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Introducing Cal Poly Humboldt 

HSU's "historic" announcement promises to reshape campus and community

Cal Poly Humboldt's scenic campus is slated to undergo a more than $680 million makeover, as the university makes room for more programs, laboratories and student housing.

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Cal Poly Humboldt's scenic campus is slated to undergo a more than $680 million makeover, as the university makes room for more programs, laboratories and student housing.

It's official, Humboldt State University is now California Polytechnic University Humboldt — Cal Poly Humboldt, for short — the California State University system's third polytechnic and the only one in Northern California. It's a change that promises to transform the campus and the surrounding community.

"Cal Poly Humboldt will be a polytechnic for the 21st century, preparing students to address the urgent issues our society faces," said Cal Poly Humboldt President Tom Jackson Jr. during a Jan. 26 press conference celebrating the move. "The energy, the new academic programs, the incredible polytechnic foundation already in place and the positive change associated with our new name and designation begins today for our campus community. We look forward to welcoming new students to a CSU campus with great momentum and an unparalleled trajectory. At Humboldt, we have always learned by doing. There's never really been a better time for students to be a part of Cal Poly Humboldt to achieve their goals."

Talks of the university becoming a polytechnic — a university with programs emphasizing science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) and applied science fields like medicine and agriculture — came into public view in late 2020, when then-CSU Chancellor Timothy White sent a formal letter asking the university to create a self-study that would outline how it would create new programs and curricula, and develop its facilities, budget and external partnerships to meet and maintain CSU's polytechnic standards.

The university dedicated most of last year to compiling and finally presenting a final draft of the self-study to the CSU Board of Trustees for approval, an effort led by Cal Poly Humboldt Provost Jenn Capps. The study noted that Humboldt already had a strong foundation for a polytechnic designation, currently serving the third-highest number of STEM students in the CSU system, behind only the two current polytechnic campuses: Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and Cal Poly Pomona.

Capps and Jackson offered a final presentation to the CSU board Jan. 26, after which the CSU Committee on Educational Policy unanimously approved the name change and designation, with many committee members offering full-throated endorsements of the new Cal Poly Humboldt.

"I just want to congratulate Humboldt State on the excellent work that it's doing on this," said CSU Trustee Jane W. Carney during the morning session. "It would be my pleasure to support this motion and I think this is just one of the most exciting things happening in the CSU, and that's saying something because there are many exciting things happening in [the CSU]. So, congratulations, President Jackson."

But now that Humboldt officially has the polytechnic designation, the real work begins, as the university looks to add a host of new academic programs, build out more than $680 million in infrastructure projects that will reshape campus and double its enrollment over the next seven years. It's a transformational undertaking for the university that was founded as a teacher's college in 1913 and known as Humboldt State Normal School, Humboldt State Teacher's College, Humboldt State College and CSU Humboldt before eventually carrying the Humboldt State University moniker for nearly 50 years.

"We have an implementation process set up right now with several different working groups aimed at [the next steps of becoming a fully functioning polytechnic university], so we have been working diligently on standing up eight new bachelor's degree programs, one new master's degree program and three certificates by fall of 2023," said Capps, adding that the university is on target to meet that deadline. "There's also working groups focused on facilities ... so academic buildings, housing; and then other working groups focused on communication technology, inclusive student success. So it's really working through and launching those pieces to get us to the place where we have all of the academic programs and support services and facilities to support our student success."

As Jackson said, Cal Poly Humboldt's goal is to become a polytechnic for the 21st century, focusing on giving students the experience needed to find solutions to the critical issues facing the state, including climate change, raging wildfires and extreme drought.

In seven years, the campus is slated to offer a total of 28 new degree programs focusing on STEM and applied sciences.

The university will launch 12 of those by the fall of 2023: eight new bachelor's degree programs in mechanical engineering, energy systems, engineering data science, software engineering, marine biology, applied fire science and management, cannabis studies and geospatial analysis; three certificate programs in cybersecurity, information technology and sustainability; and a master's degree in engineering.

