Cal Poly launches biggest fundraising campaign ever — and it’s already got $556 million

Cal Poly president thanks donors during groundbreaking of new research complex

Cal Poly San Luis Obispo President Jeffrey Armstrong thanked donors at a groundbreaking ceremony for university's new Science and Agriculture Teaching and Research Complex building.
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Cal Poly San Luis Obispo President Jeffrey Armstrong thanked donors at a groundbreaking ceremony for university's new Science and Agriculture Teaching and Research Complex building.

Cal Poly publicly announced its largest fundraising campaign ever Friday night, launching a goal to raise $700 million by 2021.

Funds raised during the university’s The Power of Doing: the Campaign for Learn by Doing will support new facilities and upgrades like the renovations proposed for the Robert E. Kennedy Library, as well as expansion of student-faculty research and project-based learning opportunities.

The campaign will also increase scholarship opportunities — including opportunities for the Cal Poly Scholars Program to recruit and retain high-achieving, low-income students from California high schools, according to a Cal Poly news release.

“’Learn by Doing’ was born here and if it’s going to thrive and really increase in the future, we need private support,” Cal Poly President Jeffrey Armstrong told The Tribune in an interview before Friday night’s announcement at the annual Evening of Green & Gold for university supporters.

Already, the effort has raised $556 million from major donors and smaller givers during a silent period that began in 2013. That includes major gifts from university alumni William H. and Cheryl K. Swanson, and Peter and Mary Beth Oppenheimer.

How will the money be used? It’s based on relationships with donors and needs articulated by deans, Armstrong said. The campaign rests on three pillars that each encompass multiple projects.

  • Empowering Students, which includes expanding scholarship opportunities in an effort to tackle the reality that Cal Poly is the most expensive public university in the state of California due to a low ratio of financial aid for campus-based fees.

  • Empowering Excellence, which includes funding new state-of-the art facilities such the new Science and Agriculture Teaching and Research Center that broke ground May 3 made possible by a $110 million donation from William L. and Linda J. Frost.
  • Empowering Innovation, such as a request from the beach volleyball team to fund innovative exercise physiology and nutrition support for athletic success on and off the court.

Investing in Cal Poly Scholars will likely increase diversity of the student body.

While the scholarship is based on merit and need, the students that are Cal Poly Scholars are about 80 percent first-generation college attendees and a majority people of color, in contrast to non-Scholar students from California who are a quarter first generation and about 54 percent white, Armstrong said.

The influence of corporate and wealthy donors can be seen on campus in the names of facilities and what is given support. Pacific Gas and Electric, for example, paid for a cyber security lab that opened in April that will be used by students enrolled at Cal Poly as well as company employees seeking continuing education.

Who is providing monetary support to the university is not always as visible as a donor-named building.

“You’re probably not going to hear a donor say, ‘I want to help put a new roof on the university house,’ or ‘I want to endow three landscaping positions,’ ” Armstrong said. “But, we do get people that step and say ‘I want to provide some discretionary funding to help you do whatever you want to do in an anonymous way.’ ”

In light of the college admissions scandal, the public is critical of wealthy donors buying influence, particularly gaining admission for a family member with a major gift.

Armstrong said that’s not how Cal Poly works.

“There’s no connection with admissions and donations. There’s no side doors or back doors at Cal Poly,” Armstrong told The Tribune. “Everything is done through our algorithm, our multiple-criteria analysis and I’m very proud of Cal Poly’s admission policy and how we do things.”

He said that’s how all of the California State University system works, adding, “that’s how all public universities should be.”

Relationships between corporate donors or alumni that give and the university are essential to the Cal Poly campaign model.

Cal Poly alumnus William H. Swanson, former chairman and CEO of the Raytheon Company, has been the board chair of the Cal Poly Foundation since 2014.

“A Cal Poly education is world class. It was the foundation for my career,” Swanson, who graduated from the university with a bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering, said in a news release. “I am proud and honored to support this campaign, which will ensure that Cal Poly continues to set a high bar for excellence, innovation, and student achievement by providing the necessary tools to put countless future students on a path to success.”

Armstrong insists that there is a strong firewall preventing corporate influence in effort to maintain academic integrity. Sometimes, though, corporate representatives and donors are invited to sit on advisory boards for schools in the university.

“The purpose and what (faculty) do is not directed by the company, like any other donation. The work is directed by the faculty and by the leadership,” Armstrong told The Tribune. “The firewalls are in really good shape.”

It’s not all about major donors. More than 55,000 supporters have already given during the capital campaign that began seven years ago.

“This campaign is really about opening that narrative up and inviting more people to the table,” Matthew Ewing, CEO of the Cal Poly Foundation, told The Tribune. “These might be alumni that have lost touch with us and we’ve lost touch with them, and maybe industry partners that maybe know about Cal Poly, but don’t know the depth how exceptional we are.”

The plan is to build for sustained growth at a time “when we are charting our future while staying true to the core tenets that have always defined who we are,” Armstrong said in the news release.

“Philanthropy is a long-term play,” Ewing said. “The people we’re inviting to the table now, and inviting to the family now, they may make a smaller gift during this campaign, but it’s about that long-term relationship. It’s not a transaction.”

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