Make Cal Poly 2.0 a reality
June 10, 2011
OPINION By ROGER FREBERG
Universities across the country are beginning to experience the pain of decreasing expectations. No longer able to meet demand by increasing student fees and by using bail out funds – I mean “stimulus money” – administrations are being forced in greater number to: first, look for private sources of funds; and second, struggle to prop up a diminishing student enrollment by pandering to those not ready for higher ed. Nowadays, not everyone going to college who cannot read or write is an athlete.
The steps that universities have taken have been remarkably shortsighted. They have attempted to lure special categories of students who must pay higher tuition: out of state residents and those from other countries.
The problem is that Californian students are being ill-served in this strategy. One top graduate from a powerful California university created quite a buzz by not landing in any Ph.D. program anywhere in our nation. In many fields, it’s becoming quite difficult to get into a grad school unless you are foreign-born, because these students pay more. Private schools can do whatever they want, and it’s great to have a mix of different types of students, but I don’t think California residents are paying taxes to educate students from the rest of the world when their own sons and daughters cannot get an education.
It’s a given that even the most zealous university administrator realizes that the undergraduate products many schools offer does not prepare the student either for graduate school nor does it prepare them fully for the expectations of a job in the private sector. One further silly solution would be to make everyone public employees with a guaranteed job, but as history tells us this didn’t work too well in the Soviet Union and it is not working well here either. Public employees – according to one survey – make twice as much as comparable jobs in the private sector. And by now, most people understand what public employee unions and pensions have done and are doing to our states economic health and survival.
So what can be done? Well, if you do a search on the phrase “how to improve higher education” you will find a lot of very practical suggestions, but you have to look very hard to find anything written by academicians or their administrators. They either don’t think we have a problem or they prefer the position of the ostrich.
Here are some of the things that I think could really help Cal Poly survive the very uncertain future:
Creating Value in the Cal Poly Education Experience
The biggest question on anyone’s mind right now is a very simple one: can I get a real job with my Cal Poly degree? The answer may very well depend on the field of study.
Most people know the Cal Poly motto “learn by doing,” but how many know of its origin? It does have a “vocational” sound to it and I don’t think that is bad at all. The original school was designed around the jobs that were needed and wanted in our society. We have forgotten that. Cal Poly has lost its way.
“For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.” – Aristotle
Advertiser Daniel Ogilvy said the product must live up to the promise or it will just die away. You may get trial by promising what you can’t deliver, but getting people to come back again and again is the key. If I have had any criticism of the ‘Cal Poly’ experience, it can be boiled down to “don’t promise what you can’t deliver or claim to be what you are not–take the all the necessary steps to improve the product to match what you say it is.”
So what can be done? To be “relevant” in the tough world ahead of us, Cal Poly needs to offer degrees that lead to jobs, or at a minimum, adequately prepare the student to meet the challenges of earning a spot for a higher degree. Simply translated, this means reorienting the degrees with an eye to the job market and to further education.
What is Cal Poly going to do when the entire University of California system changes their four year programs to three years? They are seriously discussing this and how much more attractive it would be to go to a three year system when the major cost of education is now paying for living ( rent, food, gas,etc.).
So, allow me to pick on my wife’s department as an example. If a student with a undergraduate degree in Psychology was told by graduate programs that she wasn’t acceptable because she was unprepared and needed more courses, then the university and the department have failed to live up to their promise, in my humble opinion. It doesn’t matter if you have the courses students need in the catalog if you never teach them. How is this department contributing to the polytechnic mission without emphasizing science and statistics? If behavioral neuroscience is at the cutting edge of this field, where are the neuroscience courses? Over three-quarters of U.S. universities offer majors and minors in Neuroscience, but Cal Poly is not one of them.
Psychology is not alone–not long ago a candidate for the dean of Architecture was quoted as saying that Cal Poly was 10 years behind the times. In any event, ‘content, currency and relevance’ should be the new buzzwords.
Improve the CAL POLY campus climate and attitude
Optimism and a positive outlook start at the top and after what we might call “a regime change,” I would think that the new guy on the block would want to turn things around.
