HSU’s polytechnic transformation comes into focus

Kevin L. Hoover
Mad River Union

HUMBOLDT – Against a backdrop of intractable and worsening problems altering Humboldt life – the grinding COVID-19 pandemic and the worsening drought – the anticipated designation of Humboldt State University as a polytechnic is offering  hope for positive and significant change for Arcata and environs.

Last week the university released its Polytechnic Prospectus, a 136-page overview providing the most entailed look yet at the planning for, and expectations of what HSU hopes will become California State Polytechnic University, Humboldt, or Cal Poly Humboldt. 

The multi-year process is fraught with complexity and challenges, but promises transformational change extending far beyond campus borders.  

With its fundamental shift of academic emphasis, a host of new degree programs, doubling of the student population and a massive cash infusion into the local area, the polytechnic designation is billed as “a comprehensive strategy to address the workforce shortage in STEM fields, expand opportunities for students while addressing equity gaps, and revitalize the North Coast economy.“ The designation would make Humboldt State the third polytechnic campus in the state university system, after Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and Cal Poly Pomona, and the only such campus in Northern California. The prospectus asserts that CSU’s northernmost polytechnic “would create access in Northern California as well as the Pacific Northwest and beyond.”

HSU’s location and its unique assets make it a great fit for a polytechnic conversion, the prospectus asserts. With a strong tradition of programming in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields — particularly natural resources — it has the highest percentage of science majors in the CSU system and the third-highest percentage of STEM majors in the CSU, after the other two polytechnics.

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States the prospectus, “The campus will move quickly to offer several new degree programs by 2023 in areas like climate resiliency, wildfire management, mechanical engineering, and software engineering with a full buildout of depth and breadth across science, applied science, technology, and engineering through phased-in program development through 2029. Cybersecurity, nursing (MS), energy systems engineering, and sustainable agriculture are among several of the degree programs being contemplated.”

In sum, states the prospectus, HSU will establish a minimum of three degree programs in each of the four STEM areas by 2023, including existing programming. It will further build out polytechnic programming in a phases – by adding three more programs by 2026 to achieve polytechnic “operating status” and another three by 2029 to signify polytechnic “thriving status.”

The prospectus extols HSU’s plethora of pre-existing research programs and scientific facilities, plus partnerships on and off campus. These include its Vascular Plant Herbarium, micro- CT scanner, Fish Hatchery, Schatz Energy Research Center, research forests, Research Vessel Coral Sea and more. 

Lest anyone think HSU will henceforth be manufacturing soulless science drones, it promises a “different comprehensive polytechnic” vision incorporating robust liberal arts content.

This grounding in the arts, humanities and social sciences “is essential for HSU’s vision of a 21st century polytechnic” and is “necessary to avoid the trappings of vocationally-driven polytechnic curricula stuck in the 20th century,” states the prospectus. “Technical training will be balanced with liberal arts that are rooted in and focused purposefully on environmental responsibility and social justice.”

The university’s “interdisciplinarity” is stressed, with diverse fields of knowledge being aware of each other and leveraging their relevant assets for problem solving in a “real synthesis of approaches.”

Noting HSU’s siting in the traditional homelands and unceded territory of the Wiyot people, the prospectus vows to elevate “indigenous knowledge” and learn from the area’s original inhabitants. “Native peoples in California developed sophisticated and complex ecological management regimes that promoted habitat heterogeneity and increased biodiversity for centuries,” states the prospectus.

It further offers a breakdown of the elements of social justice, which as “a code for policy, planning, and action, should be defined within the context of Humboldt State University as a 21st century polytechnic.”

The prospectus maps out several substantial expansions and additions, on and off campus, to house the polytechnic and its students. These are being funded by  an incredible $458 million budgeted for HSU in the 2020/2021 fiscal year for capital projects and program investments to support the transition, including $433 million of one-time funding and $25 million in ongoing funding. 

Among the improvements are a Mixed Use Engineering & Technology Building and housing, $150 million, located at a “key campus gateway”; Science Complex Renovation, $36.3 million, to renovate the existing Science A, C, and D buildings; lab space renovations, costs not determined; Applied Research and Climate Resilience, $45 million, for microgrid technology, offshore wind studies and ocean-going research with $6 million in improvements to  the Coral Sea research vessel; a Mixed Use On-Campus Student Housing, Health Center, Dining Facility, $145 Million; Mixed Use Off-Campus Housing at Craftsman Mall: $100 Million (see page 1).

Five names were considered for the new polytechnic: Humboldt State Polytechnic University, Humboldt Polytechnic University, California State Polytechnic University, Humboldt, California Polytechnic State University, Humboldt and Humboldt Polytechnic State University.

After extensive discussion, President Tom Jackson and his vice presidents selected the name, California State Polytechnic University, Humboldt (Cal Poly Humboldt).


The “near final” document, a mature draft created following a semester-long collaborative self-study conducted by representative staff, faculty, students, and community members, was submitted to the state on Aug. 2.


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