Perched up in his office on the fourth floor of the Administration building, Cal Poly President Warren Baker’s view overlooks much of the campus. As students bustle through their day-by-day activities, here is the man at the heart of the institution. But after 28 years of overseeing every sect of the university, his life now extends well beyond the fourth floor and he took the time to speak with the Mustang Daily about what it’s like to be in his shoes.
Mustang Daily: What attracted you to Cal Poly in the first place?
President Baker: No one has asked me that question in a long time. I was attracted to Cal Poly primarily because of the philosophy of education and the opportunity to work at a university that was in transition.
MD: What kind of transition was it going through at the time?
PB: Cal Poly was growing and it had a modest plan. New programs were something that I felt would be appropriate as we had to look at revising the master plan for the university. So all of that provided an opportunity to be more than a caretaker over a state university – that’s not going to change much.
MD: Do you think the plan has been completed at this point?
PB: It’s well on its way. We added seven programs in liberal arts. When I arrived here, we didn’t have a philosophy major, we did not have majors in languages, we didn’t have a music major or a major in theater and dance. So over a period of time, the faculty developed proposals and we were able to attract majors and strengthen the overall education program as well.
MD: What are your day-to-day responsibilities?
PB: Well, it’s pretty varied -sometimes I describe it as having several different jobs. The best way to carve it up is that I have responsibilities as a president in the CSU system to help shape the CSU policies, so I spend a good deal of time working on commissions and committees for the CSU system.
Then, with respect to the campus, I ultimately have responsibility for the programs in the university and I do that mainly by delegating responsibility through the colleges and the deans. I review all of the promotion and tenure decisions of the university as well, internally, and make the final decisions on the allocation of the budget based upon the academic plans and the strategic plan of the university.
And thirdly, I spend a good deal of my time trying to raise private money. When I came here, I started a development program that we launched, a major capital campaign which ended about a year ago. So the effort associated with cultivating and meeting donors and working on getting proposals put together takes up some of my time.
And the fourth area would be time I spend with the students. The only reason we’re here is for the well-being of the students. I meet with student leadership but I look for opportunities to meet informally with groups of students, like Poly Reps. I try to schedule as much time as I can, but of course being off-campus, raising private funds and government relations (he trails off).
MD: What do you think needs improvement at Cal Poly?
PB: I think clearly we need to continue to improve our physical facilities. The highest priority on my list right now is to replace our physical science facilities. Our support programs like engineering and agriculture and architecture go through the sciences, and our facilities are pretty old. The (spider) building is not very adaptable to new teaching techniques and the equipment that we need is also a tremendous waste of space on campus because it’s a one-story building that spreads out. It’s huge and inefficient and out of date. So that’s the highest priority but that’s probably the best example of our continuing drive to improve facilities and teaching facilities.
MD: Is there a plan in the works for the spider building?
PB: Yes, in fact in this year’s budget we have money to begin the process and it’s on the list of projects to be funded so over the next three years. We will be receiving state funding of up to about $100 million for the facility and we’re in the process of raising an additional $22 million in private money for it. So it’s going to be a reality – it’s just a lot of hard work.
MD: Why don’t you live in the president’s house on campus?
PB: It’s really pretty simple. I lived there for 25 years and there’s no real reason for me to live there. I felt we could probably use the space for university purposes more than we did – although while we lived there, we used it an awful lot for university functions – but it’s used quite a bit more now. We’re able to remodel it for handicapped access now and so we hold a lot of small meetings, hosting university guests, and student and university organizations use it. So it gets a lot of use.
MD: Is it strange having meetings in your old house?
PB: Well, I know every nook and cranny! (laughs) I have to say, by and large, living there, the students respected our privacy but there is something that I did realize – and I didn’t realize it until I moved out – but there is a continual level of tension and stress and anxiety that exists because we were on the job 24 hours a day every day. You couldn’t take a day off and kick around at home. So it was certainly different when I moved off campus. I think that people don’t realize they need to get away from the job – it took me 25 years to get to that point.
Our children all grew up here, our youngest son was 2 years old when we moved there and we have four children – and our oldest daughter was 16. So they grew up there and all our grandchildren had Christmas there for 15 to 20 years.
MD: What did your children think of growing up on a university campus when they were so young?
PB: I think there were parts they liked and there were parts that were difficult for them. The aspect of living in a glass house where they’re under scrutiny all the time was difficult for them from time to time. The other fact is that you didn’t live in a neighborhood so you didn’t have friends who lived in the neighborhood – when you went around the campus, it’s all students so it was not like living in a family neighborhood.
MD: When students say that they don’t know their university president, how do you address that?
PB: As I said, I try as often as I can. It is difficult to be as visible as people want you to be when so much of what I do takes me away from the campus and when I get back I generally have a calendar that’s filled. . I used to have open office hours, but no one came. (laughs) So we stopped doing it. I don’t know why. . It’s not like a small liberal arts college where the president can have fireside chats with the students. In higher education today, in a public system like the CSU system, there are lots of demands on your time and it is more and more difficult to stay in touch on a real basis with students.
MD: If students wanted you to have the same office hours again, would you do it?
MD: What are some of your best memories from college?
PB: You think all of your friends are your high school classmates, but when you get to college, you really learn that you make lifelong friendships in college. That’s the thing that I think I remember the most is the friends that I made and the kind of things that we were involved in – the athletic programs, the late hours. I went to Notre Dame and it was quite a different institution at that time than it is now – there were no women at the university when I was there. As an all-male campus and it was rather strictly run. My experience was quite different than what students have here.
MD: How far off is retirement?
PB: Well I’m getting old. I would say sometime in the next few years, whether it’s two years or three years, I really don’t have any definite plans. I know that the time will be right soon. There are a couple things that I just want to make sure get done – the science building. I’d like to be sure we have it secured because I think that’s so important to Cal Poly. I think we’re right at the stage now where we’re updating the master plan for the university and just getting that on track – not necessarily completing it because that tends to be a dynamic process that goes on for several years – but being sure that the university is thinking about the future.