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‘I have the best job in the world’
Academic Senate Chair Ron Gronsky gave up rock ’n’ roll for scholarship

21 January 2004

 

Ron Gronsky


This is the second part of a Berkeleyan interview with Professor Ron Gronsky, this year’s chair of the Berkeley Division of the Academic Senate. In the first part (Dec. 4, 2003), Gronsky outlined his goals for the year, addressed the implications of the state budget crisis for the university, and spoke frankly of the recent controversy over admissions standards at Berkeley. The full transcript is online.

How did you get involved in a leadership role in the Academic Senate?
What I find attractive about this work is that it allows me to serve in a way that really, fully engages with this campus. I’d served on several Senate committees, but from the chair’s level you see all facets of the campus: the administration, the staff, the alumni, and the students. The service mantra here is very strong, and I appreciate and enjoy that.

It is intense, though. I’ve calculated that Senate business alone involves me in 2.45 meetings per day since I started. This is not my research group, departmental meetings, advising of my undergraduate students — I still do all of that. There are days when it’s non-stop — I’ll have six meetings some days, and they’re not all just an hour long.

You mention the “service mantra” at Berkeley. Yet younger faculty don’t always participate in that culture of involvement. Is being an academic leader a dying art?
You have to become a classic at this institution to really understand what this particular mode of service is all about. These are the folks who really do bleed blue and gold, and who are able to give back to the institution without suffering a major impact on their advancement through the professorial ranks. Our mid-career and especially our younger faculty must work to establish their academic reputations. We discourage assistant professors from serving on more than one Academic Senate committee; in fact, it’s rare that you’ll find them serving in any capacity, except at the departmental level.

We’ve talked a long, long time about this, and I don’t know if it is possible to change. As attractive as it might be to have assistant and associate professors involved immediately in faculty governance, we wouldn’t want them to feel like they have to give more time to service at the expense of any progress in their research and teaching.

It’s sometimes hard to get a quorum to attend Senate meetings. What does that say about the Senate as a body?
It’s of some concern. The division meetings, which attempt to bring in the faculty at large, struggle to meet a quorum when there isn’t some contentious item on the agenda or being voted on a ballot. But I’m not discouraged or worried, because the business of the Senate is being done. It’s being done in the committees, very effectively and efficiently in most cases. We are doing what we need to do to make sure that shared governance is a reality.

Growing out of the Strategic Academic Plan, five “new ideas initiatives” have been identified by faculty and approved for funding and new faculty FTEs. They are in computational biology, nanotechnology, metropolitan studies, new media, and the environment. Can you give us a progress report?
The internal review committee actually awarded 7 FTE to Computational Biology, 7 FTE to Nanoscience and Nanoengineering, 5 FTE to Regional and Metropolitan Studies, and 2 FTE to New Media. At this stage, all of these initiatives are underway: faculty are meeting, plans are being developed. The key to these new initiatives is that they’re truly interdisciplinary efforts. The new faculty will literally be hired to work at the intersection of two or more traditional disciplines, where a new field will emerge from that hybridization.

Other questions arise during this planning stage. Suppose we’ve hired a new assistant professor in, say, nano-bioimplantation technologies. Who votes on that person’s tenure? Does the decision stay in a single department? Is it two departments? Is it six? How can you possibly subject a young and relatively naïve member of the faculty to six different departments? That has to be worked out, and the faculty is addressing it in a very thorough, scholarly debate.

A joint Senate-administration committee of faculty, administrators, staff, and students has been active this year in developing a new code of student conduct for the campus. It’s proven controversial: the Daily Californian, for example, editorialized that the revisions are “completely insidious … imbalanced and unjust.” What changes are the Senate trying to bring about, and what’s your reaction to such criticisms?
We’re in the midst of the second phase of a two-phase process: the first to revise the Berkeley code to match the language of the UC systemwide code and streamline the hearing process, and the second to address specific issues, notably academic dishonesty and civil disobedience.

The first phase was executed by a large committee with members from the faculty, staff, graduate students, undergraduate students, and the administration. In addition to small changes in language to achieve compliance with the UC code, we made an effort to change the hearing process, to make it more educational for our students and less adversarial or litigious. Unfortunately, some students drew the conclusion, “If you’re saying it’s supposed to be more educational, you’re assuming that students are guilty of the charges against them.” And that’s simply not the case.

We must do a better job to help our students understand the disciplinary process thoroughly, from the beginning. Many students worry that if they get into trouble, the university is going to chew them up and spit them out. They think, “If I don’t have a lawyer, I don’t have a way out of this.” This is also not true, and we don’t want it to be part of their mindset. In fact, students have a large number of advocates available to help them. And what many of them don’t realize is that, in most cases, their strongest advocates are the faculty!

