These are good days for the California Polytechnic University here.
The one-time agricultural and technical school, mocked as “Cow Poly” by its detractors, is now the most popular and most demanding university in the 19-campus California State University system.
Nearly 8,000 students have applied for the 1,900 freshmen slots next fall, a luxury of numbers that has permitted the university to steadily raise the quality of its student body.
Cal Poly has succeeded by being different. Where most universities gain eminence by building a renowned faculty and a series of eminent graduate schools, Cal Poly has stuck by its practical nuts-and-bolts approach to education.
That philosophy is paying off, since most students today say the one thing they want from a college education is a job.
Preparation for Work
“This university has never pretended to be anything other than it is. It prepares young people to go out and go to work,” said former Cal Poly President Robert E. Kennedy, who retired in 1979 after nearly four decades on the campus.
Located midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, the university draws half of its students from the two huge metropolitan areas. The rest come from throughout California, with many arriving straight from the farm.
The campus probably has more than its share of pickup trucks and cowboy hats, and the cows and sheep are, as one professor said, “just a whiff away.”
But in recent years, agriculture no longer has been the most popular department on campus. Instead, the school has become known more for turning out architects, accountants, engineers and computer scientists.
Surrounded by Hills
For many California students, San Luis Obispo is an ideal place to go to college: a small town surrounded by green hills, a mild climate on the central coast, a clean-cut conservative student body and, best of all, good prospects for a job.
“I think the morale is really high here because it’s so difficult to get in,” said Heather Carlson, a senior from Orinda. “I’ve had friends who got into Berkeley but couldn’t get in here. This is the place to be.”
Under California’s Master Plan for Higher Education, the Cal State universities are to admit any senior in the top third of high school graduates, and the campuses can generally take all the students who apply. Other than Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, only San Diego State and San Francisco State have had to turn away a substantial number of qualified students in recent years, according to officials at the Cal State headquarters in Long Beach.
In 1984, 8,354 applicants among the 19 campuses could not be accommodated where they applied, and 6,313 of them were at San Luis Obispo.
Cal Poly’s programs in architecture, engineering and business have been “oversubscribed” since 1980. This year, however, the surge in popularity has spilled over into the liberal arts area so that even students of English and political science will find it difficult to be admitted. The political science department had 225 freshmen applicants last fall for 39 spaces, the English department had 162 applicants for 48 spaces and the journalism school had 199 applications for 24 spots.
University officials admit, however, that it is probably not the school for everyone.
“This is not the place to come and find yourself,” said admissions director Dave Snyder.
A high school senior applying to Cal Poly must select a major and apply for admission to a specific program. As a freshman, he or she must begin work in that area immediately.
The late Julian McPhee, president from 1933 to 1966, dubbed his approach the “upside-down curriculum.” At most colleges and universities, students take general courses in a variety of subjects during their freshmen and sophomore years, while concentrating on a major field of study in their final two years.
The Cal Poly freshmen begin with a heavy course load in their special field of study, whether it is aeronautical engineering, crop science, English, ornamental horticulture or 51 others.
“To tell you the truth, I think he (McPhee) was most worried about the kid who had to go back to the farm after a year. He wanted to make sure that kid could drive a tractor or plant the crops or had picked up some special skill that he could put to use,” said Kennedy, McPhee’s hand-picked successor. “He thought the ‘Great Books’ could wait a while.”
The university is holding fast to McPhee’s approach.
Kenneth Schwartz, a veteran professor of architecture, smiled when asked to compare the Cal Poly program with the University of California, Berkeley.
“They learn a little more of the theory (at Berkeley). Their students can probably do a lot of talking about architecture,” Schwartz said. “But the Cal Poly graduate can sit down at the board on his first day on the job and be productive.”
Corporate recruiters are particularly fond of the “learning by doing” philosophy at Cal Poly.
The engineering graduates of Cal Poly “seem to have an usual combination of the theoretical and the practical,” said Fred Hall, a department manager at TRW in Redondo Beach. “They spend a lot of hours in the lab, and when they come out, they are ready to go to work.”
Hall said TRW has hired about 16 Cal Poly grads a year recently, “and the quality of the people coming out seems to be improving year by year.”
Its sister campus, Cal Poly Pomona, is also highly praised by recruiters for its programs in technical areas such as engineering, although it has not had an enrollment surge like the older Cal Poly campus.
“Both schools produce an excellent engineer who is practically trained,” said Al Bohrmann, director of college relations for Rockwell International in El Segundo.
Both Hall and Bohrmann say their companies recruit technical graduates from many Southern California campuses, with the largest numbers last year coming from Cal State Long Beach and UCLA.
While the corporate recruiters may be pleased with the Cal Poly products, some on campus believe the university is overly concerned with preparing students for their first job. In the zeal to be practical, they say, students may miss out on broader education that would allow them to expand their horizons and later move up the corporate ladder.
“What disturbs me is that everything is geared to getting a good job offer. A lot of engineering guys are always bragging about their starting salaries,” said Kevin Fox, a senior journalism student from South Pasadena and managing editor of the school newspaper, who noted that he doesn’t have a job offer to brag about yet.
