He’s the big man on campus. But judging from his attitude as he walks back to his office from lunch at 19 Metro Station, it’s a title he could do without.
Cal Poly President Jeffrey Armstrong greets nearly every other person he walks by — whether he knows them or not. Some students share a nervous giggle as he moves past them to his office, awed that the closest person to a celebrity at Cal Poly would say “hi” to them. Others don’t seem to realize who the man in the suit is and mutter an awkward “hello” back.
“I just started doing it, and sometimes I’ll know them,” he said, “but most of the time I won’t know them. It’s just something I do. My wife gets a kick out of it.”
Armstrong, who took over the job following interim-president Robert Glidden last February, has said repeatedly during his first year in office that his mission at Cal Poly is centered on student success. Part of that, he said, is getting to know the students at his university.
When he is able to find free time, Armstrong said he likes to go to the Recreation Center and join in pickup basketball games. He said this is a tradition he carries with him from the two former universities he worked at: Purdue and Michigan State.
“I can keep up with them,” Armstrong said. “Maybe not jump as high, but I can run with some of the guys.”
And that’s where the president begins nearly every day on campus, at the newly renovated Recreation Center. He said he sometimes goes as many as 10 days in a row, working out there at 6:30 a.m. Even his secretary knows his early morning time is reserved for the gym.
“I do it primarily for my health,” Armstrong said. “I used to run outside mostly, but with the new Recreation Center open, I’ve been using the treadmills now.”
From the Recreation Center, Armstrong heads back to the University House off Perimeter Road on campus. There, he has breakfast with his wife, Sharon. Armstrong said he likes to have a big breakfast because his schedule oftentimes does not allow for a substantial lunch. Even though he seems to know all the chefs at the restaurants on campus, Armstrong still buys meal credits for when he dines at Cal Poly.
“Sometimes I have time to sit down and eat, or other times I’ll just have to grab food on the run,” he said. “Sometimes it’s just a PowerBar.”
No one knows how busy Armstrong’s schedule is better than his secretary Kim Uyttewaal. She helps to make sure Armstrong makes it to each of his appointments on time and still has time to do basic tasks, such as checking his email.
“It’s a lot of moving parts,” Uyttewaal said of the president’s schedule. “We’re always trying to balance the long term, the mid term, the short term, the crisis management.”
In recent weeks, much of the president’s focus has been on new provost Kathleen Enz Finken. In a recent interview, Enz Finken said she has spent her time getting acclimated to Cal Poly while learning the ins and outs of the university. Uyttewaal said Armstrong made an effort to fit meetings with Enz Finken into his schedule as much as possible.
“With every one meeting, new meetings pop up,” Enz Finken said. “There’s a lot to be done.”
The work doesn’t always fit into short meetings, either. In early February, the president had a retreat with his immediate leadership team: Preston Allen, vice president of student affairs; Deborah Reed, vice president of student advancement; Larry Kelley, vice president of finance and administration; Betsy Kinsley, Armstrong’s chief of staff; and Enz Finken.
Because nearly all of the team is new to Cal Poly, one of the university’s corporate partners paid $15,000 to bring in a professional mediator to talk with the group about team building and leadership. Armstrong said the gift to Cal Poly will benefit the team moving forward.
“Someone could say, ‘Wow, you had six people with high salaries all sequestered for four hours,’” he said. “Well yeah, but look how efficient and how much better we’re going to be as a result of that.”
The president and provost met for nearly three hours last Friday, much of it centered on cyber security at Cal Poly. They were joined by computer science department chair Ignatios Vakalis, who presented Armstrong with a proposal to bring Cal Poly to the front of the defense industry in cyber security.
“I think it’s a very exciting plan,” he said. “And I’m very excited about what we’re already doing in cyber security. I think it’s an example of where Cal Poly needs to expand what we’re doing in order to meet societal needs and to enhance economic development. Because there’s a lot of companies, and there are a lot of reasons why cyber security is only going to grow in importance.”
After the provost and company left, the president’s office was left to just Armstrong, Uyttewaal and Kinsley. The three candidly joked about everything from Kinsley’s cluttered desk to a YouTube video that portrayed Hitler as a Cal Poly student furious with the decision for Friday to take on a Monday schedule.
Though the regular workday was about to end, none of the three showed signs of being ready to leave. Uyttewaal and Kinsley typed away at their keyboards, trying to finish projects before the weekend arrived. The president went back into his private office to read and answer emails, something he said he does every day.
“There’s some messages I try not to respond to right off the cuff, because it’s a complicated situation,” Armstrong said. “But normal correspondence, I’m back to people within a few hours or the next day.”
He said many of the emails will come from students concerned with one thing or another on campus or with an idea for Cal Poly.
“Sometimes, I’ll bump into a students at the Rec Center or on campus and I’ll say, ‘Send me a follow-up email,'” he said. “Or I’ll run into alumni or parents of students and I’ll give them my card.”
Forty minutes later, after he finished with emails and a call to an alumni donor, Armstrong packed his work into a briefcase. He said goodbye to Kinsley and Uyttewaal, who were not yet ready for the end of the work week, and headed out of the presidential office.
Armstrong talked about his plans for the weekend as he left the office, including attending the Western Bonanza student-run agricultural showcase. The president’s animal science background seems to work well at Cal Poly, a school noted for its top agricultural programs.
This, among other things, has made the position of president at Cal Poly his “dream job.” He said he is in the planning stages of multiple capital campaigns that would each take seven years to bring in donations from alumni and corporations. Despite having only been at Cal Poly for just over a year, he said he plans to stick around for a while.
“I’m thinking long term,” he said. “I’m thinking what can we do next year? What can we do in five years? What can we do in 10 years? What can we do in 15? And I like to think about what campus is going to be like in 15 or 20 years. I’d love to be here.”