A conversation with Catherine Koshland
Berkeley’s Academic Senate chair



Academic Senate Chair Catherine Koshland
Peg Skorpinski photo

22 January 2003 | A vibrant, engaged faculty is at the heart of what makes a university great — from the quality of students admitted and professors hired to the coherence of its curricula and policies. Hence, the Berkeley Division of the UC Academic Senate, chaired this year by Public Health Professor Catherine Koshland, is a vital organ for the Berkeley campus, playing an even more critical role in a period of tight budgets, growing enrollment, and intense planning for the campus’s future.

“The University of California is strong,” says Koshland, “because of the faculty’s commitment to maintaining the excellence of the curriculum — and of its own body — by setting very high standards for faculty performance and promotion.”

It was not always thus. For the first 50 years of campus life, the faculty had limited authority to affect the quality of the campus. But during the 1919-20 academic year, in a burst of activism that came to be called “the great revolt,” the Berkeley faculty lobbied successfully for the powers it required to truly take the university’s academic helm.

Standing Order of the Regents 105, adopted that year, delegated key responsibilities from the Regents directly to the Academic Senate, along with certain rights.

These include approving courses and curricula; setting degree requirements, admission policies, and criteria for hiring and promoting faculty; approving the publications of the university press; and advising on the administration of libraries. The order also gave the faculty the right to be consulted and to give advice on the budget and to advise the Board of Regents, through the president, on any issue concerning the conduct and welfare of the university.

Nearly every aspect of the faculty’s authority comes into play in the campus’s Strategic Academic Plan, published last year as the academic underpinning for Berkeley’s enrollment and physical growth, as well as its future teaching and research directions. Koshland, who served on the committee that drafted the plan, says, “I’m now committed to ensuring that we begin implementing and developing plans based on the principles articulated in it,” a major thrust of her year as chair.

An authority on environmental-health policy, air pollution, energy, and environmentally sound manufacturing practices, Koshland, who joined the Berkeley faculty in 1984, holds the Wood-Calvert Chair in Engineering, which supports the work of a top campus environmental scientist or engineer.

She is firmly planted in UC in her personal as well as her professional life. She is the daughter-in-law of noted Berkeley biochemist Daniel Koshland and the late immunologist Marian Koshland, both on the faculty in molecular and cell biology. Married to James Koshland, an attorney, she is also the mother of two Berkeley graduates, Sarah, ’99, and Maggie, ’02. (A son, Jacob, is in high school.)

Koshland, at the midpoint of her one-year term as Senate chair, talked to the Berkeleyan about the job and the special challenges — and yes, opportunities — facing the Berkeley faculty in 2003. Part two of the interview will appear in next week’s Berkeleyan.

How would you describe the job of Senate chair?
It’s a very demanding, multitasking kind of job, because you get called on to address all sorts of issues across the university. The strategic part is picking a few things you really care about to follow through on during your term, because you have to leave time to respond to issues that come up that you could not anticipate.

What are your ‘big-ticket’ items this year — the issues are most important to you?
The Strategic Academic Plan is one. One of the first things we’re involved in are the new strategic initiatives — an effort to identify promising new fields of research and teaching that the campus will support with faculty FTE. With Bill Webster, vice provost for academic planning and facilities, I’m co-chairing the committee that has set up the process and is evaluating proposals from faculty to determine new areas for investment.

A year ago the Strategic Planning Committee received 130 faculty proposals and organized them into ten interdisciplinary areas. Eleven proposals in these strategic areas were then evaluated by both an external review body and our own internal selection committee. A semifinal list of five areas was selected: nanotechnology, metropolitan studies, new media, biocomputing, and environment.

What about the runners-up?
They all had merit; there was not a one of them that didn’t have something to offer. But those five clearly were farther along in the development process. One of the challenges for the Senate and the administration is what to do with the five or six significant fields that aren’t moving forward in this current round, but that have a core worth nurturing. We don’t want these efforts to lose momentum. There were some imaginative collaborations formed in those groups, and we’d like to see them sustained, sharpened, and ready to compete in two years for the next set of FTE.

How many FTE are we talking about?
It’s a total of about 60, the first 20 of which will be allocated in this round. In a couple of years there will be another round, with another 20 or so allocated.

Will the selected initiatives divert funds from existing programs?
What we asked in the strategic planning process a year ago, and what the chancellor agreed to, was to hold back a fraction of the FTE associated with expanded enrollment for this purpose alone. So the FTE that will grow these initiatives are not committed to anyone, they’re not being taken from anyone else.

And faculty took the lead in these new initiatives?
We felt nothing could come top-down in this new effort — that everything had to come from the faculty, which is why we went with this structure.

Does it limit the power of the chair if these things are designed to percolate from the ground up?
You could say, “I think we ought to have this or that,” but on this campus it wouldn’t be effective. More effective is to provide the resources, and to nurture what the faculty tend to grow.

That said, if I were choosing, I would invest in the international relations or the international policy/security area, which in fact was one of the groups that was asked to take a little more time to develop their proposal.

It sounds like sometimes you have to find out where the body is going and get in front of it, while at other times you can choose your areas of focus and lead in new directions.
We’ve been working on this. For a long time the Senate was reactive, not proactive. I think there’s been a shift: We’ve evolved a way of working with the administration collaboratively, using task forces and steering committees to achieve what we both want to accomplish, making sure that the interests, rights, and privileges of both administration and faculty are worked out together.

The Strategic Planning Committee was a 50-50 effort. We’ve continued that model in several efforts this year where a Senate member is co-chairing a task force or working group with a senior administrator to develop policy documents or deal with an issue. In this way we hope to ensure that concerns and interests of the Senate and the administration are incorporated into whatever document gets drafted. That way, when it goes to the appropriate bodies for review, it’s a much more efficient process, because you’ve already worked together.

Not all faculty are active in Senate business. Does that make it hard to get faculty to comply with policies and processes?
I think there are faculty of all persuasion all over this campus who at times have just thrown up their hands, because they are overwhelmed with all the things they’re supposed to do. I’m sympathetic with those who may run screaming. At the same time, I appreciate how important it is to have certain processes in place and to adhere to them, because I’ve seen the fallout when we don’t — the controversy last spring over the Palestinian poetry class being a prime example.

Part of the reason Berkeley is as strong as it is is that we have a balance between faculty and program independence, and the expectations and standards set by the corporate body of the faculty. There has always been some level of oversight, through the Academic Senate committees, particularly the budget committee, that says there’s a minimum standard of performance that we as the corporate body of Berkeley faculty expect to have, and we’ll hold each other to it.

Next week: On maintaining academic excellence, and the effects of the budget crisis.


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