Cal Poly gives TV deal to president’s friend

April 26, 2016
President Jeffrey Armstrong

Cal Poly President Jeffrey Armstrong


(Editor’s note: In the interest of transparency, readers should know that Cal Coast News editor Bill Loving is a tenured professor in the journalism department at Cal Poly. A recording of an interview with Cal Poly President Jeffrey Armstrong, several emails between Armstrong and RFD TV’s CEO and a 2015 financial record are at the end of this article.)

In 2013, Cal Poly President Jeffrey Armstrong got an invitation to attend an overnight excursion at a working ranch courtesy of the CEO of RFD TV, a cable channel that features agriculture stories, old TV shows and infomercials. Then-CEO Randy Bernard is a close friend, Armstrong said.

After that get together, Armstrong entered into a verbal agreement with RFD TV to have faculty and staff from the college of Liberal Arts and the college of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences produce agriculture stories for the network.

So far, the venture has cost Cal Poly at least $373,000. Those figures represent faculty, staff and equipment costs for reporting in 2014 and 2015. That reporting is seen on the 89th rated cable network in America with an average prime time viewership of 144,000, according to Variety’s analysis of the channel’s ratings.

The arrangement raises questions about the use of state resources to support a private business, especially where the network has so few viewers.

Market Day, RFD TV’s showcase for current ag news and the program that features the Cal Poly reports has a viewership that ranges from as little as 4,000 to as many as 50,000, Variety’s analysis found.

In early 2013, Bernard invited Armstrong to an overnight stay at a working ranch owned by his father. Armstrong responded back with a request to bring his son.Randy Bernard

“Would you have room for my son to join in,” Armstrong wrote in a March 29, 2013 email to Bernard. “It is not a problem if it doesn’t work. It will be a new experience for him. Zack is 23, He will fit in – if there is room.”

After Bernard said they would make room for Zack, Armstrong requested Bernard provide transportation for Zack and wanted to know if he needed to bring any of the food or drinks. Armstrong said in the end, he provided his son’s transportation and also brought wine to the social event.

“We have all food and drink, all you have to do is bring your gear and some good laughs and we will be set,” Bernard responded in an email.

Armstrong said that because Bernard is a close friend and it was a personal trip, he was not required to report it on his statement of economic interest.

Shortly afterwards, Armstrong entered into the agreement where Cal Poly faculty and staff would produce a five-minute segment once a week for RFD TV that would be aired Monday mornings. RFD TV would not cover any of Cal Poly’s costs.

At that time, RFD TV executives were clear that they did not want student quality work. As a result, two professors and a technician were pulled from their other duties to spend time producing segments for RFD TV. Two other ag college faculty members were assigned to do research for the segments.

In May 2014, Cal Poly began making segments for RFD TV. The faculty were given assigned time, in which their teaching assignment was reduced by one course for each of the quarters that they worked on the RFD TV segments while still being paid for teaching full time. In addition, the faculty and staff are being paid for producing additional content for RFD TV.

In 2014, the cost for labor, travel, and equipment to Cal Poly was more than $170,000. according to documents obtained through the California Public Records Act. In 2015, it was $200,000.  Cal Poly has said that it will provide figures for the cost of the service to the private cable channel in 2016.

Armstrong says it is a great deal because it provides learn by doing for students and marketing to 60 million homes.

“The value of marketing to 60 million households is very important,” Armstrong said.

Dean of the College of Liberal Arts Douglas L. Epperson also touted the importance of marketing to 60 million homes.

“Given the extremely high quality of our products, their airing on a national cable network in 60 million-plus homes with a clear and explicit attribution to Cal Poly, the resulting positive publicity for Cal Poly (including CLA and CAFES) and California agriculture, and the learning opportunities for students – yes, I believe that this was a wise investment of CLA resources,” Epperson wrote in an email.

But while RFD TV is available to 60 million homes through its carriage on cable television systems, the channel does not have 60 million viewers or even 6 million viewers.

The Cal Poly segments on RFD TV’s Market Day viewership ranges from 4,000 to 50,000 people nationwide, according to figure provided by Variety. (In comparison, CalCoastNews is available to more than 4 billion homes, but the site has about 140,000 unique viewers per month and a top daily viewership of approximately 87,000.).

Armstrong also said the agreement provides learn by doing for faculty.

Associate Professor Richard Gearhart reports the stories for the cable channel.

“I like faculty having participation in learn by doing and extra pay,” Armstrong said.

Gearhart already has been a fixture of local broadcasting at KSBY, Channel 6, for more than a quarter of a century. Gearhart also taught agriculture communication at Cal Poly for more than five years.

Following the CalCoastNews public records request for documentation about the Cal Poly arrangement with RFD TV, the university began to bring students into production in larger numbers.

Armstrong said he plans to have students sell adds which would bring revenue to the campus. But figures are not available to show how much revenue the ads would bring on the low-rated cable channel.

