The Dean of Diversity
At Cal Poly Pomona, Michael Woo can see change coming to an overwhelmingly white profession.
As the dean of the College of Environmental Design at Cal Poly Pomona, Michael Woo is bringing up one of the most diverse student bodies in design and preparing the students for professions, including landscape architecture, that are not historically very diverse. As it happens, the school’s landscape architecture students are prolific winners of ASLA student awards—they have won as many as Penn’s students (14) and more than Harvard’s (12) in the past five years. Woo spoke with LAM recently about his personal and work background and its impact on his leadership.
You were the first trained urban planner and the first Asian American elected to the Los Angeles City Council. What does that background bring to Cal Poly?
First of all, it gives me some real-life experience and understanding of how the political process works. And I have direct experience in knowing how government makes decisions that have a direct effect on parks, rivers, housing developments, and the way the environment is shaped.
Your father came to California as an immigrant and a farmer and worked his way up. You, in the second generation, are dean at a large state college and a former local politician. Do you see that transition, which happened within your family, happening to students here?
This is one of the great challenges, not just at Cal Poly, but in our society. How do you provide upward mobility for people who otherwise would lack opportunities? I tend to think the history of my family is part of the history of California. In the mid to late 20th century, there were lots of opportunities fueled by the system of public higher education. Here the student body is overwhelmingly Latino and Asian American; the proportions are roughly one-third Latino, one-third Asian, and one-third white. While the landscape architecture profession is still primarily white, I think that our university is on the cutting edge of adding diversity to that profession.
Cal Poly Pomona is a “Hispanic-Serving Institution.” What does that mean and how does it translate into academics and programs?
This term Hispanic-Serving Institution, or HSI, is a federal government term that refers to the percentage of students attending this university who are of a Hispanic background. And that makes Cal Poly Pomona eligible for certain kinds of grants that would otherwise not be available. Not only do we have a high percentage of Hispanic students, but a lot of the students who come to Cal Poly are the first in their families to go to college. Many of the students work during the day, so any kinds of grants and financial assistance really make a big difference.
In spite of financial challenges and limited resources, your landscape architecture students take a large share of the student ASLA awards. Why do you think this is?
We are very proud of the accomplishments of our landscape architecture students. Our students demonstrate lots of energy and enthusiasm, and they don’t allow themselves to be overshadowed by other schools.
Here you have a great resource in the Lyle Center for Regenerative Studies. How are the programs integrated into the academic curriculum?
The Lyle Center offers a master’s degree in regenerative studies, and to help integrate into the broader university, it also offers a minor in regenerative studies. The minor frequently gives opportunities for students in other departments, and with other majors, to start to explore what regeneration means.
How is regenerative studies specifically tied into the curriculum to provide design solutions that are specific to the problems of Southern California?
Let me try to answer this two ways. The master’s degree program in regenerative studies is by definition an interdisciplinary program. I think that being serious about sustainability does require an interdisciplinary approach. The other part of my answer is, to relate to the real world, we have to go beyond classroom or studio instruction—and to get our students and faculty involved in projects outside the university, because there is a sense that there is a lot of demand in the real world for professionalism and expertise relating to sustainability. Sometimes I feel the university is running to catch up with the demand.
In addition to the interdisciplinary approach of the Lyle Center, the program gives students a framework to apply not only to their academic exercises but to their future professional work.
It is not just the landscape architects, architects, and planners who should be thinking in terms of sustainability; it also needs to be engineers, traffic engineers, and civil engineers. We need to involve biologists, chemists, and other people in science. It would be a good idea if we had a stronger partnership with the College of Business Administration. Just think about the roles people with MBAs have. The job of a school is not just to prepare trained professionals. Part of our job is to train clients or the audiences to know the right questions to ask.
The students at Cal Poly are, as you mentioned, well trained to go out and become good workers. Do you think that presents a challenge to your students here to becoming leaders?
This is a great challenge, but in landscape architecture we have produced many of the leaders of the profession. Where our students or graduates go head-to-head with graduates from famous schools, our students and graduates do very well. So the challenge is how to create that opportunity.
Jennifer Zell, ASLA, is a landscape architect and principal at Zola in Long Beach, California.