The Legacy of Warren Baker
December 9, 2009
BY JEFF BLISS
San Luis Obispo is really two “towns” when you look at it (three if you include the nearby Men’s Colony prison): the almost 43,000-strong city that is SLO and its neighbor, Cal Poly – a bustling campus with more than 19,000 students and thousands more faculty and staff there serving them.
Last Monday, Dr. Warren Baker – the tenth leader in its history and one of the longest-serving university presidents ever in American higher education – announced it was his intention “to retire from the Presidency of Cal Poly at the end of this academic year.”
For the university, and for San Luis Obispo, his announcement marks a watershed moment.
Since 1979, a year that predates the birth of almost every student at the university, Baker has been Cal Poly. A registered civil engineer with a PhD in geotechnical engineering, Baker had help – to be sure – but as “old school” alumni often told me, many people left their respective marks on Poly over the years – but you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone that made an impression like Baker’s. While few universities’ reputations have built on the work of just one person, Cal Poly is certainly an exception.
And that’s a good way to put it: Cal Poly is an exception…certainly when the rest of the system it belongs to – the Cal State University (as well as a good portion of the University of California) – only dreams of being mentioned along with it in the same breath. Poly used to be just another state school, famous for its “learn-by-doing” philosophy and perhaps best known for its College of Agriculture, but back in ’79 that all changed.
Today, Cal Poly enjoys stellar reputation across almost every discipline – and that’s not just this writer’s opinion. High rankings by organizations reflecting this are regularly published; support from donors and alumni grows; and – most importantly – an ever-increasing annual field of applicants attests to its prominent place in American higher education.
That rise, which took place over the course of more than a century, has included all the attendant ups-and-downs experienced by most large institutions. Dust-ups over issues such as pay cuts, tuition increases, and facility needs/infrastructure problems are just par for the course. And where would any self-respecting school be without its share of faculty committee infighting, student grumbling, or disagreements over parking? Nowhere, is the answer, which is one way you know Poly – which has had all these and more – certainly belongs among America’s elite.
In addition to these characteristics that it shares with thousands of other academic institutions, CP also has what are called “town-gown” issues with its neighbor: SLO. It’s unfortunate that town-gown relations often focus more on the bad instead of the good, but that’s what makes news (and noise). If you’re one of the many Poly students in SLO who work on behalf of charitable organizations to help the community that’s all well-and-good, but if you step out of line you’re going to get noticed.
And this brings me to one of the big beefs that SLO area residents often voice when the name “Warren Baker” comes up in a conversation. When I headed Poly’s Public Affairs office several years ago, the chief complaints were: student drinking; rowdy behavior/noise; off-campus housing (including parties, overcrowding that existed before the new dorm villages, the “slum-ification” of neighborhoods); and a perceived lack of respect from the “outsiders” who lived for just a few years in their town and then moved on. Invariably, the fault for all of this would be laid at the feet of Baker.
While I’m a firm believer in Truman’s “The Buck Stops Here” principle – leaders have to take responsibility for their operations – I’m also a big believer in reality. Let’s look at the facts:
The campus was there long before Baker, so it’s not like he led interlopers in to desecrate the sacred/hidden village. What’s more, the number of residents in SLO whose ancestors pre-date the school is not great, so moving to a place dominated by a university would seem to indicate there will be school-age folks (and all the good and bad that comes with them) in the vicinity.
It was always argued that there could be a mutual benefit to the school and community if there was more student housing on campus. There are a host of reasons why there aren’t more dorms – funding always being one of the largest concerns – but students living in SLO bring something very important to the community: money. And by that I mean rent, purchasing, sales taxes, etc. It’s not overstating things when someone notes SLO’s public (and private) coffers greatly benefit from student spending power.
There is some substance abuse/rowdiness among students that Poly can (and often does) control – namely, when it occurs at sponsored events. While the famous Poly Royal fiasco/riots of 1990 are still “fondly” recalled by those who would pillory alumni/students/Baker, the truth is that was an anomaly. When student organizations engage in illegal activities, they are punished. Maybe not always to the extent some folks wish, but officials do not look the other way when the law allows university officials to curb certain behaviors. (When it comes to the bottom line, expecting Baker to crackdown on student nuisances/crime in SLO is a bit like expecting the city’s mayor to cite SLO residents for speeding through Poly’s campus.).
The bottom line on drinking, rowdiness and other anti-social/bad neighbor behavior is that while efforts are made to educate students as well as correct and/or punish bad actors, legal and practical limits keep the university from doing as much as it would like in this regard. There is always room for improvement, but the blame really lies with individuals – the offenders and their enablers: students, the people who raised them and even SLO residents/landlords/merchants who allow/enable bad behavior. (Anyone want to know where students get their alcohol?).
Even if Baker did more to rein-in all the Poly rowdies, would it be enough? Probably not. After all, when you consider the many good things he not only brought to Cal Poly (namely, leading it to academic excellence) but also to SLO, it’s a wonder residents don’t do more to recognize his lasting contributions to the community. Given the stubborn, entrenched attitude that sometimes smells of entitlement; I’m not holding my breath on that one.
Instead of getting his due with some sort of official recognition from the city, the man who has come to define Poly can (comfortably) ride off into the sunset knowing the university’s enviable reputation continues to grow; that Poly’s alumni continue to make significantly positive impacts on society; and that edifices he leaves behind like the Performing Arts Center will long outlive any criticisms of his – and Cal Poly’s – relationship with San Luis Obispo.
Jeff Bliss is the former director of public affairs at Cal Poly.