Epperson said there has been some student involvement since the program started, though it increased in 2015.

“Subsequently, students have been substantially involved in the production of vignettes, with a minimum of  six students working on these projects this year,”Epperson said. “The value of the work to students cannot be overstated.”

It was not made clear how the student involvement would figure into RFD TV’s position because they did not want student-quality work from Cal Poly.


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Just another unethical exec living the dream in the happiest city in America.

He, Adam Hill and the former chief of police must be working off the same play book.

What do those people all have in common?

They draw their subsistence from the taxpayer. It’s not just a local phenomenon.

Sounds like some of my colleagues are complaining because they actually have to do some work and leaked the story to CalCoast.

Did Armstrong profit personally from this deal? Nope.

Are students getting the chance to work on a cable TV channel? Yep.

Is RFD providing positive exposure for Cal Poly? Yep.

Will the audience for RFD grow? Perhaps.

So what exactly is the story here? A college president uses his personal connection to get Cal Poly into the national cable TV world. They spent some money in the process.

Having worked on this campus for 12 years, believe me, I can tell you stuff that makes this pale in comparison.

Cal Poly is a California school that is taxpayer supported. Half the news media in SLO had more readership or viewership the RFD TV. So a third of the media staff no longer teaches most of their classes so they can provide content to a TV station with almost no viewers. Why are they not paying Gearhart’s salary at KSBY and then saying by Cal Poly. Much greater reach.

For $200,000, provide the best education to the students or if you need to advertise there are much cheaper options, but they may not include a CEO who is a friend of the president.

And students have had almost no involvement.

I’d have to agree with PolyProf here. Yeah, it’s not a perfect situation, but in the end, the tax-payer dollars (along with private donor dollars) are *supposedly* going to teach students, and having a multi-college/discipline experience like this is probably worth the investment.

True, the viewership is quite small (like MSNBC small), but that should not be the focus in a learning environment. I think it is a great idea, actually, and getting his kid in is what having connections is all about – isn’t that why they pay him the big bucks?

Honestly, if the guy knows enough people to bring in multiple millions in donations, etc. and gets ½ a mil, well, that’s money well-spent.

No one likes to see how the sausage is made…

They are $400,000 in the hole and have been going at it since 2014. When are they “going” to start teaching students? There is no teaching going on. There are no students reporting, editing, or broadcasting. The article says that as soon as CCN hit them with a PRA request, they started having “up to 6 students” involved in some way. If you listen to the interview, they ask him what the return is on this $400,000 and he doesn’t have an answer. This is a misuse of state funds plain and simple. The professors were paid state funds to be teaching students (Gearhart made $90,000 last year) and instead they were performing work for a private corporation where the CEO was Armstrong’s friend. The private corporation was broadcasting their work. Are there no commercials on when these shows are broadcasted? There sure are! So the company is getting labor paid for by the parents of Cal Poly students, then they are selling advertising themselves during the shows for their own profit. RFDTV profits. CALPOLY pays.

So if you follow the story’s actual statements of fact, and Gearhart gets one course’s credit per school year for supervising this enterprise, that comes to $7500, not $90,000. So, if say three students are getting educated in the process, that comes out to $2500 per student per school year. That sounds like very reasonably priced education and a chance for students to work one-on-one with a prof on an actual career-based project. Cal Poly is supposed to be educating students for careers, so what exactly’s the problem?

No students are getting educated in the process because no students are doing any work for RFDTV. If you look at the Sac Bee state salary data base, you will see he was paid $90,000. in 2015.

As Karen pointed out in the interview, they got released from teaching, and then were paid their regular salary, and additional as indicated in the graphic. Plus, another instructor had to be paid to actually teach the classes.

I would love to see evidence of just “one” career based project- actually done by a student that was a result of this enterprise. But none exists. That’s the problem. Now tat CCN it would have to be something that was done before CCN exposed this misuse of state funds and not something they are scrambling to put together now.

If only three students are getting educated, it comes out to over $100,000 per student, not including what they’ve bilked the state for in 2016.

Poly PR is working full-time to comment on this very disturbing story. So many new posters!

Way to expose this, Karen & Bill. Time to clean house CSU.

“Armstrong said that because Bernard is a close friend and it was a personal trip, he was not required to report it on his statement of economic interest.”

FPPC says: “A gift is anything of value for which you have not provided equal or greater consideration to the donor. A gift is reportable if its fair market value is $50 or more. In addition, multiple gifts totaling $50 or more received during the reporting period from a single source must be reported.”

Why wouldn’t the President err on the side of caution and simply report?

Julie, “Why wouldn’t the President err on the side of caution and simply report?”, because he is a team player in the corrupt government of California especially our educational system from preschool through higher learning. Professors taken out of the classroom for a 5 minute weekly TV presentation that does not allow the students full access.

