Sep 15

Warren J. Baker named Cal Poly President


August 22, 1979
Just over 30 years ago Cal Poly’s new president, Warren J. Baker set the tone for the next three decades in his first press conference.

Two days into the job he focused his attention on seeking more money from private sources to support the university in an era of state funding cutbacks.

Today that era has not ended; Baker is the 8th and second longest serving president in campus history and California still struggles with its budget.

Only Julian McPhee served longer as Cal Poly president, from 1933 to 1966.

The Kennedyesque accent comes from his youth. He was born in Fitchburg Massachusetts on September 5, 1938 making him 40 years old when accepted the job. The California State University Board of Trustees named him president on May 22, 1979 replacing Robert E. Kennedy who retired on February 1 the same year.

From a copy of Warren Baker’s biographical highlights provided to the paper at the same time:

B.S. – Civil Engineering University of Notre Dame, 1960
M.S. – Civil Engineering, University of Notre Dame, 1962
Ph.D. – Civil Engineering, University of New Mexico, 1966

(Full disclosure, it took me 5.5 years to get my B.S. at Cal Poly, but I did change my major.)

He came to Cal Poly after three years as the vice-president for Academic Affairs at the University of Detroit.

According to the Cal Poly Timeline the university has grown in a number of ways under the Baker tenure.

It serves roughly 4,000 more students than it did in the mid-1980’s with over 19,000 students enrolled in the fall of 2008.
New buildings have included facilities for Agricultural Science, Dairy Products, Poultry Science, Engineering and Cal Poly Corporation, Poly Canyon Village dorms and parking garages to replace all the spaces covered with buildings. The University partnered with the city and community to build the Performing Arts Center. Athletic programs have moved from NCAA Division II to NCAA Division I.

Early Cal Poly presidents had to fight to keep the institution alive through California budget crashes but Warren Baker inherited a mature institution with successful alumni. Buildings and schools in the university began to be named for prominent donors, some of whom were not alums.

image-2.jpgFrom the Orfalea College of Business, and Alex G. Spanos Stadium to the Christopher Cohan Performing Arts Center if there is someone with deep pockets chances are they can be matched up with a naming opportunity. Baker recognized early on that the university would have to reach beyond Sacramento funding to achieve its goals.

Not everyone wanted his or her name on a building. An anonymous donor made the largest single gift to the California State University System when the College of Architecture & Environmental Design received $60 million dollars in 2007.

The largest campus in the CSU system grew by 3,200-acres in 1993 with the addition of the Swanton Pacific Ranch near Santa Cruz, a legacy of Cal Poly alum Al Smith. Cal Poly is the second largest land holding university in the state after U.C. Berkley. It even includes ocean property in the former Unocal Pier in Avila Beach.

Over the last three decades University has had highlights like the first human powered helicopter and disasters like the Poly Royal Riot and through it all it has remained one of the most sought after University admissions in the CSU system. For many years it has been at or near the top of U.S. News and World Report’s best colleges list.

During the 1979 press conference Baker said he was open to discussing the long-standing student request to sell beer and wine on campus, but had not made up his mind on the issue.
Given that alcohol has been associated with some of the darkest off-campus moments in Cal Poly history, I wouldn’t hold my breath for a favorable ruling.

Advice to incoming freshmen, don’t park in his space at the administration building. They still ticket even if he is out of town on a lobbying trip. This is one area you don’t have to follow the campus motto, “Learn by doing.”

1979 photo by Tony Hertz, 2006 photo by Joe Johnston

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  3. Cal Poly Graduation 1964
  4. Highway 1 and Cal Poly
  5. Poly Royal Riot 1990