Former Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo President Warren J. Baker.
Former Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo President Warren J. Baker, who led the campus for more than three decades, died Friday at the age of 84. (Cal Poly photo)

Former Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo President Warren J. Baker, who led the campus for more than three decades, died Friday at the age of 84, according to a news release from the university.

Baker was the university’s eighth president and had the second-longest administration with 31 years in office, the university said.

“The Cal Poly community has lost a true champion of Learn by Doing and a leader who helped architect what our university is today — a campus in high demand among California’s and the nation’s best and brightest students and a producer of thousands of Day-One-ready graduates poised to address the world’s most pressing problems,” Cal Poly President Jeffrey Armstrong said in the release.

“While we are tremendously saddened by the passing of Warren Baker, we are so grateful for the 31 years of leadership he provided to Cal Poly.”

Baker, who retired in 2010, served in various capacities over a career of more than 40 years, as a teacher, researcher, engineering practitioner and university administrator.

“I accidentally got into this at a relatively young age, when I tried out being a dean at a college of engineering,” he said in 2010 on the eve of his retirement. “I really thought that I would not stay in the academic world. I didn’t have a plan to be a university president.”

It was under his leadership that Cal Poly became a truly comprehensive polytechnic university, best known for its scientific, engineering, technical, agricultural and the built-environment curriculum, the university said in its release, as well as for its programs in business and the liberal arts.

“Dr. Baker deserves much of the credit for Cal Poly’s meteoric rise to become what is widely now regarded as the premier CSU campus in the state of California,” former state Sen. Sam Blakeslee said. “His dedication and vision were inspirational to a generation of administrators, faculty, staff, students and philanthropic donors.”

Born on Sept. 5, 1938, in Fitchburg, Massachusetts, Baker received his bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from the University of Notre Dame in 1960, and a master’s in civil engineering in 1962. He also received a doctorate in civil engineering from the University of New Mexico in 1966, and studied at Harvard Business School.

Prior to taking the reins at Poly, Baker served as chief academic officer and vice president at the University of Detroit, and was Chrysler Professor and Dean of the College of Engineering.

He was a National Science Foundation Visiting Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a Research Associate at the U.S. Air Force Civil Engineering Research Facility at the University of New Mexico.

Baker was named Cal Poly president on May 22, 1979. This would make him the youngest campus president in CSU history at the age of 40, according to the release.

He and his wife, Carly, and their children relocated to San Luis Obispo from Michigan.

In 1983, President Ronald Reagan appointed him to the board for International Food and Agriculture Development, and in 1985 he was appointed by the president to the National Science Board, reappointed in 1988 and served in various NSB leadership positions for nine years.

His many professional memberships include being a founding member of the California Business-Higher Education Forum; founding chair of the Board of Directors of the Civil Engineering Research Foundation, a non-profit organization founded by the American Society of Civil Engineers to promote and fund research on the national infrastructure, U.S. competitiveness in design and construction, and the environment.

“His contributions to putting Cal Poly on the national and international stage had very positive impacts on San Luis Obispo,” said David Garth, the former executive director of the San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce. “So many times business contacts who were interested in San Luis Obispo had heard about SLO because of Cal Poly or because they went to Cal Poly. Previous presidents focused more on the campus, and I’m not saying that was not a good thing, but Warren Baker’s focus was outside the campus on the bigger stage.”

From the time of his arrival on campus to his retirement, Baker oversaw a blossoming growth in enrollment that went from 14,684 in his first quarter in 1979 to 19, 325 in fall 2009.

He was instrumental in developing strong financial, facility and program growth; fostering relationships with private and governmental funding sources; increasing the breadth of academic programs; and making a name for Cal Poly at the state and national levels.

Baker was widely responsible for new building projects and took on approximately $1 billion in new facilities and renovations, including the first new student housing in a generation, enhancing the stadium for Cal Poly’s Division 1 NCAA status and developing a partnership with the city and a newly formed foundation to build the Performing Arts Center.

That building would become a centerpiece of the campus when it opened in 1996 and has attracted national and international performers while simultaneously serving as a stage for local and student musicians, singers, dancers and actors of all ages.

“Opening night was overwhelming,” Baker said in a film telling the story of the PAC for its 25th anniversary. “We wanted this to be the best performing arts center on a college campus anywhere in the country.”

Baker was also responsible for establishing the university’s 2001 Master Plan, which became the model for the entire 23-campus CSU system, according to the release.

And it was under his leadership that Cal Poly was first ranked by U.S. News & World Report as the best public master’s university in the West, an honor that began in 1993 and continues to this day, now 30 years later.

His long tenure at Cal Poly made Baker somewhat of an anomaly among college presidents, many of whom serve around five years before moving along in their careers.

It wasn’t through lack of offers. He was wooed twice for a chancellorship of the California State University System, as well as the University of Colorado and University of Nebraska. He told an interviewer in 1999, his 20th anniversary at the helm, “If there’s not something next to look forward to, then it doesn’t interest me.”

Following his retirement, the Warren J. Baker Center for Science and Mathematics — the second-largest campus structure — was built in his honor “to symbolize the central nature of science and mathematics in Cal Poly’s polytechnic curriculum,” according to the release.

Baker is survived by his wife, Carly, and four children.

The family requests that donations in his honor be made to the Foundation for the Performing Arts Center. Donations can be made at

Chloe Lovejoy is a reporter for the San Luis Obispo Tribune. Contact her at