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Margot McDonald has ambitious goals for her term as interim head of the architecture department, despite a lower budget and increase in students. “With our students’ numbers growing, we need to have more offerings off campus,” she said. “It’s kind of exciting to think of adding new programs to that offering.”

Benjy Egel
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Cal Poly professor Margot McDonald was named the interim head of the architecture department within the College of Architecture and Environmental Design (CAED) in August.

McDonald is in her second stint atop the department after serving as interim head from 2002-2003.

“My goals for the program are to look how we grow in clusters, different topical area for the students,” she said. “I really enjoy this work; it’s a lot of variety.”

She has balanced teaching with working on her doctorate in geography at University of California, Santa Barbara, and should receive her degree by the end of the school year.

Professor Chris Ying joined the architecture department shortly before McDonald in 1992. They are two of the longest-tenured members on staff.

“She’s personable and she’s interested in balancing the opinions of the various members of the faculty,” Ying said.

Ten years ago, McDonald had fewer students, more faculty and a larger budget to juggle. Cal Poly now receives less state funding and must receive more money from outside sources.

“It’s really a significant shift, the fact that we’ve gone from a state-supported school to a state-assisted school,” she said. “There’s much more pressure on all of the administrators to do fundraising to support our students and support our programs.”

Before her appointment, McDonald was teaching an integrated project delivery studio incorporating aspects of architecture, architectural engineering, landscape architecture and construction management.

The course helps students gain off-campus experience in a multitude of fields, McDonald said.

After her first turn as department head, McDonald took a paid leave of absence to begin working on her Ph.D.

The architecture department has recently undergone a large amount of staff turnover, so McDonald’s experience and steady hand will be appreciated, Ying said.

“Right now, what the architecture department needs is someone to take us through the next year,” Ying said. “She’s always been interested in trying to build a cohesive whole, and she’s willing to take various opinions and try to find middle ground.”

Former department head Henri de Hahn unexpectedly took a position as provost of NewSchool of Architecture and Design in December 2012.

Professor Jim Doerfleur replaced de Hahn as interim head, but left the department seven months into his two-year term.

New lecturers were hired in the turnover, so McDonald said she would look into department restructuring to optimize everyone’s teaching potential.

Building on the department’s small graduate program was a high priority as well, she said.

“We’re discussing how to merge the interests of the undergraduate program with the graduate program,” she said. “For example, we have an emphasis in digital fabrication, and there’s a lot of undergraduate interest, but there’s also interest from graduate students.”

Digital fabrication involves designing computerized blueprints, then turning those plans into reality. Recently, some digital fabricators have been focused on 3-D printing.

Another popular concentration is sustainable architecture, which has drawn some professionals back into school, McDonald said.

The department will also try to establish more off-campus programs to compensate for surging enrollment, McDonald said.

CAED students can currently study in Florence, Copenhagen, India, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Alexandria, Virginia.

“With our students’ numbers growing, we need to have more offerings off campus,” she said. “It’s kind of exciting to think of adding new programs to that offering.”

With her doctorate hopefully under her belt, McDonald will probably stay at Cal Poly when the school starts looking for a permanent head, she said.

“I am likely to apply for the permanent position; I haven’t decided yet,” she said. “Every day is something new. You walk in with a schedule and end up doing something entirely different.”

The McDonalds are a Cal Poly couple, as Margot’s husband Eric spent 20 years as the Mustangs’ fencing coach.

In her free time, McDonald enjoys playing the Celtic harp. Though she and Eric have no children, McDonald said she thinks of Cal Poly students as her own kids.

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