Michael Woo, the first urban planner, the first Asian American and second-longest-serving dean of the College of Environmental Design, is retiring after 10 years of service.
Lauren 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 lay the groundwork for the national search for 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. “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.”
For many ENV faculty, such as associate professor and incoming art department chair Anthony Acock, Woo is the only dean they’ve known.
“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,” Acock said.
‘An unusual dean’
In Woo, ENV found a vocal and enthusiastic ambassador with a sprawling network of connections in politics, academia, the private and public sectors, and nonprofits. He was the first urban planner and the first Asian-American elected to the Los Angeles City Council, where he represented 235,000 in Hollywood and the surrounding areas during his two terms (1985-1993).
He spearheaded the Hollywood Redevelopment Plan, which laid the groundwork for Hollywood’s current revitalization and played a key role in choosing the route and station locations of the Metro Red Line subway.
In the aftermath of the notorious 1991 beating of Rodney King, Woo was the first city official 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 ran for mayor of Los Angeles in 1993, finishing second in a citywide run-off election.
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. Through his role on the California Parks Forward Commission, he 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 new 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 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.
Well-traveled and well-read, Woo is endlessly fascinated by people, places and creating opportunities for others, particularly faculty and students.
“Michael is a connector and a true Renaissance man of all things ‘design,’” said ENV’s 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.”
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.
He also found time to teach, usually when he was seized by an idea he wanted to test out. Among them are courses on Steve Jobs and Design, Redesigning Los Angeles, Sustainability in Claremont, and Disruption by Design last spring, which attracted 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. … I was very struck by the dedication of our students.”
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 said. “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.
“I define my role to be the ambassador or the public face of the college to external audiences,” Woo 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.”
This post was adapted from an article that ran on the College of Environmental Design’s website. Click here to read the full article.