Search “create a positive culture” and there is a wealth of suggestions that I think would help turn things around. One that Cal Poly should explore is increasing contact and exchange within the university especially in the area of problem solving. One on-line source suggests the following:
“Help people stay in touch with one another…. Bring people together deliberately for social events….Work to create inter-group cooperation and collaboration. Have work-exchange programs and move people sideways so they spread ideas and get to understand the bigger picture.”
When my wife began teaching at Cal Poly in the 80’s, she was told that “Cal Poly rewards compliance, not achievement.” Ouch. Management experts say that when you do not have a meritocracy, people withdraw. If you know professors at Cal Poly, you probably know some that throw their energy into side jobs or businesses, or leave campus as fast as they can. This is such a waste of human potential.
Okay, this may sound a bit touchy feely, but changing the existing climate could lead to a kinder gentler Cal Poly. Cal Poly can start by eliminating the remaining restrictions on speech and earn a GREEN rating by F.I.R.E. ( the nonpartisan Foundation for Individual Rights in Education).
Whether it be the Jubail-Cal Poly fiasco, rapes on campus, student alcoholism, restrictions on constitutionally protected free speech or the ubiquitous financial mystery called the Cal Poly Foundation, a fair and open hearing on the activities of the university should be encouraged.
Although many people think administrator salaries are already high, it has been alleged that funds from the Cal Poly Foundation have been used to subsidize favored administrators’ mortgage payments. What other activities may or may not have gone on? We will never know as long as the books are closed. Don’t wait for State Senator Yee to act. BTW, Senator Yee is running for Mayor of San Francisco, which is unfortunate for state Transparency.
Public universities belong to the people of the state and should have no secrets.
FIRE all the lawyers
Cal Poly is still one of the few CSU’s that has an in-house lawyer. Rumors say they were given their own lawyer during the prior regime because they “needed” one. Personally, I think it is not so interesting why Cal Poly has their own lawyer, but what are so many other CSU’s doing well that they don’t need their own?
I really think that it is a bad idea to always resorting to calling the lawyers and getting them involved when there are other means to mediate. Good management practices would prevent much of this. The pointy edge of the stick should be a last resort, boys.
Prolonging adolescence or preparing for the future?
With college students attaining the legal age adulthood and universities supplanting parents in everything but financial support, it does not infringe on the newly adult students to offer a rigorous academic life, even if it gets in the way of their party time. A climate of excellence needs to be nurtured, developed and encouraged.
One student was quoted on-line as saying he chose Cal Poly because “(the low level academic requirements of) Cal Poly would not interfere with his party life.” Gone are the days when parents were willing to warehouse their children until full maturity. Parents want value for their money and many students are thinking the same. The mutual nightmare of this decade is the adult child moving back home.
Expanding the market: reaching the part time, working and distant ed student
When one Cal Poly student couldn’t get a math class, he signed up for an on-line university (this one happened to be Southern Cal). Cal Poly is decades behind the curve on this. In the meantime, Cal Poly is tuning up their model T and working on Rose Parade floats.
Years ago, I asked some young techies why Cal Poly wasn’t involved in Facebook and Twitter? They said there were objections from “above.” I guess, I understand this a little, after all, some administrators still use land lines and think that email is social media.
Define the problem, then search for a solution
If you bother to set up a faculty, student, community or advisory committee, listen to them. One faculty member was asked to serve on a particular committee and he answered,” find me one recommendation produced by this committee that has been implemented and I will gladly serve.” He was excused from serving, because the administrator who asked him was unable to point to any such outcome of the committee’s hours of work. It was quite a joke–having heard this, folks serving on various committees started asking the same thing.
There are other universities that are setting up folks from many areas within and without the university to address some of these very same issues. The diversity of ideas from so many fields has a way of generating ideas, some of which may lead to results.
Cal Poly, you’re into “diversity,” this argument should resonate with you. The challenges ahead will happen as quickly as one can say “stimulus money is gone.” We need a new generation Cal Poly, one that offers more than a good life on the weekend, but a better future for those who come. Make Cal Poly 2.0 a reality.
Roger Freberg is a San Luis Obispo resident who is using his retirement to write a culinary-inspired blog, comment on important local events and occasionally enjoy getting sued for his journalistic excellence.