Poly chief is a tough act to follow

While it comes as no surprise, the impending retirement of Cal Poly President Warren Baker nonetheless creates a void that will be hard to fill, especially as the California State University system faces one of the most challenging periods in its history.

Baker wasn’t flashy; some complained that he was too reserved and often inaccessible. Yet he was a man with a mission — or rather, several missions — and his quiet, serious and determined approach served Cal Poly well for three decades.

Consider some of the strides the university made during his 30-year tenure:

Twenty new majors and 15 new master’s degree programs were added.

The Centennial Capital Campaign, which began on the university’s 100th anniversary in 2001, exceeded its $225 million target by $40 million.

Nearly $1 billion was invested in building new facilities and upgrading existing ones.

Two significant off-campus acquisitions were added through donations — the 3,200-acre Swinton Pacific Ranch in Santa Cruz County and the former Unocal pier at Avila Beach. Both are used as teaching and research facilities.

The university’s reputation grew enormously. For the past 17 years, U.S. News and World Report has ranked Poly as the best public masters university in the West. This year, Forbes magazine named it one of the nation’s top colleges and universities.

While students have been the main beneficiaries of these gains, the entire community also owes a debt to Baker.Under his leadership, significant progress was made in resolving some of the longstanding town-gown conflicts that so often occur in college communities.

For example, the university pledged to provide additional student housing to help ease the strain on a community that’s seen continuing conflicts between loud, rowdy students and their more sedate neighbors. This fall, the final phase of Poly Canyon Village — a complex housing more than 2,600 students — was completed.

We’ve also been impressed that President Baker’s interests have extended far beyond the boundaries of Cal Poly.

A scientist and engineer, he became one of the nation’s strongest advocates for math and science education — warning that the United States would lose its competitive edge if it didn’t educate more students in technical disciplines.

“The single most important thing we can do is to create a citizenry that can understand science and technology,” Baker told the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., in 2007.

The challenges Baker’s successor faces are huge, perhaps unprecedented.

With the state facing a $21 billion shortfall over the next couple of years, the university will be forced to cut more from its budget, even as it received a record number of applications.

Cal Poly will need a strong leader to see it through that crisis. Let’s hope that person is as focused, committed and forward-thinking as Warren Baker has been.