“They will complain about a history or English class and ask, ‘Why should I waste my time with this if it’s not going to help me on the job?’ ” Fox said.
University President Warren Baker, an engineer by profession, says he is concerned about the same problem.
“General education has been getting a lot of our attention, but we still have a way to go. The attitude here seemed to be, ‘What we are doing is successful, so why change?’ ” Baker said.
Cal Poly did, in fact, change recently, but mostly because of pressure from the university headquarters in Long Beach. In 1983, all the Cal State campuses were required to set a minimum program of basic education for all students. The future engineers and architects at Cal Poly now must take at least one-fourth of their courses in general areas like literature, philosophy or history.
“It’s always the question of what’s an appropriate balance,” said Baker, who also pushed for more general courses. “We may give students the skills to be productive the day they leave here, but obsolescence can set in very early. The jobs are changing rapidly, and we need to give them the flexibility to get along 20 years from now.”
But he disputed the criticism that Cal Poly is a trade school that teaches only narrow, technical skills.
“That’s why we have students spend a lot of time in the laboratory--experimenting, trying different techniques, thinking their way through a problem,” he said.
On campus, the learning-by-doing philosophy is evident. On bikes or on foot, students can be seen carting architectural models of buildings, portfolios of artwork or, on a nearby hillside, milking cows or parading a horse.
Each year in late April, the university holds a giant show-and-tell weekend, where amid the partying, students display everything from homemade cheeses and jams to a magic show put together by the chemistry department. This year, “Poly Royal,” as it is known, drew an estimated 126,000 people to San Luis Obispo.
The university’s reputation for practicality, combined with its location, make the admissions director’s job an easy one. Rather than having to sell the campus, Snyder says, he visits college fairs around California to tell high school students about “the problem of applying to Cal Poly.”
“I tell them that, ‘If you want to have a chance, you need to apply early. And you need good test scores.’ Right now, we’re competing with Berkeley, UCLA and Stanford for the top students in the state,” he said.
Most of all, students are attracted to San Luis Obispo.
“Students say it’s far enough away so that mom and dad can’t visit every weekend, but close enough so that you can get home to do the laundry when it’s necessary,” Snyder said. Unlike many Cal State branches, where most students are commuters, most Cal Poly students live on or near campus.
In interviews, students, alumni and even professors gush about San Luis Obispo as a pristine small town that most say, if given a choice, they would never leave. They are particularly fond of comparisons with the Los Angeles area.
“Here, you can see the hills,” appears to be the standard reply.
But the campus itself is beset by drab, utilitarian architecture that might be described as state university modern. The town’s great virtues, according to the students, are that it is friendly, safe and quiet.
Still, Cal Poly is not without the usual campus tussles, the kind of academic or personality conflicts that are often aggravated in a small college town. Charles Andrews, accounting professor who heads the faculty union, complained that the administration is aloof and out of touch with the faculty.
‘Out of Town’
Andrews said that Baker, the president since 1979, is relatively unknown since “he is usually out of town,” at a meeting or on a fund-raising tour. And Provost Tomlinson Fort Jr., Baker’s No. 2 man, was described in the most charitable accounts as being stiff.
And some criticize Cal Poly students for being too neat, clean and healthy.
A British professor from Oxford Polytechnic who is teaching at San Luis Obispo this year complained mildly in the student newspaper that Cal Poly students are “friendly, polite, tidily well-dressed in a conformist, quasi-athletic manner.” By contrast, Oxford offers a more interesting and varied look including “punk and Mohican” hair styles as well as “facial tattooing and vivid hair-dyeing in purples and puces.” Though true, this hardly appears the kind of complaint that will worry many parents or campus administrators.
A more serious worry is the difficulty of recruiting qualified professors in areas like engineering and computer science. Throughout California, the story is the same: housing costs are high and salaries aren’t. At Cal State, faculty salaries range from $26,000 to $46,000 a year.
Many school officials also fear California’s high tech boom may go bust if the Reagan Administration’s defense buildup is halted, causing a sudden job squeeze for graduates in engineering and related fields.
Concerns Seem Minor
But for Kennedy, the former president who first came to Cal Poly in 1940 when “it was a big farm with three tiny buildings,” those concerns seem minor when compared to the university’s growth in size and reputation.
These days, though retired, he keeps an office in the new Robert E. Kennedy Library--"an honor usually reserved for the dead,” he quipped.
A journalist by trade with a liberal arts degree, Kennedy said his philosophy was shaped most by the era when he graduated, the Great Depression.
“Just like I was, kids today are worried about getting a job. When they’re 3 years old, we start asking, ‘What are you going to do when you grow up?’
“This university educates kids for the jobs that are available . . . and as they have gotten more complicated and sophisticated, so have we.”
Kennedy is impatient with the corporate leaders who have recently been talking up the virtues of a well-rounded liberal arts education.
“That’s because they have forgotten how they got there. The president of ITT spends his day in meetings talking to vice presidents, and he thinks ‘communication’ and ‘thinking skills’ are what counts,” Kennedy said. “But that guy doesn’t know how a telephone operates.
“We can’t prepare young people to be hired as vice presidents of ITT. We prepare them to get in the front door.”