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Staying afloat: CSU system says merger of troubled Cal Maritime with Cal Poly could benefit both universities 

As California State University Maritime has been facing both a financial and enrollment crisis over the past decade, the California State University System (CSU) is hoping Cal Poly SLO can save it.

As one of six maritime universities in the country, Cal Maritime prepares students going into fields ranging from fishing and seafood processing to shipyards, marine biology, and marine engineering.

click to enlarge LEARNING AND DOING Cal Maritime, which could merge with Cal Poly, runs a 500-foot training ship, Golden Bear, as a floating classroom/laboratory for students during the university's summer sea term. - COVER PHOTO COURTESY OF CAL MARITIME
  • Cover Photo Courtesy Of Cal Maritime
  • LEARNING AND DOING Cal Maritime, which could merge with Cal Poly, runs a 500-foot training ship, Golden Bear, as a floating classroom/laboratory for students during the university's summer sea term.

CSU executives Steve Relyea, vice chancellor and chief financial officer, and Nathan Evans, deputy vice chancellor of academic and student affairs and chief academic officer, made recommendations to merge Cal Maritime with Cal Poly after the Vallejo-based university experienced a 31 percent enrollment decline over the last seven years.

Relyea told New Times that enrollment dropped from 1,100 students in 2016 to just more than 700 in 2023, and the CSU system can't continue to operate a university that small.

Cal Maritime provides 25 percent of the country's workforce in maritime professions, and Relyea said they looked at shutting that university down but determined that such a move would have dire consequences.

"Or do you look for a partner that would have compatible and synergistic academic programs and training programs that when integrated together would provide something much more powerful than either by themselves? So, we started to pursue that second option," he said, "and the likely candidate that became very evident very quickly was Cal Poly San Luis Obispo."

Relyea said Cal Maritime's Bay Area campus is physically closer to other California State Universities, such as Sacramento State, San Jose State, and Cal State East Bay, but academically it aligns more with Cal Poly, as both institutions have similar "learn by doing" approaches.

The CSU system is hoping that merging with a well-known and sought-after university such as Cal Poly will help put Cal Maritime on the map, as almost everyone Relyea has spoken to doesn't even know the school exists.

Relyea said he also hopes that the merger between the two schools will help debunk the idea that the maritime field is a dying profession.

"There's a huge deficit of people filling needed jobs, so ... if you graduate from Cal Maritime, you are absolutely guaranteed a well-paid position," he said. "And this is kind of the quagmire, if we have such a strong need for these graduates and their earning potential being so strong compared to other universities in California, why is it that the enrollment is not stronger?"

Over the past few years, Cal Maritime has faced allegations of rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment from students and employees, according to an April 13, 2023, LA Times article.

According to the article, interviews and internal campus records reviewed by the LA Times showed that the allegations included two rapes reported in 2019, a sexual assault in 2022, and accusations that a captain sexually harassed women and made disparaging remarks about the LGBTQ-plus community and women during a 2021 training cruise.

Additionally, an Instagram page called CSUM Student Voices has 80 posts from Cal Maritime community members who have come forward with their own stories of sexual harassment, sexual assault, and discrimination.

click to enlarge FINANCIAL AND ENROLLMENT CRISIS California State University Maritime enrollment has dropped 31 percent in the last seven years, from 1,100 students in 2016 to just more than 700 in 2023. - PHOTO COURTESY OF CAL MARITIME
  • Photo Courtesy Of Cal Maritime
  • FINANCIAL AND ENROLLMENT CRISIS California State University Maritime enrollment has dropped 31 percent in the last seven years, from 1,100 students in 2016 to just more than 700 in 2023.

When asked if these claims have contributed to the decreased enrollment at Cal Maritime, Relyea said he couldn't comment on whether it's had an impact because he's not informed enough on it. He did say he thinks a lack of knowledge about the school compared to bigger Cal States has played a part in lower numbers.

"If you look at those universities in the state of California, both public and private, who give the student graduate the most return on their investment, the top three are UC Berkeley, Cal Maritime, and Cal Poly," he said. "The problem is both Berkeley and Cal Poly are well known; Cal Maritime is not, and I think this [merger] will also change that."

While the deal is hard to pass up for Cal Maritime, Relyea said Cal Poly will be benefiting from this merger as well, especially through strengthening its engineering department.

"Poly also has a fairly strong marine sciences and oceanography program, but Maritime, again, has a whole other dimension of this and a very hands-on dimension," he said, noting that Cal Poly thinks the merger would strengthen its oceanography program. "And they do a fair amount of stuff in national security and security in California. And I think the last thing is that Poly has a lot of interest in wind energy and other renewables, and Cal Maritime has some real strength in this area."

While thousands of students are applying to Cal Poly yearly, if the two schools merge, then Cal Maritime would take on some of those applications, and students would be given the choice between the two universities.

"The timing of that ... in terms of the first Maritime Academy students who will enroll as Cal Poly students, [would] be the fall of 2026," Relyea said. "You essentially enroll in a college or in a major you want to study, and those incoming students to Cal Poly then choose the Maritime Academy and get that credential and get that degree. It'll essentially bring this all together."

Relyea said it'll all be one university, and while Cal Poly already has the opportunity for students to choose their major in their college, the merger would enable them to essentially make the choice of going to Cal Maritime.

While still in the planning process of this proposal, Relyea said the CSU envisions that Cal Poly's current president, Jeffrey Armstrong, will be president of both campuses, while the president role at Cal Maritime will be changed to either superintendent of the university or vice president for marine sciences.

"It's not been worked out yet, but we'll likely have two titles. One being recognizing the overseeing role at California Maritime Academy, and at the same time being part of the leadership of Cal Poly," he said. "There's a lot of precedent in the country for this type of integration."

Amy Bentley-Smith, senior director of strategic communications and public affairs for the CSU Office of the Chancellor, told New Times it's too early to determine if President Armstrong will receive a raise in salary if the two schools merge.

While Cal Poly's Executive Communications Specialist Keegan Koberl told New Times that President Armstrong can't provide information at this time, he did send a community announcement from the president noting that while change can be challenging, it also provides new opportunities he's optimistic about.

"This change would allow both institutions to more fully leverage their strengths and build upon their core similarities," Armstrong said in his announcement. "The integration of our institutions also presents us with the potential to compete for national security, renewable energy, and other federal funding."

The plan still has to make it through three different board meetings before it will be presented to the CSU board of trustees in November, where the plan will either be accepted or rejected. Δ

Reach Staff Writer Samantha Herrera at [email protected].

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