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Regents go 'back to school' on Berkeley campus tour

– In their first visit to Berkeley since 1999, the Regents of the University of California spent a full day Thursday touring the campus, in what amounted to an intensive mobile seminar on Berkeley's recent accomplishments and near-term challenges.

Following a public comment session at Haas Pavilion - during which half a dozen students expressed concerns about topics ranging from higher summer session fees to the role of students in the selection of a new UC president - the regents took a motorized cable car up to McCone Hall, where they met with Chancellor Robert M. Berdahl for a conversation on the state of the campus. Among the subjects discussed were faculty recruitment, retention and equity (both gender- and minority-based); the campus's relative strength in terms of national academic rankings; and the condition of Berkeley's physical plant.

Regents at UC Berkeley
Chancellor Robert M. Berdahl (left) and UC Regents listen to a presentation at Mccone Hall during the regents' visit to the Berkeley campus. (Jonathan King photo)

That all of these topics are closely interrelated became clear during the 45-minute discussion. Berdahl identified the need for significant maintenance and retrofitting of Berkeley's aging physical infrastructure as the No. 1 challenge facing the campus. "It's a serious problem that has required significant campus resources to address," he told the regents, pointing out that millions of dollars in campus funds have been spent on seismic retrofitting, over and above monies provided for that purpose by the state and federal governments. Private monies aren't generally available for seismic work ("There aren't a lot of naming opportunities in heating and ventilation," Berdahl said wryly), which complicates the problem of making up for funds diverted to seismic work from campus operating expenses.

Updated and improved facilities play a key role in faculty recruitment and retention, the chancellor pointed out, which in turn are key to attaining the high academic rankings that have long been a Berkeley trademark. Berdahl noted that in the last round of rankings by the National Research Council, a decade ago, Berkeley was in the top ten nationwide in all but one of the 36 Ph.D programs assessed. He said that despite the challenges presented by faculty compensation and retention, he expects the campus will do quite well when the next set of rankings is released in 2005.

For the rest of their day on campus, the regents were treated to a series of presentations on a range of academic programs and initiatives. A presentation by Lind Gee on the work of the Berkeley Seismological Laboratory was followed by one from Vice Provost Christina Maslach on initiatives underway to improve undergraduate education. The regents expressed particular interest in the freshman seminar program that since 1992 has allowed new undergraduates to work in close contact with tenured faculty - a key element in guaranteeing student satisfaction with the university experience, Maslach said, noting that while 80 percent of Berkeley undergrads express an interest in working with mentor faculty, only 50 percent of recent graduates reported having had that opportunity. The freshman and sophomore seminar programs (the latter currently offered by the College of Letters & Science) are intended to bridge that gap.

Following lunch, an intensive survey of the work being done by the Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society (CITRIS) and the California Institute for Quantitative Biomedical Research (QB3) was offered by key researchers in those programs. A brief presentation on the Haas School of Business's Center for Responsible Business was followed by an update on the campus's Strategic Academic Plan (by vice provost William Webster) and its forthcoming Long Range Development Plan (by campus planner Kerry O'Banion).

A tour of the new Crossroads dining facility and ongoing construction work at Units I & II concluded the regents' busy day at Berkeley.