By 2026, the school is also planning to add six more bachelor's degree programs in biotechnology, computer and information technology, digital arts and media, food system sciences, health advocacy, and Indigenous sciences and the environment, as well as two certificate programs in biotechnology and clinical lab science, and master's degree programs in nursing and STEM education. By 2029, it will add four more bachelor's degree programs in forest engineering, regenerative engineering and design, cybersecurity and agriculture, as well as another master's degree program in speech language pathology.

With a little over a year to implement 12 new programs by the fall of 2023, Capps said the university plans to slowly phase in programs through partnerships with College of the Redwoods, while aligning the university's first two years of engineering classes across all of its engineering programs. The university will also look closely at the impacts of simultaneously launching different programs, including their impacts on physical space on campus and where facility upgrades will be needed.

To that end, the university has a $433 million allocation from Gov. Gavin Newsom, as well as $25 million in annual state funding, to transform its campus, erecting new academic buildings, student housing, renovating existing structures, upgrading lab spaces, expanding broadband and investing in a renewable energy research facility.

The university has five academic infrastructure projects planned, including construction of two new buildings dedicated to engineering, technology, a microgrid and sustainability curricula and research.

The largest of those is a new 90,000-square-foot building to be built on the campus events field across 17th Street from the Natural Resources and Forestry buildings. It will include spaces for academic departments, lecture halls, labs, offices, communal spaces and conference rooms, along with an adjacent 250-bed residence hall. The project is expected to cost about $135 million and is planned to open in August of 2025.

Another brand-new, 25,000-square-foot sustainability building and microgrid is slated to be built on the south edge of campus near the Schatz Energy Research Center, providing more space for academic departments, labs, offices and conference rooms. According to the university's polytechnic planning website, this "building will primarily serve as a testing facility for energy systems and give a home for sustainability on campus." The project is expected to cost $24 million, with a planned opening in January of 2025.

The university is also planning to renovate existing facilities, bringing them up to modern standards and creating room for the relocation of existing programs and departments.

Campus administrators and CSU officials have predicted that the new polytechnic designation, coupled with an increasing demand for STEM careers, will see Cal Poly Humboldt's enrollment grow significantly, with a projected enrollment peak of 11,000 students in seven years, effectively doubling the number of students currently on campus.

According to Capps, existing recruitment efforts are already expected to boost enrollment in the upcoming fall semester.

"We've done a tremendous amount to expand our recruitment pipeline, increase our use of efficiencies of technology and analytical tools, building partnerships and collaborations focusing on student retention, matching growth plans with housing capacity and the signals are really good," she said, adding the campus' fall 2022 confirmations (students who have decided to go to Cal Poly Humboldt next fall) are up more than 37 percent.

The university didn't recruit students as a polytechnic, she said, but rather explained the transition and designation process with prospective students and guidance counselors. Since the fall of 2020, the university admissions department has been working to improve recruitment by increasing personalized calling campaigns, creating a "next steps" video series and presentations, and increasing communication across all areas.

"Our university outreach plans for local students continue to increase, but this was an effort even before Cal Poly designation," Cal Poly Humboldt spokesperson Grant Scott-Goforth wrote in an email to the Journal. "Our focus within the Office of Admissions this year has been to increase the touchpoints students engage with our university, even with the challenges of a pandemic."

In 2019, the school launched a campaign to invest in — and recruit — local high school students with the Humboldt First Scholarship, which offers a $4,000 scholarship (divided into four installments of $1,000 for each year a student is enrolled and in good academic standing). That program will continue, Scott-Goforth said, thanks to donations from local supporters.

"Throughout our transition, we want to reassure our local students that our Cal Poly designation signifies a huge opportunity to stay local and explore all passions, sciences, arts and everything in between," he wrote.

