A Q&A with Cathy Koshland, Berkeley’s champion for undergraduates

This summer, UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks announced the creation of a new senior administrative position — Vice Chancellor for Undergraduate Education — with the aim of ensuring that, even in a large research university like Berkeley, undergraduate teaching and the student experience remained central to the institution. The position was developed in large part with Cathy Koshland, a 30-year Berkeley professor and 10-year vice provost, in mind. 

We sat down with Vice Chancellor Koshland to hear her take on how Berkeley should approach undergraduate education, the importance of academic communities, and why students should get comfortable being uncomfortable.

Cathy Koshland

Cathy Koshland, vice chancellor for undergraduate education (UC Berkeley photos by Cathy Cockrell)

In college you majored in fine arts with a focus on painting, and then pivoted to mechanical engineering for your Ph.D. You’ve since become a professor of energy and resources engineering and public health, as well as an administrator. How does this range of interests and experience serve you as an advocate for undergraduate education?

I think that my background helps me see the world through the lenses of several different disciplines, which in turn helps me see the value of individual disciplines of all types.

Each discipline — each major, even — gives you a lens: a set of tools and ideas with which to address problems, ask questions, find answers, and ultimately implement them. Your lens might be performance studies, mechanical engineering, genetics, immunology or English. And I don’t privilege any one of them. They all have compelling attributes, as well as a place in the intellectual landscape and a place in how we approach problems in the world.

Berkeley students want to solve problems; they want to make a difference. And I think our job as educators is to give them the resources — intellectual, experiential, social, cultural — to enable them to make a positive impact in whatever arena they choose.

As for painting versus engineering, they’re not as separate, to my mind, as they might seem. I like to understand how things work and how things happen. When I started as an undergraduate I took classes in art history, but had a very hard time with the idea of just writing about something that was inherently tactile. So I majored in fine arts, because I wanted to understand the process of making and doing. In effect, the same thing happened with engineering.

For the past decade you served as vice provost for teaching, learning, academic planning and facilities. What are you most proud of from that time?

For the first four or five years, when I was in charge of academic planning and facilities, I tried to change the conversation around how we think about the campus’s physical assets, and their relationship with the work we do. As we expanded our interdisciplinary work, I pushed for much more collaborative space. The revamp of Moffitt Library, where there will be space for collaborative as well as quiet study, floors that are noisy and floors that are quiet — is an example. Creating the right spaces is an incredibly important part of moving research, scholarship and education in the right direction.

When I became responsible for teaching and learning as well, the Common Good curriculum was a huge, data-driven, collaborative project, with faculty, that aimed to target our resources to help ensure undergraduates make substantial progress toward their degrees. Through that work, for example, it became clear that we had way too many undergrads fulfilling their basic-writing requirement as seniors (which makes no sense pedagogically). So we took steps to remedy that.

I’m also proud that just as a number of institutions eliminated foreign languages from their offerings, we added sections in 16 or so foreign languages. Few institutions can say that they consider foreign-language studies core to the learning experience, as Berkeley does.

And at the same time we supported the STEM fields — science, technology, engineering, and math. This year we’ve included some computer-science courses as Common Good, because of the huge demand by students to learn dimensions of data analytics or coding. I’m excited about that.


One of the paintings Koshland created as an undergraduate fine arts major at Haverford College hangs in her California Hall office.

So what’s changing in your new role as vice chancellor for undergraduate education?

I loved what I was doing before, but it covered a wide scope. My responsibilities are now in a single, coherent realm: teaching and learning with a focus on undergraduate education. The dean for undergraduate studies in the College of Letters and Science has a dual report to me (as well as the provost). Berkeley Connect, the Student Learning Center and the Athletic Study Center all report to me, as do all of the campus’s online enterprises, Summer Sessions and Study Abroad. They’re all in the same portfolio now, which allows for collaboration and integration.

This new position also allows me to be an advocate for the undergraduate educational experience, and — along with Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Harry Le Grande and others — for the total student experience. I can better think holistically about how to advance our work — for example, working with the chancellor and University Relations on developing the philanthropic interests of our alumni and donors around undergraduate education.

What do you see as the goal of an undergraduate education, broadly?

I don’t buy into the rhetoric that education is just about return on investment, in a quantitative way. There’s a huge benefit that has to do with quality of life; we have studies showing that educated people are healthier, that they lead more satisfied lives, and that they’re better citizens because they question aspects of their society and think about how best they might improve it.

