Q&A: Academic Senate Chair Bob Jacobsen talks retention, diversity and the road ahead

Physics professor Bob Jacobsen took over as chair of Berkeley’s Academic Senate in September after serving a year as vice chair. Jacobsen, who serves as faculty athletic representative in addition to his research and teaching responsibilities, spoke with the NewsCenter about some of the challenges facing the campus, and how he’s handling his new role.

Bob Jacobsen

Bob Jacobsen wears many campus hats, but it always comes back to teaching. (Peg Skorpinski photo)

Q: You’ve been a member of the Berkeley faculty for 15 years. How do you see your role as chair of the Academic Senate?

A: Chairs only have the job for a year, so a big part of my job is to be a puller-together of many threads, finding ways for the faculty to voice their perspectives on what is important to them. This can be tricky, because we have more authority in some areas than others.

In the end, the Academic Senate has to be a reliable shared-governance partner with the administration, which means we can’t just stand on a rock and scream. We have to actually work together to solve problems.

Q: Is there one issue that dominates conversations among faculty?

A: Conversations were captured by the state budget and its consequences, but we’re starting to see the campus stabilize itself. As the chancellor and others have pointed out, once the state’s contribution gets very small, there’s a limit to how badly additional cuts can hurt us.

A lot of the uncertainty that makes decision-making more difficult is starting to go away, and now people are coming around to thinking about the future and about what we want the university to be. The harder issue comes when you get to questions of excellence versus access. At what point does providing more access start to take away from how well we can educate students?

Faculty care deeply about the teaching side of our mission, and they agree that we should be good across all of our programs. We’re getting better at dealing with a very bad situation, and my hope is that we’ll be able to move from coping to excelling very soon.

Q: In the face of continuing state disinvestment, can Berkeley continue to deliver both access and excellence?

A: Our financial-aid programs are very good at helping low-income students, and the fact that we have so many Pell Grant recipients is a testament to that. But as the costs go up, more and more families are finding it increasingly difficult to pay.

Right now there are real discussions on campus about how much students should be expected to contribute, and how much is too much of a stress on middle-income families.

As a campus, our self-image is tied up in wanting to do the best job we can do with our students. That requires having enough teachers so that classes remain a reasonable size. It requires classrooms where the seats are not broken.

It would be great if the state made it straightforward, but regardless, it is our responsibility — this campus, the faculty and chancellor — to find a way forward and continue to provide a high-quality Berkeley education to all students.

Q: You’ve been deeply involved in the issue of funding for Intercollegiate Athletics. How would you characterize the relationship between athletics and academics today?

A: I’m wearing two hats here, but what I can say is that everybody agrees that putting our athletics programs on a path to self-sufficiency is important and that will greatly reduce the tensions that have existed in the past. People on both sides make strong points and there are good reasons to have academics and athletics in the same place.

We have approximately 900 student-athletes who bring a lot to this campus in terms of who they are. If you want to talk about diversity and bringing in people of different backgrounds, then student-athletes are certainly part of making Berkeley a great place.

Academics and out-of-classroom activities are frequently in conflict, whether it’s playing in the band or participating in student government. I think what really brought things bubbling to the surface was the combination of the extreme financial stress on the campus and the feeling that the athletics budget was not sufficiently under control or sufficiently transparent.

The fact that administrators have gone to a lot of trouble to control the budget more tightly and make things more visible has helped. But it’s critical that Athletics achieve the targets that have been set out.

Q: Faculty retention has been in the news recently. What’s your reading of the situation on campus?

A: When the headlines were all about California dying, there was this perception among other institutions that Berkeley was weakened to the point that they could pick people off.

Of 49 recent cases, we retained 21 faculty and 24 cases are still ongoing. What those 21 cases are telling you is these people want to stay here, but they weren’t treated as well as they should have been before the recruitment battle started. That is, because of low and slowly increasing salaries, reduced campus infrastructure support and other drawbacks, these people were susceptible to be lured away to greener pastures. When we can fix those kinds of issues, we can still attract and keep the very best people.

This is a complicated issue because in many instances salary isn’t the only factor. But there’s a limit to how long we can have a large portion of the faculty in a poachable situation.

I’m told that other institutions are hunting here less and less — perhaps because Berkeley is no longer viewed as an easy target. Of course, that’s a good thing. But the underlying problem remains true, and that is a major concern.

Q: Among your other academic interests, you were recently involved with Richard Muller’s high-profile climate-change study, the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature Project. With all your research and administrative responsibilities, does teaching still excite you?

A: I came to Berkeley from an institution that didn’t have any students, so if I wanted to be a pure researcher I could have many more hours in the week. But having the students around stimulates the mind and reminds us [faculty] why we are here.

Berkeley students are incredibly smart, work extremely hard. They won’t take a bogus answer from anybody and will force you to challenge your assumptions.

I walk out of that classroom tired because it’s a draining experience to keep 500 people engaged, but at the same time it reminds me that these kinds of attributes are important. Over the course of the week it really does make a difference in how I view the world and how I approach my work.