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Michael Woo, dean of the College of Environmental Design, retires after 10 years

Michael Woo, the first urban planner, the first Asian-American, and the second-longest serving dean of the College of Environmental Design, is retiring after 10 years of service. His last day is Friday, Aug. 16.

Lauren Weiss Bricker, professor of architecture and director of the ENV Archives-Special Collections, begins her tenure as interim dean on Monday, Aug. 19. Provost Sylvia Alva and her staff will be working with the Academic Senate to start the national search to find Woo’s successor.

“I’ve known Michael Woo since he came to Cal Poly Pomona,” said Bricker, who has taught at the college for 20 years. “We have been happy colleagues over the years. He brought an urbane outlook to the worlds of design and the environment which are the bailiwick of our college…I will miss his commitment to the college and the university.”

Woo joins an exclusive group of Cal Poly Pomona deans who have served for 10 years or longer. Among them: his predecessor Marvin Malecha (1982-1994), currently the president of the NewSchool of Architecture & Design in San Diego; Barbara Way, whose time as dean of the College of Letters, Arts, and Social Sciences (1996-2008) overlapped with a two-year appointment as the interim dean of the College of Education and Integrative Studies (2006-08); Vincent Parker (1967-78), the first dean of the College of Science; and Carl Englund (1950-70), dean of the College of Agriculture.

For many faculty, Woo is the only dean they’ve known.

“Michael Woo has been the dean, my dean, for the totality of my tenure process, including my transition from associate professor to chair,” said Anthony Acock, associate professor and incoming chair of the Department of Art. “It’s strange to think of the College of ENV sans Michael, and while I’m optimistic for the future and the health of the college, Michael is leaving a noticeable imprint on the institution, and in particularly in the disciplines of environmental design, regenerative studies, and art history.”

‘An unusual dean’

In Woo, the college found a vocal and enthusiastic ambassador with a sprawling network of connections in politics, academia, the private and public sectors, and nonprofits. He remains active in public life and community affairs, the first urban planner and the first Asian-American elected to the Los Angeles Council where he served two terms (1985-1993) and represented 235,000 in Hollywood and the surrounding areas.

He spearheaded the Hollywood Redevelopment Plan, which laid the groundwork for Hollywood's current revitalization; played a key role in choosing the route and station locations of the Metro Red Line subway; and decisions on numerous development proposals and neighborhood controversies. In the aftermath of the notorious 1991 beating of Rodney King, Woo was the first official in Los Angeles City Hall to demand a change in leadership in the Los Angeles Police Department, and was one of the city's first leaders seeking to calm race relations after urban violence broke out in 1992. He was one of 24 candidates for mayor of Los Angeles in 1993, ultimately receiving 46 percent of the citywide vote and a second-place finish in the citywide run-off election.

In 1991, when he was the councilman representing Hollywood, he co-founded the Hollywood Farmers Market, now the largest certified farmers market in Los Angeles where he still regularly shops for produce on Sunday mornings. Woo was also a member of the Los Angeles City Planning Commission for six years, during which he was the earliest advocate for the historic overturning of city skyline policy requiring flat roofs on tall buildings.

Woo’s leadership roles include chairing the boards of Smart Growth America, Sustainable Economic Enterprises of Los Angeles (SEE-LA), Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center, and the Los Angeles County Grand Park Foundation. He was invited to join the California Parks Forward Commission to help develop new directions for the California State Parks system, and secured funding from the Resources Legacy Fund to involve Cal Poly Pomona architecture students in Professor Juintow Lin’s 2014 ARC 503L studio in developing innovative designs for cabins to attract a more diverse population of campers and hikers to the state parks. Woo counts the wide-ranging impact of Lin’s studio – which inspired the 2015 Parks Forward Day symposium in the Building 7 atrium and led to the installation of her students’ wedge cabins at Big Sur, Springlake Campground and Doran State Beach’s visitor center – as one of his fondest college memories.

“I think that’s a great example of the continuity between my involvement as dean in external activities in the real world and generating some benefits for students and faculty here within the ENV programs,” Woo said.

Before arriving at Cal Poly Pomona, Woo taught urban planning for seven years at USC. But it wasn’t a straight line between politics and academia. He worked for the national nonprofit LISC (Local Initiative Support Corporation), which raises money to fund affordable housing and economic development in low-income communities. He was an appointee in the Clinton administration in the mid-1990s, running the western states for the Corporation for National Service, the federal agency that operates Americorps, Vista and other national service programs. He was the first Los Angeles general manager of Flexcar, the first car-sharing service in Southern California, and the predecessor of Zipcar. 

“Being in academia was natural for me because part of what I have been involved in for many years is educating the public,” Woo said. “And in some ways educating the public and educating students are not necessarily two different activities. I think that some people in academia, especially career academics, see a sharp dividing line between academia and the rest of the world, and to me it’s not a sharp line. I think it’s a blurry distinction, which reflects what I think about learning, and also it reflects what I think about the process of changing urban environments, which I’ve been involved in for a long time.”

Well-traveled and well-read, Woo is endlessly fascinated by people, places and creating opportunities for others, particularly faculty and students. No idea or story seemed inconsequential.