But preparation for the work force is certainly part of it, too, even if our students’ career paths are likely to look very different than those of past generations. I think they will encounter a lot more uncertainty. A really solid liberal arts education helps you to cope with that uncertainty; it allows you to make transitions, — to make changes in what you’re doing, to push to another level in your chosen career or make a career change that doesn’t set you back.

If you don’t have that kind of learning background, experience will take you just so far. But I think there’s also value in having a moral and ethical grounding, an understanding of how to approach a problem, a capacity to understand cultural and social differences, and simply the ability to be comfortable in an uncomfortable space.

So what do you say to the English major who graduates with heavy debt and can’t find a first job? That’s something that, during the recession led to a public dialogue about the value of college.

Well, if you look at the data on college graduates, they’re doing better than the overall unemployment rate. So there’s still simply value in that.

But those situations do happen, and they’re things we think about every day. My advice to that person would be, one, to be willing to start at the bottom. That’s hard — accepting something that doesn’t quite match your expectations of yourself. But being flexible is important. The second thing —often not unrelated — is being willing to get out of your comfort zone. This might be a physical move — finding where the jobs are more plentiful and making a decision to pick up and go. Admittedly that’s not easy, especially for first-generation students.

As an administrator, one of the things I’m interested in is creative strategies that will put our graduates in better competitive positions. Can we develop a flexible business minor that students could pursue alongside their English major? One of my daughters, who graduated in art history at Berkeley, did the Haas BASE program. From that, she landed a paid internship that turned into her first job, which she held for four years before going to business school.

Becoming comfortable leaving your comfort zone — is that something that should be part of the undergraduate experience?

Yes. Being stretched, being challenged, taking the class that’s uncomfortable for whatever reason. When I was in college, I took some classes that I was completely unprepared for. And did they affect my GPA? Yeah, they did. Am I glad I took those classes? Absolutely. I took one on Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, having never taken an introductory philosophy course. It was a crazy idea, but on the other hand I’ve never forgotten that course.

You can also be stretched by, say, having a roommate from a very different background. American Cultures courses are designed to take students out of their comfort zones and address the challenging issues. Those are a big part of the Berkeley undergraduate experience.

Many of the schools that talk about really putting the undergraduate experience front and center are small liberal arts colleges. Can a large institution compete with that?

We’re not going to duplicate the Haverford or Oberlin experience here — just as those liberal arts colleges can’t provide the range of resources, opportunities, disciplines of study and partnerships we offer at Berkeley. What’s important is that a place like Berkeley gets to the same end point, cultivates the same qualities of mind, but doing so in a way that makes sense for a research institution with 25,000 undergraduates.

What Berkeley can learn from small liberal arts schools is the importance of fostering community and connection. One program we’re working hard on, Berkeley Connect, is designed to create an intellectual community in a department, as a way of achieving something akin to what one gets in a small liberal arts college. We’ve created vertical learning communities that leverage the capacities of our incredibly talented graduate students, post-docs and faculty, to create opportunities for our undergraduates. So in a small college you might do your senior research project directly with a faculty member; here you may work with a graduate student as your immediate mentor, or with a post-doc but with access to a professor. That vertical community is one thing I think we should celebrate, not apologize for.

Are there non-academic aspects of the Berkeley undergraduate experience that you want to change?

There’s a whole part of the student experience that isn’t academic, but impacts academics. Some of this is very tangible: We worry about our students skipping meals because they can’t afford the supplies they need for a class, or because they’re sending money home. Or they’re choosing their living situation to get the cheapest possible rent, even if it’s overcrowded or noisy or at a distance. If you’re hungry or tired, you’re not going to do very well on your mid-term.

Going back to the idea of community, it can take place outside of the classroom, too. We house something like 97 percent of freshmen in residence halls, but sophomore year, students scatter. If they choose co-ops or the Greek system, they may find a sense of community there and stay there for three years. But a huge number of students land in apartments all over the city of Berkeley and the East Bay. I worry about the challenges that those students might face, and the experiences they might miss out on, if they haven’t created connections on campus either in their discipline or through a sports team or a service organization or on-campus employment.

Finally — and this does enter the academic space — my goal would be for every student to have some sort of integrating experience as a senior. It might be an honors thesis. Or getting involved in scholarship through your fifth American Cultures courses. It could be a performance or curating a show at the art museum. It could be a project with real-world impact through the Blum Center and the global poverty minor. I would love to see each student find a way to pull his or her education together in a meaningful way before graduating from Berkeley.