What Keeps Cal Poly’s Architecture Program in the Top Five?

by Dean Emeritus Paul Neel

What enables architectural programs like Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo and Cornell to remain ranked by DesignIntelligence, year after year, among the country’s top five architecture programs? It is difficult to accurately define what makes such programs so successful. However, the following comments, which are not limited to any one university, pertain specifically to Cal Poly’s College of Architecture and Environmental Design (CAED).

Our faculty and students enjoy exploring new and evolving markets within the profession that are opening up at the interface of our five design disciplines.​

— Dean Emeritus Paul Neel

One would assume that many of the firms surveyed are most impressed with graduates who are Day One ready to work when they graduate.  These graduates invariably come from programs grounded in coursework that emphasizes technical subject material, as compared to programs that take a purely theoretical approach. Cal Poly manages to balance these approaches to insure successful student outcomes. Graduates have successfully melded history, technology, theory and criticism to achieve a well-rounded architectural education. 

Most importantly, the desire, commitment and passion of both faculty and students leads to successful graduates. Cal Poly’s competitive admissions rates tap into a substantial recruitment pool that is geographically and demographically diverse. That diverse student population mirrors the world we live in today. Many of our students are first generation Americans or will be first generation college graduates and, as such, take their educations very seriously. This mix of different backgrounds and perspectives result in a unique studio environment. 

Equally important is a school’s success recruiting and retaining faculty who are excellent teachers. At Cal Poly faculty applicant pools are large, with more than 100 applicants from the U.S. and abroad applying for tenure track positions. The selection process used by the department focuses on potential for teaching excellence above all other criteria with careful consideration of the candidates’ demonstrated abilities to inspire students and collaborate on teaching teams. This leads to faculty success and career-long commitments to the university.

The five related disciplines - architecture, architectural engineering, construction management, landscape architecture and city and regional planning - are all contained within the CAED. This provides opportunities for multidisciplinary classes, double majors, minors and team collaborations for both faculty and students. Our faculty and students enjoy exploring new and evolving markets within the profession that are opening up at the interface of our five design disciplines. It is important that graduates understand the value of working with other disciplines as this gives them the skills to explore how a project evolves from the early planning stages all the way through to construction. Moreover, our students can better understand pre-design and post-construction services by interfacing with disciplines outside our college. With this in mind the college offers minors in allied fields including planning, engineering and construction management and interdisciplinary studies including, real property development, and sustainable environments. To better understand the business world within which our clients operate, some of our students have even pursued joint MBA/Arch degrees. 

Architecture programs are profoundly affected by their surroundings; by whether they are located in an urban or rural setting. Many urban students who reside at home usually leave at the end of class either to return, via a long commute, to their homes and/or to support themselves through employment. Students enrolled in programs located in more rural settings are more likely to live too far away to commute to their homes and will instead live on or near campus. They can therefore enjoy greater access to their studio and campus activities. This is true for faculty as well. In urban areas, many faculty, particularly if they are part- or full-time practitioners, are not as available to students at the end of class. Conversely, faculty teaching in rural settings are usually not expected to support themselves through practice thereby allowing them to spend more time on campus.

It is important to emphasize here that the amount of faculty time spent with students will be a strong indicator of their success after graduation. For example, this additional time spent on campus is necessary in facilitating collaboration between disciplines and in forging new innovative, multi-disciplinary teaching methods. Cal Poly promotes intensive exchange between students and faculty through curricular design as well.  Through linked teaching in studios and subject area courses, intermediate and advanced students spend more than 18 hours per week with design faculty as they work on studio projects.  In addition, the quarter calendar system provides a structure for repeated intensive cycles of design experience. At Cal Poly architecture students complete 15 studios resulting in more practiced design abilities.

Hiring industry-experienced faculty is another key to successful programs. In most technically-oriented programs, faculty should be required to be registered in their discipline and have had hands-on experience practicing in their own chosen fields. The age-old argument in academia about “training” versus education will continue to be debated. However, faculty need to impart to their students a clear understanding of their fiduciary responsibilities to the client, the liability they assume in adhering to building codes and zoning regulations, their due diligence in overseeing their landscape, structural and HVAC consultants and what constitutes ethical and unethical conduct. Faculty who have a command of what it means to be a competent architect and who can blend this knowledge successfully into design theory are more effective educators producing well-rounded graduates; graduates who will be more highly regarded and who will quickly become capable and welcome additions to any firm.

It goes without saying that successful programs are either well-funded or well-endowed. However, architectural programs across the country, especially those in state-supported universities, are becoming increasingly financially stressed. These programs are normally very expensive to operate. The add-on costs involved in subsidizing studio-based learning versus the cost of offering traditional lecture-based learning is often misunderstood by administrators. State-supported universities now have to compete for fewer dollars. Our state subsidized 90% of the overall costs of a college education in 1960 but underwrites only 40% of the costs today. This shortfall has to come from other sources, including the tuition paid by students and their supporters, often resulting in loan repayment responsibilities for graduates. Of course, this is not to imply that private universities don’t have similar financial burdens.

With this in mind, all alumni have a moral imperative to support the program that helped shape who they are today, and every employer must partner with programs and their graduates to assist schools in preparing the next generation of architects. There is nothing more satisfying than to know you have played some part in a young person’s success. Whatever successes you have had are directly linked to the education you and your team received. I ask you to consider rekindling a relationship with your university.  We not only should - we must! It is up to those who have gone before to strengthen the advantage of those who follow.

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