Students have seen his emails, heard his name spoken in the halls and the not-so-rare occasions, spoken with him as he walks around campus. Jeffery Armstrong is known on campus for his work as the university president, but how much do students really know about him?
Sitting on the couch in his living room in a grey suit with little symbols of Cal Poly on his tie and his lapel Armstrong shared his thoughts on his journey to the university, what he has done since starting here eight years ago and what the future holds.
What was the journey like to this position?
I grew up on a farm in Kentucky. Our family, a few generations before, were immigrants from Europe, Germany, Ireland, Scotland. My father didn’t finish high school. My mother went back and got her high school degree while my older brothers were going to school. They jokingly told me it was very cool to have your mom on the school bus with you. I have two older brothers. One went to college, one did not, that are nine and 11 years older than me. I was the second in our family to go to college. I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do. I knew that my teacher who was in [Future Farmers of America] vocational agriculture was a real role model and a veterinarian. So I wanted to be a veterinarian or an [agriculture] teacher. I ended up going to Murray State in Western Kentucky so I could come home and work. I got a scholarship, not because I finished in the top five or six in my class, but because of FFA — I was a state officer. It was only 45 minutes and I could still come home and work.
How did you go from wanting to work with animals to wanting to be a University President?
Like a lot of students, it’s an experience or a class that really transforms and you. I took a horse reproduction course and I just became excited about reproductive physiology endocrinology. I ended up going to graduate school at North Carolina State. Just so happened my brother — the one that went to college ahead of me — was on the faculty there. So I’m not sure if he had anything to do with me getting into grad school or not, but it worked out really well.
Then, I met my wife to be. We were both in greek organizations at Murray State. She’s first-generation from New Jersey. It was cheaper for Sharon to go to Murray State and pay out-of-state [tuition] than to go to Rutgers in New Jersey. So we got married right out of undergraduate and moved to Raleigh, North Carolina for graduate school. I got my Master’s and Ph.D. in five years and then spent another 11 years at North Carolina state. I was a faculty member, advisor to clubs and I taught.
I taught students how to use computers. Today’s students teach us how to use computers, right? That was back in the day when they were still two floppy drives. One student came in and said, “The dog ate my homework,” and he had a disc. It was ripped apart and it had canine bite marks in it. And I said, “That either really happened or you’re totally creative. Either way, I’m buying it.”
What would you say stresses you out about your job and how do you handle those stresses and criticism?
I’ll say, given the past few years, three points. One is the diversity, the climate, the issues we have on campus. It’s not just compositional diversity, but it’s who we are. And it’s also connected with our community.
Second, it’s the pay of our faculty and staff. I’ve been saying that for many years. A few years ago, we put in a $3.5 million equity program, and we want to do it again, and we will as soon as we can.
My nature is I want everybody to feel good. I want everybody to get along. So it does bother me when people that don’t know me say that I don’t care, say that I’ve done nothing to help students.
My nature is I want everybody to feel good. I want everybody to get along. So it does bother me when people that don’t know me say that I don’t care, say that I’ve done nothing to help students. But that goes with the turf. I know it’s not, I have to look at it that, hey, I’m in that position. It goes with the turf, but it’s still, it still hurts from time to time.
What has been one of the hardest decisions you’ve had to make in your role as president?
What some of our students, especially students of color, students that are different, what they have to deal with. I mean, I’m a white, straight male, live in a university house. I’m one of the most privileged people around. So I want to put that in the proper context. What I have to deal with is nothing compared to what some of the students.
One of the really difficult decisions was last year. It wasn’t a difficult decision on whether we expel a student or not, but how we were dealing with everything around that.
Milo Yiannopoulos coming back for the second time, that was really difficult. We considered not letting Milo come, we considered shutting down all events. And the third option was, do it. Make sure everybody’s safe, do the best we can do, ignore him and let him come back. I think we made the right decision because of the principle of free speech that our students had invited. That was the overriding principle that won out. But I just didn’t want the guy on our campus.