Administrators also believe the polytechnic designation will help the CSU meet demand for more STEM degrees. They note that not only have both Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and Cal Poly Pomona held their enrollment numbers steady in recent years as they have dipped across the CSU system, but both polytechnic campuses remain impacted, meaning the number of qualified applicants is greater than the number of available spaces. Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, for example, was only able to accept 30 percent of 67,308 applicants last fall, according to its admissions data.

According to the CSU website, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo is among the seven most impacted schools in the system for undergraduate programs, while Cal Poly Pomona is also impacted for first-time freshman and transfer students, with its STEM programs being the most impacted.

But accommodating 11,000 students on Humboldt's campus would be a massive undertaking for the university and surrounding area, especially considering the university and Arcata faced a housing crisis when enrollment numbers peaked at about 8,500 students in 2015-2016. Around the same time, HSU hired Brailsford & Dunlavey, Inc. to conduct a student housing demand analysis, which found the university's "housing portfolio" was undersized and aged, and that the surrounding Arcata housing market was so constrained it left some students unable to find housing and sleeping in their cars or camping in the woods.

"Despite all the things our provost said, our biggest challenge still remains housing — student housing and community housing," Jackson said amid the fanfare of Jan. 26, adding that the university will look to build up on-campus housing. "We have to be better at that, as a campus, and we intend to ... with the support of the governor's [$433 million]."

Jackson said he expects "even a little growth" in off-campus housing development, coupled with on-campus housing projects, will be enough to meet demand.

As Jackson noted, some of that $433 million in one-time state funds will go toward housing. Cal Poly Humboldt currently has five plans for student housing, including the construction of two brand new housing complexes (one off Sunset Court across the street from the current student health center and another off Laurel Drive) and two multi-story parking garages — a type of building that currently doesn't exist on campus. One of the buildings will be multi-use, with a health center and dining services on the ground floor, under a 650-bed residence hall. It and the new parking structure come with a projected price tag of $175 million and expected to be completed in August of 2026.

The housing infrastructure plans also include the off-campus Craftsman Student Housing Project, a four-building complex consisting of 800 beds connected by courtyard and surrounded with 350 parking spots. The $150 million housing project is expected to be completed at the end of 2024.

This project is about 200 beds larger than one proposed as "The Village" in May of 2018 by real estate development company Coleraine Capital/AMCAL Equities LLC (AMCAL), which met strong resistance from the surrounding community, which worried about traffic, parking and other neighborhood impacts. AMCAL eventually withdrew its application and the lot was sold to the Humboldt State University Foundation for $3.95 million, paving the way for the current proposal.

Another on-campus parking structure and additional student housing are planned to be built by December of 2027 on Laurel Drive. From the looks of a building plan on the university's website, this project's footprint may overlap with an existing campus apartment building, the Bret Harte house, the Warren House and Building 20, ceramics and sculpture labs, alluding to the possible demolition of those buildings. However, in an email to the Journal, the university said it's "working diligently to understand each project's feasibility and its impacts to existing buildings and programs."

The overall cost of the university's planned infrastructure projects totals about $683 million. Aside from the $433 million one-time investment and the annual $25 million allocation, the school will try to find additional funding streams to build out the new infrastructure.

Even though the university is hoping to double the number of beds it has to offer to students on campus — an increase of 2,150 — the city of Arcata and other outlying areas will likely see significant impacts if the university is successful in welcoming more than 5,000 additional students.

"Housing is a top priority for the city," said Arcata City Manager Karen Diemer in an email to the Journal, adding that the city has already placed a priority on infill development under its General Plan. "This effort will include updated population growth estimates that take into consideration both expected city growth and the unique bump in growth from the Cal Poly Humboldt trajectory we will see in the next 20 years."

But Diemer stressed the university has the city's full support, saying the two entities are in regular communication through quarterly meetings attended by the mayor, vice-mayor, and university and city administrative teams, as well as monthly coordinating staff meetings to ensure transit, infrastructure and maintenance projects are aligned to include the expanded needs of Cal Poly Humboldt's growth.

