Cal Poly's traditional 'Learn by Doing' motto far superior to trite 'Mustang Way'

You may not have noticed this, but over the past few months, a new Cal Poly catchphrase has been filtering down through the university’s communications.

The phrase is “The Mustang Way,” and President Jeffrey Armstrong has been working it into his comments to the public whenever possible.

It refers to a set of ideals the university expects of its students, and while admirable on its face, I’m becoming a bit worried about its sudden prevalence, both for the obvious way it’s being applied as well as the risk its overuse poses for Cal Poly’s true motto, “Learn by Doing.”

I first noticed the new phrase in November when Armstrong responded to the reports of Phi Sigma Kappa’s “Colonial Bros and Nava-Hos” party.

In a campuswide email, he denounced the party and said, “Let us be clear, events like these have no place in the Cal Poly community and are not reflective of the principles of The Mustang Way.”

Then, last week, the president had another opportunity to address the university, this time mourning the death of wine and viticulture senior William Rogers, who was killed in a recent car crash in Santa Maria.

“In this time of loss, it is appropriate to recall that The Mustang Way asks us to ‘embrace one another’ because ‘we are one community,’ ” Armstrong wrote in another email. “We care about each member of Cal Poly.”

My first reaction upon hearing the phrase in November was a bit of eye-rolling, as it was more than obvious Armstrong was trying out a new rhetorical toy. But to see it so strategically placed into a sorrowful announcement about a lost student just seemed like an orchestration in marketing.

What’s going on at the Cal Poly Administration Building, and where did “The Mustang Way” come from, anyhow?

It turns out the phrase originated in the athletics department, as a way to unite student athletes around a common commitment to excellence, focusing on ideals like integrity, character, respect and academic success.

If the phrase sounds familiar, that’s because it is, as such overblown expectation-setting is common in sports locker rooms, where slogans like these are plastered across walls and over doorways lest those elite athletes forget what they’re playing for.

Any sports team that has accomplished something and thinks it’s special has one. See “The Patriot Way” in the NFL and “The Cardinal Way” in pro baseball.

It’s no surprise, then, that “The Mustang Way” traces its origins to the football team and coach Tim Walsh, who came up with some of the ideals as a way to let his players know what he wanted out of them.

In a Tribune story a couple of years ago, reporter J.D. Scroggin explained how athletic director Don Oberhelman picked up on the ideas and, with broad input and brainstorming, shaped them into a 12-point set of standards for all university athletes.

This was all fine and dandy, and “The Mustang Way” was nestled properly in its appropriate arena.

Sometime between then and now, however, this amalgam of sporting motivation vaulted out of the athletics department and into the general university community, where it was edited down to five main points and now has apparently seized the imagination of Armstrong.

The result now is a set of didactic morals that can be trotted out for just about any occasion, one that not only takes precedence over the university’s traditional motto but that has actually assimilated “Learn by Doing” under its auspices.

Indeed, the first of the five tenets declares, “We are focused on excellence: Learn by Doing is the foundation of our engaged pursuit of knowledge and scholarly achievement.”

That’s right. Cal Poly’s unique declaration of purpose is now subjugated under a trite and overused sports cliché.

As an alum, let me say that it is more than a little troubling to see such ignominy bestowed upon a motto that has been the foundation of the university’s national reputation, explaining clearly how Cal Poly students are educated and providing employers a practical expression of what they could expect from graduates.

“The Mustang Way” is no “Learn by Doing,” and the administration is doing the university and its reputation no favors by giving it precedence over its esteemed predecessor.

To President Armstrong, I would ask that you reconsider this apparent shift in university marketing. This set of guidelines might make for a nice handout during WOW, but it’s no match for the real thing.

Please, ease up. Scale back.

In this case, learn by undoing.