to-earth person,” said Phil Bailey, dean of Cal Poly’s College of Science and Mathematics, who participated in the interview process as part of a nine-member committee of faculty, alumni and administrators.

“I think he will really do well for our campus, not just for the professional colleges but integrating the liberal arts and science and math into the overall curriculum,” Bailey said.

The president and provost at Michigan State University also issued statements Wednesday.

MSU President Lou Anna Simon called Armstrong a “steady force for progress” and added: “Not only did he move the college forward as a leader in knowledge discovery and dissemination, but he also built innovative partnerships with other colleges and with our agricultural and corporate stakeholders.”

Armstrong was one of three finalists to visit the university at the beginning of December. During a public forum, he spoke of the need to ensure diversity and retention of minorities on campus and to improve funding by building relationships with Cal Poly alumni and private corporations.

The other finalists were Robert Palazzo, provost of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, and Thomas Skalak, vice president for research at the University of Virginia.

Last week marked the second time that three finalists had visited the campus and spoken to students. After an initial four-month search, CSU’s trustees determined in June that two finalists weren’t the right fit. A third withdrew after visiting Cal Poly.

Michigan background

At Michigan State, Armstrong has overseen an annual budget of $294 million and raised more than $200 million for the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, one of 19 academic colleges.

At Cal Poly, he’ll oversee an operating budget, including gift and grant funds, of about $380 million, university officials said.

According to the Lansing State Journal, Armstrong recently worried some in the college when he presented a restructuring plan that would consolidate 13 existing departments into eight, cut college-level administration by 25 percent and pare back research programs to focus on those where MSU has special expertise and those seen as key to the state’s future.

The paper reported that the university receives more than 75 percent of its money from the state, which is facing a $1.7 billion deficit in the coming fiscal year.

By comparison, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger called a special session of the state Legislature this month to address an anticipated $6.1 billion shortfall in the current fiscal year budget.

Cal Poly administrators were faced last year with a $33.7 million cut and in the 2009-10 year saw increased student fees and a furlough plan for faculty and staff to deal with the budget gap.

When asked about dealing with potential future budget cuts, Armstrong said he plans to first “listen and learn” once he arrives at Cal Poly. He also added that “potential solutions or proposals at Michigan State are not automatically transferable.”

Armstrong said he wants to move to fill several important positions at Cal Poly, including a College of Engineering dean, vice president for university advancement and athletic director.

He is also interested in learning about Cal Poly’s study-abroad programs and whether they can be expanded, or if other options, such as internships in California, can be promoted for students not able to study abroad.

During a public forum Dec. 2, 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’s recent research has focused on social responsibility in the food chain.

He has been criticized by the activist group People for Ethical Treatment of Animals for his advocacy of industry groups that PETA’s vice president, Bruce Friedrich, believes torture chickens by using cages to house them.

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 that a group of scientists — formed by the committee — established.