Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Reorganizing Berkeley (with emphasis on CNR)

By David Zilberman

Rumors have been circling for some time about an imminent reorganization of the Berkeley campus structure. Our tenuous financial situation coupled with the widely held perception that our current state is constraining us from reaching our full potential, suggest that this may be an opportune time for change. In the last 30+ years I have been on campus, I have heard numerous proposals for such organizational changes but now, it looks as though they might happen. Yet change is a double-edged sword that has to be introduced thoughtfully, especially in a complex and volatile place like Berkeley, where there is much to lose.

If we consider a major change, everything needs to be on the table. The design of the process must require careful planning and even more careful execution. Even though time might be of the essence, the process should not be rushed and the design must be flexible and adaptive. The administration and the Senate surely will utilize all of the formal procedures for change, but they will need to develop mechanisms that will assure transparency and inclusiveness in the decision-making process. The Berkeley Blog provides a forum for the campus to express opinions and to start a dialogue, and I believe that the discussion on reorganization should be open, hence this post.

The objective of the reorganization is to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of the campus so we can get more out of the resources we have, and increase our resource base so that Berkeley can enhance its education, research and outreach programs on solid financial footing. The design of the reorganization is very challenging, as it needs to be accepted by a diverse array of stakeholders and respect the rights of myriad groups. I present below some ideas that may be useful in the discussion of the structural redesign.

Because of the scale of the campus, much of the management has to be done in smaller units, which are the colleges and the schools. Every faculty member is expected to engage in research, teaching and public service, and the teaching should include both undergraduate and graduate courses.

To me, the Berkeley structure is asymmetric. We have the mammoth College of Letters and Sciences, and several mid-sized colleges (Engineering, Business, Natural Resources), all having their own undergraduate, masters and PhD programs. Then there are many smaller professional schools that mostly emphasize a professional masters degree.

It seems to me that colleges that offer undergraduates, masters and PhD programs with ~200 faculty members can be large enough to take advantage of economics of scale in administration, development and infrastructure, but small enough to retain a distinct identity that may appeal to students and donors. Each of these colleges should have its own undergraduate (at least upper division courses), masters and PhD programs[1]. A key part of this initiative is to include the professional schools as de facto departments within a few colleges (so they can keep their distinction of the ‘School of XYZ’).

My proposals

Here are of my proposals: The first is an obvious one, at least to me. Berkeley should have a College of Media and Information that includes the Schools of Information, Journalism, and a new department of New Media that will address the content and art of cinematography, TV, games and social media. Berkeley already has an undergraduate major in New Media, with very few permanent faculty assigned, but rather faculty that study issues related to media.

I think that there are incredible opportunities for collaboration between the new department of New Media, and the Department of Information and Journalism. I am sure that some faculty from the Colleges of Letters and Science, Engineering and Business would be interested in a joint appointment. I believe that with the right leadership, Berkeley, with our proximity to Pixar and Silicon Valley, will be able to attract the right external support, as this can be an area of growth for the campus that will be more than able to pay for itself.

Second, a College of Health, Education and Policy (CHEP). This college may include the Schools of Public Health, Social Welfare, Education, Optometry, and perhaps even Public Policy. These are all professional schools in related areas; together they can produce a much stronger undergraduate program and, in the long run, strengthen their PhD programs. Since the School of Public Policy has strong emphases on issues on health and educational welfare, its collaboration with the other schools within this college can be very fruitful. But obviously, the School of Public Policy must continue to address other issues like environment and national security, so the new colleges must not be closed silos, but rather, open structures that interact with other units on campus.

Now I come to my college: the College of Natural Resources. It originated from the schools of agriculture and forestry, and includes biologists, agriculturalists, economists, and ecologists. One way forward is to form a new School of life sciences and the environment – uniting CNR with the biology units in the College of Letters and Science.

Despite not having a hospital, Berkeley is a powerhouse in the life sciences and its prestige is growing, especially with the discovery of gene editing by Jennifer Doudna, the recent Nobel Prize awarded to Randy Schekman and centers such as the Energy Biosciences Institute. There are economics of scale and opportunities to provide better integrated education and research by bringing all of the biological departments under one roof. Or perhaps it is even better to establish a College of Biology (CB), which includes the biologists in L&S and CNR, and a separate college, which I would call the College of Sustainable Development (CSD)[2]. This college would include all of the non-biology CNR faculty, for example soil scientists, foresters, social scientists, and some ecologists in ESPM as well as the Department of Agricultural Economics and Management, the Energy and Resources Group, the School of Environmental Design (SED)[3], and other units interested in environment and international development.

The CSD would bring together all the units working on land issues in agriculture, forestry and the urban sector – scholars who work on parks, sustainable cities and agriculture in both developed and developing countries. It would serve as a center for research on climate change, biodiversity, food systems, alternative energy, land use, and urban design. It will combine both conceptual and data-driven modeling with behavioral sciences. Having a college like this one would be appealing to many donors and we could expand significantly many professional masters’ programs, such as the Master of Development Practice.

CNR is the link to Berkeley’s history and mission as a land-grant university, especially with its commitment to address issues of agriculture, natural resources, and the environment and extend knowledge to practitioners. Whatever the new configuration of CNR, Berkeley should not only maintain, but also expand its cooperative extension program. Berkeley is a state university with a global reach. Berkeley should aim to establish a global extension program to complement its research and education in the many areas of sustainable development. Such an expansion shouldn’t draw on existing resources, but can attract new sources of funds.

I don’t cover the rest of campus, but I’d like to emphasize that a key point in this design is that different colleges would have significant collaboration between them. For example, CSD would work very closely with CB and CHEP, as well as with its counterparts in the departments of Chemistry, Geography, Economics, Political Science, etc.

Each college will have its own educational and research programs but there will be significant cross-campus collaboration. I see colleges, and especially its departments, as the home base to faculty and alumni, but recognize that much of the action will be across college boundaries. Such a framework will demand an administrative structure able to support movement and communication between units and allow for the creation of partnerships to emerge.

In this light, common facilities and programs include the new campus in Richmond and an integrated lower division program will allow the colleges to specialize in their strengths while collaborating with other units to produce valuable joint research, teaching, and outreach.

It is clear that the reorganization of UC Berkeley is forthcoming. Our financial crisis presents us with the opportunity to grow and position ourselves for the 21st century – and in turn make larger contributions to California, the US, and the rest of the world.


[1] It is worthwhile to consider the idea to have one major undergraduate college that will be responsible for the education of freshmen and sophomore students with multiple tracks (Engineering, Life Sciences, Humanities, etc.) and the individual colleges would manage the upper division undergraduate teaching, and their faculty will serve the undergraduate division. I am unsure of the feasibility and viability of this plan, as it depends on the design and execution, but it is worthwhile to consider.

[2] Another possibility is to name it the College of Natural Resources and the Environment (and perhaps Development) to maintain the CNR connection. I believe that sustainable development is preferable because it can integrate both the environment and development programs together and it will project a new beginning and integration between programs that study the urban, rural, and wilderness settings.

[3] The SED includes the departments of city and regional planning, architecture and landscape architecture.