“Michael is a connector and a true Renaissance man of all things ‘design,’” said ENV Interim Associate Dean Alyssa Lang. “He knows what each faculty member is interested in and uses this information to connect people. Early on in my time as interim associate dean, Michael described some posters he had seen by Pushpin Studio. I was so surprised that he knew of these posters. I discovered these works in grad school and they definitely shaped my design thinking and process. I always appreciated how Michael so thoughtfully connected people to make everyone feel included, and in that moment, I felt like my boss ‘got’ what I did for a living. And in this exchange, I gained some insight into how he created connections and a shared culture.”

"Mike Woo was instrumental in securing funding from Metabolic Studio for my Aqueduct Futures project to commemorated the centennial of the Los Angeles Aqueduct," said Barry Lehrman, associate professor of landscape architecture. "This project was a major boost to my research."

Woo often accompanied the college’s senior director of development to donor visits, creating connections and growing existing partnerships that were parlayed to internships or projects that benefited student learning. Along the way, some of these relationships evolved into friendships.

“Michael Woo has been fantastic for Cal Poly Pomona, and also for all who come in to contact with him,” said Randall Lewis, executive vice president of Lewis Management Corporation. “He is a visionary thinker, a great collaborator, and most importantly, Michael is a wonderful human being. I very much value my personal friendship with Michael and he has taught me many important lessons about planning. Because of Michael's leadership, I have been lucky enough to collaborate on many rewarding partnership efforts that have made a big impact in our region. His impact on Cal Poly Pomona as an institution, upon hundreds if not thousands of students and upon so many communities, has been enormous and very beneficial.  Michael, I'm sure our paths will cross again many times.”

In the last few years the college provided interns to the Upland Unified School District, one of the community projects supported by Lewis. Interns worked on a school gardens program that promoted food and nutrition, healthy living and gardening to hundreds of young people. Lewis also supported a pilot program borne out of a Winter 2014 course Woo taught to develop sustainability projects in the City of Claremont. One of the 17 local sustainability proposals developed by his students, a smart street lights project using LED by Brian Tran (’16, urban and regional planning), was selected for implementation as a pilot program in Spring 2015.

“Pulling off collaborations like these is usually hard, but Michael’s leadership style and his willingness to partner were primary reasons these initiatives were so successful,” Lewis said.

The latest collaboration is this fall’s redesign of the ENV Plaza outside Building 7 between BrightView and landscape architecture lecturer Keiji Uesugi’s LA 3111L and LA 33121L studios.

“Involved, interested, accessible, intellectual, thoughtful – these are a few of the words that come to mind when I think of Dean Woo,” said BrightView president Tom Donnelly. “Dean Woo has a great appreciation for the critical intersection where delivering meaningful education aligns with business needs through learn by doing experiences for the educators as well as the educated.” 

Woo also found time to teach, usually when he was "seized by an idea" he wanted to test out. He has taught interdisciplinary courses on Steve Jobs and Design, Redesigning Los Angeles, Sustainability in Claremont, a section of the introductory class ENV 101, a senior seminar in the art department about oral and written communication for graphic design majors, and Disruption by Design in Spring 2019 attended by architecture and civil engineering students.

“I would say that I was really struck by how hard our students work,” Woo said. “And I’m not just referring to work that students did in the class I was teaching, but just in general the workload of our students combined with their other private obligations, whether it’s as a parent or so many of our students having outside jobs, in some cases 40-hour-a-week jobs, while they are also going to school here full-time. I was very struck by the dedication of our students.”

Julia Jacobo (’20, urban and regional planning) recalled meeting with Woo about a surfing club she started last year, Grls Flow LA, and getting feedback that “ignited more passion in me to keep going.”

"I am sad to hear that Dean Woo will leave ENV, as I think he has been crucial to inspiring students like me who at times have not been fully supported or understood by some staff in ENV," she said. "I thank him for always having the doors open to the students, for always being very inclusive and gracious to all of us regardless of how we look and if personally knows us or not. I admire everything he has done and the grateful and gentle way he presented himself to us students at all times. I aspire to be as successful, giving and strong as him one day."

Woo often tells his students that “it’s hard to be different.” The unique structure of ENV was one of the factors that drew him to apply for dean in 2009. While environmental design programs tend to be spread out across different schools – urban planning with public administration, architecture with fine arts or engineering, for example – and interdisciplinary collaboration was possible, not sharing some kind of university framework meant that “Cal Poly Pomona and the College of Environmental Design provided opportunities to transcend the traditional but artificial barriers between the design disciplines, and to experiment with creative collaborations."

“My own master’s degree in city planning was from [UC] Berkeley which is the only other university in California that has a school that goes by the name the College of Environmental Design, so it suddenly dawned on me that there are unique creative collaborations that can happen here,” Woo continued. “The combination of Cal Poly Pomona’s learn-by-doing approach and ENV’s interdisciplinary potential and connections to alumni and employers made ENV irresistible to me.”

