Q&A with Academic Senate’s new chair, Betty Deakin

Elizabeth Deakin, professor of city and regional planning and urban development, took over as chair of UC Berkeley’s Academic Senate in September after serving a year as vice chair. She spoke with the NewsCenter about some of the challenges and opportunities at hand.

Q: What does the transition to a new chancellor mean for you as Senate chair?

Elizabeth Deakin

Betty Deakin is optimistic about the future of UC Berkeley.

A: Chancellor Dirks is well-respected in the academic community because of his scholarship and his administrative capacities. I’ve found him to be very smart, very open and someone who understands how a high-level research and teaching enterprise like the University of California benefits this state, the entire country and the rest of the world. He’s already up to speed on the key issues and focused on maintaining access and excellence at Berkeley, and that’s exactly what the campus needs.

Q: What faculty issues will you prioritize during your term?

A: Over the years, Berkeley faculty have been willing to take on greater workloads and accept lower salaries because they believe in our mission as a public university. But there are limits and we need to do a better job of recognizing and rewarding their great work.

We’ve been able to bring associate professor salaries pretty close to market rates and we also do a pretty good job on salaries in attracting new hires. But that competitiveness erodes over time and we can’t match the increases on offer elsewhere because we’re competing with other world-class universities that have much deeper pockets.

Of course we also have to get benefit costs under control but, at the same time, the state hasn’t made any pension contributions for a long time. I think it’s high time the Legislature stepped up to the plate with the same kind of contributions as other state employees receive and I’m hopeful we’ll see some real action in the near future.

Q: What other issues are prominent in the minds of faculty?

A: Faculty are concerned about the quality of our research and teaching facilities and we recognize the need for ongoing investments to keep lab and classroom space up to modern standards. We’ve been very fortunate in having donors willing to write very large checks to fund new buildings and have made big progress in recent years with major investments in facilities. The work of people like John Wilton, vice chancellor for administration and finance, and Erin Gore, chief financial officer, has been hugely important in moving those efforts forward more efficiently and getting more done with available funds.

Q: Where do campus libraries fit into that equation?

A: Renewing our libraries is an important part of those modernization efforts and something we’ve been exploring through the Commission on the Future of Libraries. Everyone agrees that we need to make investments but there are questions about what kind and what level of investment is needed to bring our libraries into the 21st century in a way that best serves the diverse needs of the entire campus. In some fields researchers want technology-based and digital services while other fields rely on easy access to original documents, rare manuscripts and archive collections. The commission’s final report and recommendations, which will be released shortly, will go some way in answering those questions.

Q: As we move beyond the economic crisis, how do you see the future of UC Berkeley?

A: Looking ahead I’m very confident about the future of our university, particularly in light of the energy, experience and leadership Chancellor Dirks brings to the table. Similarly, UC President Napolitano has developed some very strong connections during her time in Washington and I’m hopeful her skill and experience will be enormously helpful in building the kind of relationships across state and federal government that will lead to greater support for the entire UC system.

Federal dollars that support basic research in medical and bioscience, engineering and other fields at Berkeley are extremely important to our faculty, graduate students and undergraduates. Research funding levels have declined significantly over the last few years so the threat of deeper cuts in government support for research enterprise is a major concern.

Q: What can UC Berkeley do to turn things around?

A: In terms of attracting greater investment, we need to do a better job of telling our story. We need to emphasize the value of a strong public university and highlight our contributions to the public good, to society, to industry and the economy.

We’ve seen increased engagement and involvement on the part of industry in recent times. But personally, in addition to funding things that benefit specific companies or industries, I’d love to see more companies writing more checks to support programs and activities that benefit groups and communities at large and the state and society as a whole.

Private foundations have really stepped up to provide increased support for the critical work we do and state agencies remain an important source of funding in some fields but neither can replace federal investment.

Q: How do you view the future of online education at UC Berkeley?

A: There are many different ideas about how a university like Berkeley could or should approach the world of online education so it’s important that we continue to have thoughtful and engaged discussions about what this all means for this campus.

We have some 70 courses that are freely accessible via the Internet and are leading UC’s online pilot program, which offers some 15 different credit-bearing courses. We also offer advanced degrees in engineering and public health and education programs that are entirely online and an executive education program through our business school that combines online coursework with weekend and evening classes on campus.

As we continue to explore new models and approaches, we need to be sensitive to a range of potential issues, from different learning styles and levels of motivation to areas like academic progress and remedial coursework.

If there are new tools and approaches we can use to help our students learn better, faster, deeper while maintaining the richness of their experience, then, in keeping with our core mission and standards, I feel we have a responsibility to explore those opportunities.