Top 10 of 2010: No. 7: Cal Poly picks a new president

After Cal Poly’s well-respected president of three decades literally rode off after a warm adieu as grand marshal of the Poly Royale parade, finding a suitable successor was anything but simple.

But after two separate searches that took nearly a year to complete and resulted in six finalists combined, the California State University’s Board of Trustees chose Cal Poly’s new top leader.

That person is Jeffrey D. Armstrong. The 51-year-old dean of the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at Michigan State University raised $200 million for the college and increased minority student enrollment.

But Armstrong was not without critics. Some have derided his stance on animal rights and others his decisions on departmental cuts at Michigan State. But some believe his history of managing to deflect such attacks will make him more battle-tested and better prepared to take over at Cal Poly.

He’ll assume his new job Feb. 1, making him the permanent replacement for former Cal Poly President Warren Baker.

Baker, president at Cal Poly since 1979, retired July 31. Interim President Robert Glidden has held the post since August.

“One of my major goals is to listen and learn,” Armstrong said in a phone interview after the announcement of his hiring. “Cal Poly is known for producing resourceful professionals and innovative leaders.” 

Armstrong will face immediate challenges in dealing with Cal Poly’s financial condition. Recent state budget deficits have led to increases in student-faculty ratios in some classes from 30 to 1 to 50 to 1, faculty say. And student fees have been hiked as much as 30 percent in a year.

Some say Armstrong will need to be adept at fundraising as Cal Poly now receives 51 percent of its operational budget from state funding, compared with 90 percent in 1986. 

He’ll also need to know how to navigate controversies, especially when they involve donors and the university’s independence — such as the stir that ensued recently after Harris Ranch officials threatened to withhold donations if their dictates on agricultural instruction and a speaking event featuring best-selling food writer and alternative farming advocate Michael Pollan were not heeded.

Armstrong has been a consultant to McDonald’s on animal safety, and he’s supported developing guidelines for the use of cages to house poultry. His position on poultry cages has drawn criticism from the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. PETA advocates cage-free farming.

Regardless of his background, Armstrong told faculty at a forum at the university that he would listen and consider various opinions on controversial matters.

Diplomacy and a keen knack for handling various interest groups on and off campus served Baker well during his three decades of leadership, many faculty and fellow administrators say.

For 18 years in a row, Cal Poly has been rated the best public master’s university in the West by U.S. News & World Report. Graduates have fared well in the job market in evaluations of their earnings and ability to find employment after graduation.

“For the last 30 years, I have been extremely fortunate to work with such outstanding colleagues,” Baker wrote to the Cal Poly campus community upon his departure. “...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.”