Woo’s tenure marked a period of increased and ambitious external initiatives designed to raise its public profile. He organized college field trips and all-night bus tours of downtown Los Angeles; symposiums that drew experts and elected officials alike, and big names such as TED Conference creator/founder Richard Saul Wurman, who served as ENV dean in the late 1970s; and public festivals that promoted ENV programs and faculty, such as the 2017 ENV Festival, a series of public events on- and off-campus that included a public discussion with Walt Disney Imagineering about storytelling and design in which WDI President Bob Weis ('80, architecture) participated.

Though events are not unique to Woo’s time, he was conscious of widening the sphere of the college’s influence within the university as well as with community groups, employers, alumni, media, “and others who could be part of an expanded audience for ENV.”

“I think that I’m an unusual dean at Cal Poly Pomona. I define my role to be the ambassador or the public face of the college to external audiences,” he said. “assuming that my associate dean and staff in the dean’s office can take care a lot of the day-to-day management level, my job is to keep an eye on the big picture and try to relate the reality of higher education at Cal Poly Pomona to all the things going on in the outside world.”

Woo cultivated a relationship with alumna Juliana Terian (’80, architecture), whose $2.5 million pledge is the university’s six-largest cash gift, to support and to deliver a mutual vision of elevating the college’s national renown. Under his watch, the college launched ENVirons Magazine, a full-color oversized periodical, and a highly visual college website (https://env.cpp.edu).

“The distinctiveness of ENV’s visual identity is really a tribute to Juliana Terian who remembered her days as a student here in the 1970s which inspired her many years later to do something about the fact that Cal Poly Pomona and the College of Environmental Design aren’t better known than they are,” he said. “We were able to convert her generosity into a material impact on the visibility of the college and the way the college communicates itself to the outside world.”

Accomplishments and a parting gift

When I was first hired I didn’t think I would be here this long because I knew at the time I was hired that most deans at universities these days only last for about four or five years,” Woo said. “I never really had a time limit in mind, I think it was a matter of putting one foot in front of the other foot and keeping it going. There was no shortage of ambitious goals or crises to deal with.”

Woo’s other memorable ENV developments included:

  • The strengthening of relationship between ENV, the university and the family of modernist architect Richard Neutra, whose 3,500-square-foot home is managed by the college. A successful fundraising campaign made possible repairs to the Neutra VDL House in Silver Lake, after decades of deferred maintenance. In 2017, the property was among 24 added to the National Historic Landmarks registry in the final days of the Obama administration. The ribbon-cutting ceremony was attended by U.S. Representatie Adam Schiff (CA-28th District).

  • Neutra VDL House played a factor for longtime Cal Poly Pomona supporters and architecture aficionados Steve and Marian Dodge’s decision to donate their Raphael Soriano-designed house in Los Feliz to the university under “the same tender loving care that the VDL House received” after being impressed by the efforts of architecture professor Sarah Lorenzen, director of the Neutra VDL House, and her student docents.

  • The redressing of “the longtime sad reality of the great Raphael Soriano not having a gravestone on his grave at East LA.” Like Neutra, Soriano was a prominent architect who lectured in the Department of Architecture. Until last year, Soriano’s grave was identified only with a cardboard sign until Woo led a fundraiser to replace the sign with a marble gravestone designed by Kayley Ryan (’18, architecture). “It was great to be able to close that circle,” Woo said.

  • The 25th anniversary of Landscape Architecture’s study-abroad program in Italy in 2017

  • The hiring of transportation specialists So-Ra Baek and Brian Garcia as assistant professors, who this fall will begin teaching in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning 

  • The annual Polykroma show in the Department of Art, launched in 2013

  • The 2013 opening of the Don B. Huntley Gallery

  • The new evaporative cooling system at the Lyle Center for Regenerative Studies 

  • The coming audio/visual upgrade of the atrium in Building 7

Woo has one final gift to the college: “Design the Future: ENV Careers in a Transforming Job Market,” a study of the future of careers and jobs in the environmental design disciplines. Over the summer the college commissioned the Institute of Applied Economics at the Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation (LAEDC) for the study, the first of its kind for the allied design professions. The publication examines employment and growth patterns in Los Angeles, Orange County and San Diego counties and the Inland Empire. It also addresses emerging issues affecting the design professions, such as housing needs, climate change, the convergence of architecture/design/construction/engineering, technology, outsourcing and international opportunities. It introduced the charter members of the ENV Employers Council comprised of Walt Disney Imagineering, BrightView and HMC Architects. The council’s objective is to provide support for the next generation of design professionals. “Design the Future: ENV Careers in a Transforming Job Market” will be available in print and online this fall.

But it probably won’t be the last Cal Poly Pomona will hear from Woo.

“My wife and I are going on a couple of short trips, but I don’t really plan to spend all of my time in a rocking chair and thinking about the past,” he said. “Allan Jacobs, the former San Francisco planning director, was my mentor when I was a graduate student at Berkeley. About 25 years ago, he retired and was thinking about applying for the planning director job in Los Angeles. I distinctly recall him saying ‘I feel like I have one more city left in me.’ I think I feel that way about myself, I also feel like there’s one more city in me. Which is not to say that I would apply for a planning director job, but I think I’ll do something else, I don’t know what it’s going to be.”