Our View: Warren Baker made Cal Poly SLO the world-class university it is today
It’s not easy to think of Warren Baker as a disruptive leader.
His style was low-key and collaborative. He reveled in many of the traditional trappings of university life — among them, strong football programs and a world-class performing arts center.
But Baker, who died Oct. 7 at age 84, clearly altered the trajectory of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo during his 31 years as the university’s president. He transformed a regional campus with a strong emphasis on agriculture into a national powerhouse in engineering, business and science at the undergraduate and master’s levels.
He created a culture of, in his words, “learning by doing,” which laid the foundation for transforming Cal Poly into the top ranks of undergraduate institutions for entrepreneurship.
And he created a legacy of trust and working together between the campus and the city of San Luis Obispo that’s reshaped both institutions and made the region far more prosperous as a result.
Baker arrived at Cal Poly as its 8th president in 1979, from the University of Detroit in Michigan. At age 40, he was the youngest president in California State University history. When he retired to become president emeritus in 2010 he was the longest-serving president in Cal Poly history.
Baker’s biggest disruption was to position Cal Poly not just as the engineering and agriculture option for high school graduates from the Central Coast and Central Valley, but as a statewide and even nationwide institution that would recruit students at the highest levels of achievement.
That was a powerful move and one that reflected the fact that if it was going to improve academically, Cal Poly would have to think about elevating rather than expanding its student pie.
Reflecting the stresses that have been placed on the CSU system, the student body grew very gradually, from just below 15,000 students to slightly more than 19,000 over his 31 years at the helm.
During his time, Cal Poly created a blueprint for upgrading its campus, raised over $1 billion to fund new buildings and worked with the city and a newly formed foundation to create and run the performing arts center. (The Baker family requests that donation in his honor be made to the center.)
He teamed up with Cal Poly alum and San Diego Chargers owner Alex Spanos to create a new sports center. Cal Poly has been blessed to have the very capable Jeff Armstrong as Baker’s successor.
But more than anything else, Baker succeeded by following his own recipe. He learned by doing — even if it meant breaking the mold.
A FAILURE OF LEADERSHIP IN LA
The Central Coast economy depends a lot on strong leadership from Los Angeles.
But in vile and racist remarks caught on tape, former City Council President Nury Martinez, councilmembers Kevin DeLeon and Gil Cedillo, and labor leader Ron Herrera demonstrated a shocking lack of command.
The remarks threaten to upend years of bridge-building among the city’s Black and Latino communities. And they could derail efforts to make Los Angeles more inclusive of a rainbow coalition of racial, ethnic and religious groups.
We were pleased to see a number of business organizations, including BizFed, quickly call for the four leaders to resign. Martinez stepped down from the council on Oct. 12, but when the Business Times went to press the other members had not followed suit.
The tape is damning and leaves no room for interpretation or misunderstanding. Resignation is really the only answer in this situation.
The sooner it happens, the better off the entire Southern California region will be. We can’t present ourselves to the world as a top-10 economy when our leaders fall so far short of the mark when it comes to simple human decency.