Make Cal Poly 2.0 a reality

June 10, 2011

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.

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Turn these purveyors of false dreams into assembly lines and housing. What the hell good do they do but indebt kids and their parents. I mean really, what does someone who sits in front of a computer indoors all day do for humanity?

No? then why are China and India about to grind us into dust by making clothes and faucets? Because they are in the business of providing what’s REALLY necessary.

Don’t think so? Why was noone around to plumb, assemble, build, fix, maintain all the crap we thought we wanted? They were in school, thus we opened the borders to a gene pool to do the work for us and planted our own seeds of destruction. Wrong? Who’s committing the crime here and in Mexico? OMG, I said it……..wakeup folks. The truth hurts only if you’re not used to it. And America ain’t.

Nature put thost wiggely things at the ends of your wrists there to do work, not only for banging on yer ‘puter thinking that means you should get rich doing it.

If I hear anymore garbage about what’s wrong with education from this guy I’m gonna have to take a seasick pill. The problem with all this “education” is all this “education”. Knock, knock, it’s reality calling. Answer the door, smartypants, don’t be so scared to, gulp, work and get dirty. Over education destroyed America.

Roger, as usual a very interesting commentary. I, a Cal Poly grduate, agree that real life curriculum is not really runniong rampant in the Halls of Higher Education and when invited to add real life experience to the Book learning experience it is not readily accepted by the Professors….They don’t ask you back unless you write a check to support their cause, however, the students are eager to hear about the real life experience one gets when they enter the Job Market and get their enthusiastic Butt shredded. i learned so much about the Market Place when i went into business for myself, thank God for and experienced partner. I was finally able to apply the Book Learning criteria some years after the hands on experience. All is not failure….Thanks to Professors such as: Owne Servatius, Gene O’conner, Howie Odaniel and Fuad Tellew, They would tell us in our Youthful enthusiasm to conquer the World, JUST WAIT…YOU HAVEN’T SEEN ANYTHING YET! I look back and smile because they were so right. Damn that was almost 40 years ago….time flys when you are getting your Butt shredded.

I would also add, not to just bash Poly here, but it seems that the problems we see with Cal Poly are systemic of higher education. Look how bad Harvard has become, or any of the pedigree/ivy league schools. They’re turning out nitwits by the tens of thousands, one only has to open a paper or turn on a television to see them!

When I was hired at poly to teach engineering, I would have been excited about this article. But positive changes comes way too hard, even to things that are in real need of improvements. I’m tired of pushing against the status quo at cal poly; they simply don’t want to do anything better unless it makes them look better of allows them to bring in more money. Play their game and you get the rewards; be a good teacher and you’ll be lucky to stay employed there. I admit I’m a retard: even though I know the rewards go to the game players, hand wavers and butt kissers, I still pour my time into being a good teacher. I wish I had a hand full of those evil-pills they pass out to cal poly administrators… then maybe I would be more successful.

“Cal Poly rewards compliance, not achievement.”

Yep. That statement pretty much sums up the Cal Poly experience…unless you’re in Ag/Forestry/Horticulture. Those kids really seem to DO a lot, thankfully. The rest of the masses plug along and get a degree. But it’s unclear how much they’re actually learned.

My boyhood buddy who’s a psych. eng. at Berekely used to say, ‘College is a place where you learn more and more about less and less”.

The bulk of Egyptian rebels were unemployed degree holders. I’m sure we’re coming upon the same scenario here somewhat.

Interesting piece, Roger. I am a Cal Poly Alumni (Architecture) and was an “adult student” when I attended (after service in the military); my experiences, early 90’s, was not very impressive and it seems things have only gotten worse.

I was attracted by the “Learn by Doing” motto, and I can only recall one project, 3rd year design, that we actually did something outside the design lab – and that was the carry-it-yourself poly canyon project (not sure if they still have that).

I was amazed that there was also only one course (and it was experimental) where Arch students worked with Landscape Arch students on a joint project. Never working with engineers or construction trade majors, all my “hands on” and job-value experience came from working outside the University.

For most of my time there, Cal Poly seemed to be more in the way than helpful, as I could have learned at least 75% of what I applied in the private sector with private sector OJT (on the job training). I was reassured that having a Cal Poly SLO degree in Architecture opened doors, etc.

Maybe. I never was asked about my degree or my GPA, etc. other than filling out “yes” for the “do you have a B. Arch?” Other than that, it was all portfolio work, of which very little of my school work was in, as it was “academic” and not “real world” for the interviewers, who basically wanted someone to help them make money, not “change the world through vision” nor alumni status.

Most all of my classmates were the “send the kids off” ones fresh out of high school, and doe-eyed with whatever was sent their way; most did not end up in the profession, and those that did (that I still am in contact with) experienced “education shock” if they got work in the field.

The few professors that tried to explain what firms wanted were often shunned because other professors, who had basically no professional experience themselves apart from one or two “custom homes” a year, would ostracize them via the doe-eyed younger students. I mean, this is University, we’re enlightened and so much better than that riff-raff in the “professional world” (professors never used “real world” – as they thought academia was just as real as the professional one).

Anyway, Cal Poly seemed to me an expensive baby sitter, and now there are not enough jobs even if you can find a sector that is short on degreed individuals. Architecture was tough in the 90’s and is even tougher now – I don’t know where they’ll go when they graduate. I think we’re flooding our markets and the markets cannot bear them anymore.

Pharmacy schools are doing the same thing. In an effort to lower the cost of employing a Pharmacist, simply put more out there and sooner or later, they’ll eat themselves competing (like most in the Building Industry do). I imagine it’s the same for most professions.

Well, we have a flooded market, what’s next? Destroy the public sector? Seems we’re doomed to former Communist country-style “isn’t that a PhD engineer pulling weeds over there in a soldiers uniform?” future. And yes, I’ve visited many former communist countries, and they all seemed to have degrees with nothing to do. I hope we’re not going there. It is not pleasant, there will be no “America” to rescue us (or to flee to).