What are the best moments or experiences you’ve had?
I have a lot of things come to mind, but probably the biggest thing was actually getting the Cal Poly Scholars started. When we got our first students started and then that was kind of a chain. We learned that once we acquired the advising, that our first generation students were performing equal or better than non-first generation students.
Getting the Cal Poly Opportunity Fee approved too — not so much as it’s a policy victory, but it’s more of we have 301 students coming in this fall and they’re majority minority. They’re amazing high-performing students that without that scholarship, many of them would have said no to Cal Poly. So that’s really cool.
And are you confident in the trajectory that we’re heading?
I am very confident, there’s so much more that we can do. I mean, think about the 301 Cal Poly Scholars this fall. Look at the impact now, multiply that times ten, three thousand total Cal Poly Scholars in five years with a lot of donations supporting that and leveraging it.
And we’ve got to continue to have open discussion on our campus. I mean, if we can’t have open discussion and talk about Chick-fil-A or talk about the issues of the day, where else is it going to happen? I really appreciate that about our campus. We’ve had some tense times, but compared to what’s happened in a lot of other places, we’ve had some really civil open discussions. I learned that in my career in the food industry, activists have a key role in our society and are extremely important.
Is there anything else you want our readers to know?
I just want our students, faculty, and staff to know that I care and we’re always open to ideas. And we want to work together. We have the same goals, let’s talk and argue about the means. Argue is not a bad word.
What advice do you have for students who might want to follow this career path?
Well, I go back to the advice my father gave me. You know, the guy who quit high school about a month before he was about to finish. He didn’t travel a lot. I jokingly say his study abroad was he and a guy were hitchhiking to California and he never made it. He got to Texas and at that time he wired back to his father and said, ‘I have seen enough of this world.’ My grandfather who passed away when I was pretty young, wired him just enough money to get back to Kentucky. But my father was very, very wise and he said, ‘Work hard.’ That was in the backdrop. I grew up in the Bible Belt. So the backdrop was you’re honest, your integrity is important, but you work hard. And he would often say, ‘You’re never going to be the smartest in the room but you can work hard, and treat people well.’
Do you have a favorite spot on campus?
I love to go up on some of the high vistas and just look over campus. And I’m pretty much an extrovert, but I do like alone time sometimes.
You know, I think that I try not to let things stress me to the point of of losing sleep. Because people say, what do you lose sleep over? And I think it’s not fair to a person for their own emotional and physical health, but also you’re not going to be the right kind of leader if you don’t take care of yourself. So that’s really important when people ask me about the what, what really worries you?
What are some of the principles that you think are the most important?
I think if you look at Vision 2022, we want to be a more diverse, more residential campus in the future. We want to stay true to our focus on undergraduate education, our Master’s programs. We don’t want to try more or be pushed into something that we’re not. We also want to make sure as we’re being more entrepreneurial, as we’re bringing in additional money, that we always do with other money what we would normally do with state money. Because some people argue we shouldn’t have any outside money, that the state should pay for everything. In an ideal world, that would be great.
That was the world we lived in with President McPhee. It’s jokingly said, if a dean asks someone for money, then they might’ve been fired or sent to the Kellogg campus. He was known that if he really likes you, you would go to the Kellogg campus. Vice President Kennedy, he ran the Kellogg campus, which is today, Cal Poly Pomona. But if you did something wrong, you might go there too.
But it’s a different world today and that’s not reality. We have to be entrepreneurial. But we’ve got to do what’s right. And I go back to those three points I brought up at the beginning. Those first two are really the two important ones. And I’ve been saying that for many years and we’re working hard, but, you know, in some ways I think, oh, well we’ve done a lot. I’m in my ninth year. But I know there’s so much more to do and that those two core problems are still there. Have we made progress? Yes. Are we there? No. In those are their challenges, but they’re also opportunities.
Editor’s note: This responses in this article have been edited for brevity and clarity.