“One of the best attributes I first noticed about Cal Poly is that as good as everyone believes Cal Poly is, everyone also believes we can be even better,” Armstrong said.
Cal Poly will have a “laser focus” on graduation rates in coming years, University President Jeffrey Armstrong said in his annual State of the University speech Monday as he outlined priorities for the university in future years.
Aside from graduation rates, the president will also focus on enhancing research and Learn By Doing opportunities for faculty, improving the campus “climate” for diversity and increasing donations. All are topics he’s delved into in the past, though he offered new details on what he hopes to accomplish in the next decade at Cal Poly.
“One of the best attributes I first noticed about Cal Poly is that as good as everyone believes Cal Poly is, everyone also believes we can be even better,” Armstrong said. “If we embrace Learn By Doing, then we must also be willing to explore ways each of us can improve what we do so that Cal Poly will always be getting better.”
Lofty goals for graduation rates, student population
The president said Cal Poly’s four-year graduation rate, which stands now at 31 percent, “needs to more than double” by 2020. In addition, Armstrong repeated a goal he had previously declared for that same time frame: upping Cal Poly’s student population by between 4,000 and 5,000 students.
Approximately 19,800 students now attend Cal Poly, Armstrong said, slightly higher than normal because of the largest freshman class in the university’s history. Ninety percent of those students are from California.
Still, thousands are turned away every year.
“We have the education that could really help those high-achieving high school students,” Associated Students, Inc. President Jason Colombini said. “Just like Armstrong said, there’s a need for Cal Poly grads in the state and the country.”
The drive to serve and graduate more students — especially those from low-income backgrounds — received a push from President Barack Obama in August as he described his own goals to tie federal funding of universities to their “affordability.” The White House’s measurements could factor in both graduation rates and service to students receiving need-based aid.
Armstrong said in an interview after the State of the University address that while Obama’s speech didn’t transform his own priorities, it changed how the campus as a whole looks at these issues.
“In my day-to-day dialogue it’s always been a focus,” he said of increasing graduation rates. “Anytime we see a plan focusing from a political perspective, it’s really geared by what people are expecting … accountability has been on the minds of many people.”
In an attempt to tackle the longstanding issue of diversity at Cal Poly, Armstrong used his speech to draw attention to a survey that students, faculty and staff will be asked to complete this year. The survey will gauge the campus’ attitudes about diversity and inclusivity at Cal Poly as part of a larger effort by the president to boost those ideals on campus.
Cal Poly administered a similar survey in 1999. Then, approximately 17 percent of students who participated said they believed learning about individuals different than themselves was an important part of their education at Cal Poly. More than 40 percent said they had experienced or witnessed hurtful incidents in the classroom.
This past year, Armstrong has taken several steps to speed up the process of enhancing diversity. The university is reemphasizing the importance of a university-wide inclusive excellence council, said Colombini, who will serve on it. The Gender Equity, MultiCultural and Pride Centers also all joined together under a single umbrella, Cross Cultural Centers that will “combine … efforts to present more programs and services” beyond the different centers’ individual scopes, according to the Cross Cultural Centers website.
Armstrong also noted this year’s freshman class is the most ethnically diverse ever.
Professors, students to see more emphasis on research
In his speech, Armstrong also emphasized the importance of the teacher-scholar model. This idea caters toward bringing research and learning opportunities to faculty along with their regular duties, making them both “teachers” and “scholars.”
Cal Poly will open up 10,000 square-feet of space in Building 52 dedicated to faculty and student research, the president said to the near-packed Christopher Cohan Performing Arts Center, filled mostly with faculty and staff.
The new space will enable a model Armstrong said would benefit students as well as professors. He described his vision of students and professors working together on research projects across campus.
Though the president was enthusiastic about the model, he twice cautioned against becoming a research-focused university.
“The teacher-scholar model does not mean we are trying to transform Cal Poly into a Research One institution,” he said, referring to universities in the United States that engage in heavy research. “It is not our intention now — or ever — to have research become the driving force for Cal Poly.”
These changes, Armstrong said, will be more realistic once Cal Poly cements partnerships with donors and businesses in the community. Cal Poly increased its annual private support by more than 50 percent this past year, he noted, to nearly $43 million.
“It’d be difficult to achieve the growth of four or five thousand students without significant private support for programs and facilities,” Armstrong said. “Because, (for example) while we don’t have the analysis, I’m pretty sure we don’t have enough office and labs for our faculty and our students.”
Both Armstrong and Chancellor Timothy White have pushed for more investigation into public-private partnerships for the university. The president congratulated those in attendance who worked on the newly completed Warren J. Baker Center for Science and Mathematics, which was finished after $20 million in donations supplementing its more than $100 million in state funding.
Notably absent from the president’s speech was a topic that dominated his 2012 State of the University address: semesters at Cal Poly. Armstrong in March announced the university would begin the process of converting to semesters by the end of the decade, though he made clear in an interview after this year’s speech that it isn’t something he’s anxious to tackle right away.
“I am not going to bring up the topic, I am not going to discuss the topic unless I have to,” he said. “We’re working on quarters. We’re going to continue to work as a quarter campus as long as we possibly can.”
The president’s 2013 speech came as the highlight of Fall Conference, an annual welcome event ‘The Office of the President’ holds each year.
In addition to the Monday morning remarks, Armstrong and his wife Sharon also welcomed new faculty to his on-campus home Monday evening. He attended another reception for new faculty at Julian’s Patisserie in the library Wednesday.
Thursday, the Armstrongs hosted newly promoted and tenured faculty at their home.