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Ron Gronsky: leading by anticipation
This year’s Academic Senate chair believes that UC faces ‘history-making decisions and changes’ in the coming years — and he wants to make sure we’re ready

03 December 2003


Academic Senate Chair Ron Gronsky
Peg Skorpinski photo

Ronald Gronsky, a professor of materials science and engineering who this year chairs the Berkeley Division of the UC Academic Senate, brings a passion to his work that — along with his many other passions, ranging from blues guitar to the art of teaching — belies his unruffled, calming demeanor. In a recent interview with the Berkeleyan, he spoke at length about a wide range of topics that concern him — both as this year’s Senate leader and as a faculty member of 25 years’ standing whose affection for the campus and its tradition of excellence grows, he insists, the more he learns about them.

Raised in Pittsburgh, Penn., in a family with recent roots in Czechoslovakia, Gronsky is a first-generation college graduate who grew up, he says, “certain that I’d end up working in a steel mill just like my father and grandfather.” After spending his teenage years focusing primarily on rock ’n’ roll (playing guitar in a local band) and auto mechanics, he decided to go to college to develop a growing interest in math and science. His goal, he recalls, was to land a job in the metallurgical department of a steel mill, “which would have allowed me to work upstairs in an air-conditioned office instead of down on the floor.”

But during his junior year at the University of Pittsburgh, a summer job spent setting up an electron microscope for a faculty member became “a life-changing experience,” one that opened his eyes to the possibility of graduate school. Advised to study at Berkeley, he moved west in 1972, and has stayed here ever since. He earned his Ph.D. in 1977, held several posts at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (concurrently teaching part-time at Berkeley), and joined the faculty full-time in 1988.

In his research, he uses powerful microscopy to understand and manipulate all manner of materials on the atomic level, leading to better performance from aerospace alloys, biomaterials, semiconductors, and many other materials.

He has chaired his department, chaired the faculty of the College of Engineering for four years, and has been active on Academic Senate committees.

Gronsky also led the program committee for the renovation of Hearst Memorial Mining Building, home of materials science and engineering, and he tirelessly led fundraising efforts with his enthusiasm for the project, completed last year.

A 2001 winner of the campus’s Distinguished Teaching Award, Gronsky says his appreciation for the high caliber of Berkeley’s students has been deepened by having seen three of his own children go to school here. Teaching, he says, “is the best job on the planet.” That conviction was expressed frequently during our interview with him, the first half of which appears here.

What’s your agenda for this year? What are the must-dos and the things you personally would like to accomplish?
I can’t talk about the Senate’s aspirations or my own without mentioning getting us through this awful budget situation. We’d like to shield our students from its impacts, so that they might get on with the wonderful life we’re trying to make for them here. The faculty will take much of the grief, and the staff will take more of it, because there have been and will be a lot of serious cuts.

I hope we can keep enough momentum to get to the other side of this. It’s like running through a wall of flame. If we just keep our heads down and run fast enough, we can get through it. But if we slow down, if we stop doing the things we’re good at doing for the sake of saving some money, then we get burned.

That said, I’d like to find ways to help my colleagues re-focus on teaching the wonderful students that we get here. As a result of the budget cuts, this might be an easier thing to do, in one sense. The distractions that faculty face in conducting a research program — soliciting funding from federal agencies, trying to find other sources of funding from local sources — now all of a sudden become very difficult, sometimes futile. If we have three successive years of something like 10-percent cuts, the local sources of funding will have almost entirely dried up for a large portion of our faculty.

It’s a time of crisis — which, of course, means a time of opportunity, a chance to center yourself and think about the other things we do. If research is not going to be possible under these constraints, what else do you do? We develop better courses; we engage students in research in other ways, apart from high-funding operations that require a lot of intensive lab commitment or travel. What can we do on a more localized scale — using Internet access, or in the classroom? Faculty are now open to considering these things because, one, they have very few other choices, and two, they find that engaging students in research in this classroom setting is very fulfilling.

The other goal that I had set for myself is to pay attention to the morale of this faculty. We’ve had more than our share of serious retention scares on this campus, in part because, for several years now, salaries have been lagging and local [funding] support has been lagging.

What can the campus do to make staying here more attractive?
I like to think in simple terms about this. And in the simplest picture, it’s the camaraderie of our colleagues that could keep everyone here. When you are trying to advance your own field of scholarship and you need some consultation with experts in related fields, all you need do is knock on doors. You can find those experts right here, and integrate that their expertise into new programs.

It sounds like you’re talking about physical proximity, rather than connecting people only by e-mail, for example.

That’s right. The problem with e-mail is that we are connected to everyone else, and that provides an excuse for ignoring most of it. I’m interested in promoting collisions across campus: can we build little zones where people might want to gather? We have a beautiful campus, but try to find someplace to sit down and talk to anyone!

