The Painful Process Keeps the College on Firm Footing
by Kathleen Scalise
Several arduous years spent defending itself in the face of systemwide proposals to drastically cut funding paid off for the College of Natural Resources this spring with a commitment to restructure programs but keep them on a sound footing.
“It’s been difficult and there’s been a lot of frustration in the college,” said Associate Dean Sharon Fleming. “People here are really tired of being reorganized. They want to get on with the business of doing their work.”
The college expects the new structure to be well under way this summer. But this change does not come without pain. As many as 39 staff employees will lose their jobs, said Dean Gordon Rausser.
The large numbers of staff layoffs are due less to the restructuring and more to years of using funding from unfilled positions to meet budget cuts, said Rausser.
Now, “the campus has imposed budget cuts on us at a time when we no longer have unfilled positions,” he said. “So we have to give up some of our administrative staff.”
The College of Natural Resources is funded differently from other programs on campus. It receives much of its budget through the Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources in the Office of the President. In recent years the division threatened to downsize the college by 50 percent, claiming work had shifted away from agriculture.
“I view us as potentially serving two masters, the campus and the division,” said Fleming. “It can be a conflict, and in the past it has been. The division wants research that is going to be useful in solving a particular pest disease that is affecting a particular crop, for instance. Much of our work is designed to be more fundamental and therefore less immediately relevant in the field.
“But all of our work has potential relevance and I think our new structure puts us in a good position to serve both masters in a mutually compatible way,” she said.
To achieve this, said Rausser, “the new vision for the college is at the nexus of environment, natural resources and agriculture.”
Highlights of the restructuring include building the college’s faculty from about 100 to 120 by the next century to fill gaps in expertise, intensifying interdisciplinary research and requiring rigorous merit review of faculty through a new institute that controls research funds.
Although all existing departments will be retained, said Fleming, they will be complemented by a new divisional structure to encourage work across disciplines.
Among the new divisions are ecosystem sciences, nutrition and food toxicology, microbial biology and insect biology.
“The departmental structure is more fixed, the divisions are more fluid,” said Fleming. “You can alter the divisions in a timely fashion without having to alter academic appointments as new technologies become available to address new areas.”
“The new divisional structure moves the college in very exciting directions,” said The Vice Chancellor Carol Christ.
Another change will be the addition of merit review for faculty. Merit review looks at the quality and substance of research and is necessary because “there’s been too much of an attitude of I’ve been getting the funds in the past so I should continue to get them,” said Fleming. “Rewards on the basis of merit are compatible with the quality of the best programs on campus.”
Recently, said Rausser, “many faculty members had the option of taking the same research support they had here and moving to Davis or Riverside. Only two people chose to do so. That’s a real vote of confidence.”
Associate Professor Thomas Gordon, a plant pathologist, is leaving. He will be moving to Davis July 1.
“Basically I feel plant pathology as a discipline has been dealt out of the game at Berkeley,” he said. “Davis has a very strong program, probably the best in the nation, so it makes good sense for me to move.”
For the college as a whole, though, “things might really work out well,” he said. “It’s hard to look past the chaos that’s been going on. For several years it’s been a real distraction and it has consumed a lot of everyone’s attention. It’s been demoralizing to faculty, staff and students. But it may be looked back on as an essential thing to do. Only history will say for sure.”
Those who are staying agree.
“I’m cautiously optimistic that this will be a workable plan that could really be to the benefit of the college,” said Associate Professor Ronald Amundson, who studies soils.
Amundson said he’s staying because Berkeley provides a good home for interaction with other disciplines.
“Soils are becoming a part of a focus of many disciplines, controlling atmospheric chemistry, telling about climates of the past, all kinds of things,” he said. “For me, Berkeley is the most appropriate place to practice.”
Entomologist Stephen Welter, also an associate professor, says the new plan gives him breathing room to teach effectively.
“In some ways I’ve been uncuffed from being restricted to teaching about one taxonomic group–insects–and now I can teach a course that’s much more sweeping in things that transcend traditional entomology,” he said. “It’s the direction undergraduates should go.”
Unlike some, Welter sees the process of change as positive.
“I once heard someone say in an ecological system, disturbance creates opportunity a lot of times, as long as there’s not too much disturbance. That’s what I feel is the case here,” he said.
As for the plan itself, “at Davis they’d probably say, ah, Berkeley’s given up agriculture,” said Welter. “But I don’t agree. Instead what you’re going to see is agriculture continue to be served at Berkeley, but you’ll see new tacks being taken to approaching problems: more long-term strategies, conceptual models that can be applied widely, and traditional ‘fire-fighting’ types of agricultural research moving to other campuses.”
All in all, different approaches impart vitality and are a good thing for the UC system, says Welter.
“It’s like we’re saying we’re offering apple pie and cherry pie. Apple pie isn’t good and cherry pie bad, but if you only want apple you might have to go to Davis,” he said. “Here we’re doing something different. We’re approaching traditional problems in a non-traditional way.”