By Grace Power Smith
In 1921, a small group of men and women attended the very first business classes at Cal Poly. Although the classrooms, curriculum, and technology looked different 100 years ago than they do today, these classes paved the way for the majors, minors, and masters programs offered within the Orfalea College of Business.
Cal Poly began as a vocational high school that accepted men and women to three-year programs in 1903. Household arts, mechanics, and agriculture were the only three areas of training. Twenty students were enrolled, and the only requirements to attend were that the student be at least 15 years old and provide proof of graduation from the 8th grade.
Enrollment increased every year, so the school began adding new areas of study. In 1921, business classes were introduced, although they were known as “commercial courses” at the time. These commercial courses were “designed to train the student in the profession of business,” according to a 1921-22 course catalog. Students were required to take classes in penmanship and spelling, typewriting, business elements, commercial arithmetic, bookkeeping, stenography (shorthand), commercial geography, commercial law, industrial history and economics, and advertising and salesmanship.
Cal Poly’s business curriculum and vision has come a long way in the last century, especially with regard to technology, projects and research, and industry partnerships, all made possible with a Learn by Doing approach, and through the work of faculty, students, alumni, industry partners, and staff, according to Orfalea College of Business Interim Dean Al Liddicoat.
“We continue to evolve our pedagogies and courses and are focusing our attention on integrating diversity, equity, and inclusion into our curriculum and culture to produce global business leaders with the skillset to make the world a better place,” he says.
A Brief Timeline of Business Classes at Cal Poly
May 1909. Cal Poly Agronomy Class studying fertilizers in a chemical laboratory.
The fourth largest college at Cal Poly today, the College of Business began as an area of study called “commercial courses,” in 1921. The commercial courses were originally designed in 1920 for injured World War I veterans. However, the curriculum opened up to all students the following year and immediately became popular. By this time, The California Polytechnic School had turned to four-year programs. Eighteen students founded the Commercial Club in October of this year, as well.
Students were required to study commercial geography, commercial law, history of economics and industry, and salesmanship. Students were also trained in bookkeeping, shorthand, and typewriting.
Students use typewriters as part of the training for Commercial Courses in 1922.
Commercial courses were discontinued after the new California governor cut funding for the school. Only three areas of study remained, and students had new entrance requirements as well as increased fees.
Benjamin Crandall became president of the school and attempted to bring back the courses that had been removed by the previous administration. The commercial course of study did not return, but subjects such as economics were implemented into the Academic Department.
Cal Poly students working with calculators in an Agriculture Business Management class, 1968.
In the midst of the Depression, the state banned women from attending school. The California Polytechnic School became an all men’s school and only offered programs in agriculture and engineering. Crandall implemented a junior college division for high school graduates.
Under President Julian McPhee, Cal Poly became a four-year institution on par with the University of California and California State University curriculums. Graduating students were given bachelor degrees. McPhee focused on developing the agriculture and engineering departments during his time as president. He also placed more emphasis on the “Learn by Doing” motto. One example of this was requiring that each student complete a project before graduation.
A Cal Poly business professor lecturing to his students in a property finance class, circa 1970s.
After World War II, enrollment increased drastically, and so did the school’s funding. This allowed for academic expansion. In 1959-1960 the Arts & Sciences Division began offering B.S. degrees in Business Administration. Women began enrolling in the program for the first time since 1921.
The division was renamed as the Department of Business Administration and offered courses in accounting, business administration, economics, finance and property management, industrial relations, and marketing. At this time, the department’s objectives were to “acquaint [students] with the practices of business administration,” to “introduce them to the knowledge essential to understanding business as an integral part of the ever-changing society,” and to “provide students with the knowledge basic to responsible citizenship,” according to a 1966-67 course catalog.
Cal Poly students attending a presentation by the American Marketing Association, 1985.
The School of Business and Social Sciences began offering masters degrees. The one-year masters program aimed to “lay the professional foundation for careers of growing responsibility in the business community and related fields.”
The department was renamed again as the School of Business and was accredited by the American Assembly of Collegiate Schools of Business.
A graduate of Cal Poly Business, Barbara Kain Peterson, at the First Annual Women’s Symposium for Strategies for Successful Career Women. May 1989.
The department was given the title of College of Business. The current business building was also opened this year.
The Orfalea family donated $15 million to the school and the department was renamed the Orfalea College of Business in honor of the Orfalea family.
A computer lab in the Business Administration and Education Building, circa mid 1990s.
The college launched the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, which has helped students start businesses through the Hatchery, HotHouse Accelerator, and Incubator. The CIE has also become a part of the larger San Luis Obispo community by helping local businesses raise funding.
The college still practices an upside-down curriculum, which allows students to take major classes early on. With a continued focus on Learn by Doing—in addition to a rapid adaptation to distance learning amid the pandemic—the Orfalea College of Business is an integral part of the Cal Poly campus and the larger SLO community.
“Reflecting back on the past 100 years of teaching business classes,” says Interim Dean Liddicoat, “we can see the tremendous progress OCOB has made with our Learn by Doing instruction. In the beginning, our students used typewriters and adding machines. Today they use cutting edge software, data science, and cloud based computing while working on sophisticated projects, many with industry partner support or to develop business plans that they launch into the world.”
Startup Marathon participants, 2019.
All archival photos courtesy of University Archives Photograph Collection, Special Collections and Archives, Robert E. Kennedy Library, California Polytechnic State University.