What do think is the biggest threat the state budget crisis poses for Berkeley?
Someone says you don’t have money to do this thing or that anymore, so we say, okay, we won’t do it. That And that activity ceases to exist. Suppose it’s the way we do course review, or program review, or faculty merit and promotion reviews — the things that instill and preserve quality in the institution. We need to identify those very, very serious matters that we simply can’t give up by any measure, that we have to sustain. If it means that all of us take on extra work, we do it to get us through this difficult time and hold onto that the rich heritage and tradition that we have here at Berkeley.

I really believe that the university faces history-making decisions and changes in the state of California over the next couple of years. I see things that frighten and unsettle many of my colleagues, and I include myself in that number.

Such as?
To name just two, the attack on admissions, and the fact that we might need to cut enrollment. I think we have to try to anticipate what Sacramento wants to do, to anticipate it very carefully and intelligently. We have to anticipate the will of the regents, especially because of the recent attention that Berkeley has gotten from their chair. We have to be very responsive to the needs of the citizens of the state — that’s our reason for being. The citizenry is certainly going to be looking to UC for many things — not just the education of their children, but perhaps identifying the path forward to get us out of these difficult times.

How do you assess the faculty’s ability to anticipate what Sacramento, the regents, and California citizens want from UC?
It’s been very impressive to witness my colleagues in their element in Senate committee meetings. They care, they are concerned, they take special care to execute on their charge. They talk about the citizens of the state and our students. They develop plans that [embrace] the fullness of the scholarly mission of this institution in the best sense. So when, for example, you attend meetings of the Committee on Admissions, Enrollment, and Preparatory Education, you find that they know the will of the regents better than the regents do. What I mean by that is this:The regents really do want to protect the rights of the citizens for access to UC, but knowing how to do that is an important and difficult mission. It takes a special perception to see how to provide access for all who should have access; how do we admit students to represent the diversity of this state? The Senate takes on these problems, they air them out and discuss them at length, and at the end of that process really sound decisions are made. It’s great to see.

A lot of people don’t understand that admissions policy is set by the Academic Senate. What is your take on the controversy sparked by Regent John Moores’ review of Berkeley’s admissions process?
It boils down to this: If we are going to treat our applicants as individuals, then we need this complex process of comprehensive review. There’s no compromise on this point. But because comprehensive review is so complex, so difficult to understand, it becomes opaque to a lot of people, and hence breeds suspicion and concern. I’m absolutely convinced that most of the faculty on this campus don’t understand comprehensive review. I never really learned it until last year when, serving as vice chair of the Senate, I got to listen to a number of presentations about it. Only then did the fullness of the process get through to me.

In what way do you think the faculty doesn’t fully understand comprehensive review?
When you ask faculty how they like the students they’re getting, they say they’re great. So why should there be any quibble with the process that brought them here? The quibble is that nobody understands how it’s done. There are many levels of edification required here, and we need to get the information out about how this comprehensive process works.

I sometimes think that I should draw a one-page graphic cartoon that explains and simplifies this process. But when you think about comprehensive review in all its aspects, you see that it’s really not a page — it’s a three-dimensional model that goes into four dimensions, then into hyperspace. It has that complexity to it: academic achievement, plus leadership, plus the local context, possibly athletics, art, dance, performance, participation in outside activities, and working for a living.

So how do you assess all of this? You can’t weight it all simply by assigning a number to these factors. Comprehensive review — where two readers have to agree, and a third person gets called in if they disagree — is a sensitive, organic system, but it’s the only way we can account for individuals and treat them fairly in this evaluation process. Folks like Regent Moores, who think that “transparency” means making decisions on the basis of numbers and grids, are missing the point.

For those students who do get admitted to Berkeley, do you sense a change in the level of faculty interest in undergraduate education?
Being a faculty member on this campus is special because of the quality of our students. It’s good news that many more faculty have come around to seeing the benefits of paying solid attention to undergraduate education. I’m hearing more and more that faculty now understand that our role as teachers has been undervalued.

So the question is how to leverage that interest, perhaps by providing more faculty forums where we can talk about teaching, share ideas about it. I’ve had discussions with [Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education] Christina Maslach about having the Distinguished Teaching Award winners serve as mentors to new faculty who want to develop their own teaching skills.

One thing I’d like to do is open up the process of course development a bit, provide more templates to the faculty to help them see what it takes to devise and develop a new course. The Committee on Courses of Instruction has an immense job assessing the constituents of a bona fide course, one that rises to the standard of a Berkeley course. Our colleagues, in their attempts to put these courses together, could benefit from seeing that process.

In the next installment of this interview, to be published Jan. 15, 2004, Professor Gronsky talks about attributes a new chancellor should possess; revising the Code of Student Conduct; the campus response to the PATRIOT Act; and his youthful love of cars and blues guitar.