Times Past

Dan Krieger: Cal Poly has weathered hard times over the years

Plummeting milk prices and state budget cutbacks were forcing Cal Poly to reduce the milking herd to 30 animals from 150. The announcement earlier this month came amid other cutbacks, work furloughs and project delays and cancellations that have shaken our university and the greater community.

Fortunately, alumni and friends of Cal Poly within the dairy industry have postponed that decision.

It’s all reminiscent of the events of the 1920s, particularly 1923-24, when Poly President Nicholas Ricciardi had to deal with a new state governor who wanted to close the school.

Ricciardi had come to Poly in 1921, the year the Legislature had awarded a record $297,300 budget for the 20-year-old school. By 1922, there were 128 students and the new president was planning a campus for more than 1,000. Things were looking up.

Then, the misnamed Friend C. Richardson became governor of California.

Richardson was the owner of the ultraconservative Berkeley Daily Gazette and an outspoken leader of the California Press Association. He served two terms as the state treasurer and in 1922 challenged William Stephens, a sitting Republican governor. In his successful campaign, he declared war on the Progressive wing of the Republican Party, led by former governor and longtime U.S. Senator Hiram Johnson.

Richardson wanted a “no frills” government in California. His proposals included closing the two campuses of the University of California. The Progressive faction was badly split by issues ranging from Prohibition to American membership in the League of Nations.

Richardson in turn was backed by forces that were great and powerful in the 1920s, ranging from press barons Joseph Knowland of the Oakland Tribune, George T. Cameron of the San Francisco Chronicle and Harry Chandler of The Los Angeles Times to the Klu Klux Klan, of which Richardson was reputedly a member despite his Quaker upbringing.

The so called “economy in government” faction won. The new governor submitted a 1923-25 budget that was then a shocking $2 million less than the previous governor’s budget. He also obtained line-item veto power over budget bills and proceeded to use that power with a vengeance. He vetoed nearly half of the Legislature’s bills, claiming that they were “extravagant” or “unnecessary.”

Richardson was rebuffed by the powerful members of the Regents of the University of California when he attempted to close their campuses.

He lowered his sights on the then still tiny polytechnic campus in San Luis Obispo. Arguing that it duplicated other state facilities, that its famed “learn by doing” programs were out of date and that the operation was too costly, he slashed its budget in half.

President Ricciardi was obliged to cut course offerings to a barebones minimum. Only the programs in mechanical science, agriculture and printing were retained. Much of the campus livestock, including the high-quality dairy herd, was sold at auction. More than 15 years would pass until the dairy herd would be restored to its 1922 level.

Finally, in February 1924, Ricciardi resigned as president of Cal Poly to become state commissioner of vocational education.

Richardson announced that he wanted to close the school entirely.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Will C. Wood, one of a core group of Progressive Republicans remaining in Sacramento, and whose office had oversight for Cal Poly, countered by forming a committee of local citizens.

The committee recommended greater state support for Poly and a reinstatement of the “household arts” or home economics program that had attracted young women to the campus.

It also recommenced the appointment of Benjamin Crandall, an agricultural education professor at the University of California, as the institution’s new president to replace Ricciardi.

There was still no guarantee of stable funding. Each new legislative session meant that the school was on tenterhooks.

This situation continued for nearly a decade until the arrival of Julian McPhee in 1933.