The polytechnic designation also brings a potential boost to the local economy, with possible partnerships from government agencies and local companies, as well as grant opportunities to explore climate change, sustainability and applied science research.

"The city council has expressed great support for the transition of HSU to Cal Poly Humboldt," Diemer said. "We know that there is strong demand in the local workforce for graduates from STEM fields and applied sciences like health and agriculture. The growth in potential interns, student projects and creative solutions that come from campus will all be a benefit to Arcata. The legacy of Humboldt's sustainability programs is the perfect foundation to build programs in climate resiliency, fire science, science in service to society, and renewable energy all critical to the future of Arcata and the North Coast." said Diemer, adding that the growth of the campus supports economic stability throughout the region. 

While the polytechnic designation and the projected growth of the campus brings the potential to be an economic boon throughout the North Coast region, it's also big news for the CSU system, with Chancellor Joseph I. Castro calling the day "historic."

"I am absolutely thrilled to be with you on what is a truly historic day for the California State University, for the great state of California and, most notably, for California State Polytechnic University, Humboldt. I've been looking forward to saying those words in an official capacity for a long time," Castro said. "What makes this day so momentous and cause for great celebration is what the name represents with the transition to Northern California's first polytechnic institution. Cal Poly Humboldt will bring increased access to high-demand academic programs to talented and diverse students from Northern California and beyond."

In the greater campus community, many expressed excitement about the designation.

"Proud of my alma mater for this accomplishment," wrote Eric Schweitzer on Facebook.

"SO excited!!!! I'm a BIG FAN of Humboldt and thrilled that it is now the 3rd 'Poly' in the Cal State system!!!" wrote Mira Simon.

Among students around campus, meanwhile, reaction to the polytechnic news varied.

Kinesiology major Michael Bateman said he thinks the polytechnic designation will be positive for the university, saying he hopes it will bring an influx of funding to better integrate technology and computer science across all programs. Asked whether he thought a degree from a polytechnic university might improve his employment prospects after graduation, Bateman said he wasn't sure.

"My parents think so," he said, adding that he figures the increased name recognition of a diploma from one of California's three polytechnic universities couldn't hurt. "People outside the state will know what Cal Poly is, where they might not know what Humboldt is."

But Bateman said he does worry about the impact increased enrollment might have on the housing market, explaining he has struggled at times to find an apartment and had to live in Eureka and commute to campus for a spell before moving into a house in McKinleyville with his parents, who recently moved to the area.

Some also questioned how the designation would impact this year's graduating classes. But with the name change becoming official as soon as the trustees' votes were cast, the class of 2022 will become the first graduates of the newly minted Cal Poly Humboldt. As for alumni out there looking to add a little Cal Poly to their resume, "all requests for replacement diplomas will be printed with Humboldt State University," Scott-Goforth told the Journal in an email.

Those with a nostalgic streak need not worry, as "legacy" gear bearing Humboldt State University will continue to be sold at university outlets.

Cal Poly Humboldt gear, meanwhile, is also now available.

"It's exciting to see these items in stock and more will be on the way as we transition into a polytechnic," said Aileen S. Yoo, the university's director of News and Information.

Cal Poly Humboldt and the city of Arcata have plenty of work ahead if they are to realize the potential officials believe the polytechnic shift carries.

"The Cal Poly Humboldt transition is just getting underway," Diemer said. "We aim to enhance the uniqueness that is Arcata and to stand out in the CSU system as a great place to learn and live."

Capps shares the sentiment.

"We haven't stopped working and won't stop working," she said.

Journal news editor Thadeus Greenson (he/him) and digital editor Kimberly Wear (she/her) contributed to this report.

Iridian Casarez (she/her) is a staff writer at the Journal. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 317, or iridian@northcoastjournal.com. Follow her on Twitter @IridianCasarez.

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Iridian Casarez

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Iridian Casarez is a staff writer at the North Coast Journal.

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