Cal Poly is really a corporation and not a exempt learning institution. I am a graduate of CP and watching the teachers, lectures, professors, staff, etc. take full advantage of the students is disgusting.

I would agree that Poly is nowhere near what is used to be, and it is disturbing to see some of the things that transpire there; however, this move (as back-room deal as it gets) is a bit what Cal Poly was *supposed* to be known for: learn by doing.

If it is giving several students from several departments some hands-on experience related to their fields of study, then go for it.

Should he have reported things on the side of caution? Sure.

Is this a steamy find? Not really. I like the piece more for an attempt to get back to the whole learn by doing philosophy, and God knows, those students (and most staff) have not done much “doing” lately.

There are no students in any departments working on this venture. At all. The company said in several emails that they did not want “student work”.

Cal Poly changed after Julian McPhee resigned as President. Cal Poly also changed after their name changed from a “college” to a “university”. Trying to follow in the footsteps of UC Berkley, and other universities, their focus changed from “learn by doing” to $$$. Teachersare not necessarily hired according to their ability to teach, but on how much money they can generate through research grants. Interestingly enough, Cal Poly Foundation, now called CP corporation takes 30-40% or more right off the top of any research grant received by a teacher working for CP. This is standard for most if not all colleges. They use the money for “scholarships”, as well as propping up student enterprise projects that do not pay for themselves. Teachers are given liberal release time from teaching duties for research and their teaching duties fall on the backs of grad students to fill in the gaps. Sounds just like UC campus’s even back in the ’60’s. The number of labs (hands on experience) has been cut or reduced from 3 hours to 2 hours or replaced by more lectures. Many labs now are inhanced with computers to the extent that you learn more by pushing a mouse around than actually learning an experience that you can use in a job after graduating. I speak from experience as a graduate of CP in the 60’s and retired staff member after 35 years in the trenches.

You seem very ungrateful for the cut-rate education the taxpayers of California provided you. Way to go self-righteous one!

RFD TV is primarily an early morning show broadcast in rural farm areas of the country. It has a vertical audience of Ag people, not general consumers, even though I’ve seen it on hotel cable channels when traveling around the country.

So, could this possibly be a way to recruit agriculture students from rural areas of America? Could make it up in out-of-state student fees.

What’s the surprise.

Anyone elected or appointed to a government job is corrupt. The more they are paid and the more influence they can peddle, the worse it is.

Look at the person likely to be the next president of the us. She’s the matriarch of a global crime syndicate.

The role of a college president is to bring money, reputation and learning leadership to the school. As jayhagstro states, Dr. Armstrong looks like he is doing exactly that in this program. The fact that he has contacts in the industry is icing on the cake.

Stop making it look like he is getting benefits or his friends are. The students are getting terrific experience and the cost is part of the operating expense of a university. The faculty will get paid if they are sitting in their office playing Angry Birds or teaching. So his son is getting a little benefit experience he otherwise would not if he was not son of DAD. Big deal, lighten up.

Did you even read the article south? There are NO STUDENTS involved in this venture. if there were, we would have seen some videos made by students. The university has paid out $373,000 for faculty to do work for his friend’s company. Then his friend made money off the advertising sold while broadcasting the faculty work. He also said several times that RFDTV has donated nothing! It was a handshake deal that cost the state $373000.

What he could do to make good on this is go to his friend Bernard and ask him to donate the $373000 back..

So Armstrong can have Cal Poly pay out close to $400k in goods and services for one of his friend’s with no formal contract and no return except students learning how to sell ads.

Yep. That’s government cronyism in action.

It happens thousands of times each day with money they don’t have, but rest assured, they will come and get more of it.

Cal Poly IS a “Learn by doing” university – a critical difference between its learning model and that of non-polytechnic colleges. You cannot provide this type of experience unless you have faculty who are hands in the development and delivery of the curriculum – they are the experts. You cannot have the program to teach in a polytechnic model without intense involvement by the faculty in developing the details of such a model. And such development is an integral part of any new course development, for which, of course, faculty is paid. Integrating a new direction into an established curriculum takes time and a planned, step-by-step development process beginning with the developers of the program (the staff and faculty) before the introduction of a quality program to the students.

This is a golden opportunity for students to become involved in the marketing and education of the skills that they are being taught at Cal Poly – both of which are required for a successful outcome of any ventures they become involved in after leaving the learning environment. To suggest that Dr. Armstrong has had anything other than the growth of Cal Poly and its student opportunities as the goal for this to program is to reveal a lack of understanding about the complexities of the polytechnic experience.

This response sounds like the bumbling mumbo-jumbo the president would try to have us believe in the interview.Stop exploiting student. Learn by doing opportunities involve donations, endowments and pledges. RFDTV has provided none of those things. In fact, they have cost us $373,000 and have profited from the faculty of Cal Poly.