Our committee heard of the problems of differential treatment in student-conduct hearings, where some students had hired lawyers — sometimes with bills exceeding $10,000 — while many other students obviously could not afford fees of this magnitude. So the committee has come up with recommendations for changes in the code that would level the playing field. During hearings, faculty ask the questions, not the university’s lawyers, and the students answer, not their lawyers. Of course, if either side feels the need to engage counsel, they still can spend their money to do so. But when it comes time for the hearing, those lawyers should, according to the revised code, be quiet.

We are now also involved in a detailed examination of the contours of academic dishonesty, plagiarism, and civil disobedience. What do we mean by these things? There has actually been quite a bit of attention given to the meaning of plagiarism in the Internet age. If you do a Google search on a topic, get 230,000 hits, extract 15 words from the first 1,000 of these sites, and bolt together a 15,000-word essay, is that plagiarism? Who decides? Who proves? Berkeley has to take this on. There’s an educational component to this that I think eludes many of our students. As bright as they are, they have not been appropriately coached and counseled on how to properly reference original ideas and sources.

On another front, a campus working group, including the Senate, reviewed the requirements of the USA PATRIOT Act, concluding that the campus will comply with the law but will question it if we feel the bounds of academic freedom are being crossed. Do you have concerns about the act?
I did have concerns, but I feel less anxious about it now. As far as I know, we’ve had no occasion to have to respond to subpoenas or inquiries submitted in the context of the USA PATRIOT Act. So maybe we’re OK, but all of our force fields are up — we’re vigilant and watching.

We had two working groups look at the impact of the USA PATRIOT Act: One focused on disclosure of records, the other on research compliance. Those two groups did a very thorough job, and their investigations revealed that there could be an impact on our international graduate students and scholars. So now we have a third working group evaluating the effect of the act on [them]. That may be our most serious concern.

Would noncompliance be a possible response?
I think it can be. Noncompliance from more than one campus could be a very big issue for the federal government. And if it came to that, I think the universities would win. It’s a serious invasion of privacy in many ways. If there were an attempt to cut off federal funding in response, as some have speculated, it would bring a large reaction from the scholarly, academic, and scientific communities.

A new chancellor will be named during your term. What attributes would you most like to see in a chancellor? Is it tough for a new chancellor to grasp the tradition of shared governance on this campus?
Shared governance is taken very seriously by our faculty, and I believe the current administration understands that this is a good and smart thing to do. It’s been a wonderful way of conducting business on this campus. For that reason, I rank the desire and ability to consult with faculty very highly among the skill set that our new chancellor has to bring in.

Would you prefer to see an internal candidate chosen?
It’s not that important to me. I think it would be wonderful if all candidates fully understand and appreciate the University of California system, but this system is large and great and diverse, and we can accommodate a little extra diversity from an “outsider” if we have to. [Laughs.] Most of the candidates whom we will see will have established some of their reputation as a faculty member somewhere — so all we’ll have to do is remind them of what it was like back then!

What are the drawbacks, if any, to shared governance?
It’s always going to be a fussy process. The problem with faculty consultation is that it takes so darn long. I’ve spoken with [Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost] Paul Gray about working with him to find ways to expedite faculty consultation in some cases . . . the usual process can take two or three weeks, at a minimum. That’s inappropriate for some serious decisions that have to be made quickly. So maybe the solution involves intranet e-mail, or cell-phone conferences, or, the most difficult, getting everyone into a room, in a sort of crisis mode. No answers yet, but we’re going find a way to expedite this, to at least take a few bumps out of the road.

On a personal note, we’re told you have some interesting, definitely non-academic hobbies.
I play electric blues guitar; it’s my release. There was a time in high school when I really thought I was going to be a rock ’n’ roll player the rest of my life. I studied Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Michael Bloomfield, and others, sitting by the stereo, picking up on leads until my fingers were raw. Then I discovered math and science, as well as the vagaries of trying to follow the artist’s route to success.

But I never gave up the guitar; mine is a classic Fender American Standard Stratocaster, which I play through a matched set of Fender all-tube, Pro Series Concert amps. When the music is “live” during our Materials Science and Engineering Christmas party in the Hearst Mining Building, I’m happy to accept guest appearances on lead guitar. Any time.

And cars are your other passion?
Yes, I still drive a classic 1972 Dodge Demon to campus every day — banana yellow, rolled and pleated interior, centerline wheels, three-speed on the floor, double-clutching around a few corners when the mood strikes. That’s the other way I wasted some of my youth: racing cars. There was a quarter-mile dual track on the outskirts of Pittsburgh where we ran elapsed-time (ET) races. You’d try for a trophy, then drive around the burger joints at night with the trophy strapped into the seat next to you.

So I also spent a lot of time tuning cars. Back in the mid-’60s I mastered the dual-point distributor system on GM cars and developed an asymmetrical gate configuration for the Hurst four-speed Mystery Shifter, both of which gave me enough pocket money to support my music.

So you could have ended up a guitar-slinging auto mechanic?
The grease under my fingernails does help my chops! But I really am thankful to be where I am, with the best job in the world: full professor on the Berkeley campus.