Trying topull together

by Joe Carlson

Biology at the University will have a different face in coming years if proposals currently being discussed by faculty members and administrators are implemented.
But although basic goals motivating the changes have been generally agreed upon, the specific methods of achieving them have not.
“We have some philosophical agreements about certain things,” Provost for Professional Studies C. Eugene Allen said. “It’s a matter of fleshing out … exactly how you go about doing these things.”
Disagreement over how the reorganization should proceed is widespread, partly because it will affect nearly a third of the 3,000 professors at the University. Those 1,000 professors also fall under the jurisdiction of three separate provosts, who seldom have extra time to discuss changes with each other.
In fact, the need for change is one of the few points most agree on.
“There is a general consensus that reorganization is a good idea, but the exact method to implement it is still being discussed,” plant biology professor Irwin Rubenstein said.
Biology-related faculty are spread among more than 35 departments and six colleges — primarily the College of Biological Sciences and the Academic Health Center — on both the Minneapolis and St. Paul campuses.
The effort to reorganize the biological science departments at the University began in earnest in 1995, when the provosts directed the Biological Sciences Policy Committee — comprised of five biological science deans — to examine problems caused by the scattered placement of faculty members and resources.
The result was the Phillips report, an in-depth examination of the University’s biology departments. The report found four major flaws, including the lack of a comprehensive biological sciences unit, a failure to recruit exceptional faculty and inefficient duplication of courses.
The report concluded that many of these shortcomings result from the large distance between University biologists. The distance hinders effective faculty communication and collaboration, and contributes to competition between departments.
In addition, some have pointed out that the departmental organization of biology does not coincide with recent scientific advances. “The way our departments and curricula are structured now does not correspond with the way that biology has developed,” said Norma Allewell, vice provost for Arts, Sciences and Engineering and nonvoting member of the policy council.
To combat these weaknesses in academic biology, the policy council drafted a formal reorganization plan in June 1996. Since then, faculty and administrators have been discussing the draft, pointing out flaws and making suggestions.
The next formal action in the reorganization process is a presentation to the Board of Regents in April regarding the progress of the discussions. Until then, debate will continue.
“We’ve been working on several levels,” said Allewell. “Some decisions have been made and some are under active discussion.”
“There are different parts of the process, and the parts are at different stages of completion,” said Provost for Arts, Sciences and Engineering W. Phillips Shively. He identified three basic areas where the reorganization process is happening simultaneously.
The area furthest along in its changes is undergraduate education. Shively said the group has mostly agreed upon a plan for strengthening undergraduate interest and enrollment.
“The undergraduate presence here doesn’t seem to be as distinct as on other campuses,” Shively said. “Biology is important to the state, so it makes sense to offer opportunities.”
One of the ways the College of Biological Sciences is trying to offer more opportunities is by beginning to admit freshmen next year for the first time since 1965, when the college was formed.
The college will also establish a biology house in Frontier Hall.
“It’s a wing of a residence hall,” said Mary Ann Ryan, Director of Housing and Residential Life, “with space for about 30 students who have an interest in biology.” The house, which will open next September, will offer students the opportunity to strengthen their bonds with other undergraduates who express interests with biology as a whole.
The second major front of reorganization is graduate education.
“We have had 38 graduate programs in biological sciences. It is our objective to see if we can restructure and combine these programs,” said Graduate School Dean Mark Brenner, a member of the policy council. The regrouping would combine complementary programs while attempting to preserve the identity and focus of the original programs.
“When all is said and done, we’ll have about 15 or 20 programs,” he said.
“There are a few programs that are actively engaging in combining, a few that are toying with the idea and others that are resisting,” Brenner said.
The third area of the reorganization, which is still in heavy discussion, is the most potentially controversial aspect: the physical and departmental reorganization of faculty and resources.
“The basic problem here is that there are two basic centers of applied biology on this campus,” Shively said. These are the Medical School and the College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences.
Because four miles separate the two schools, each has developed similar courses and departments. For example, the University has two departments of biochemistry, one in the St. Paul biological college and the other in the Medical School in Minneapolis.
The plan currently being considered would consolidate the teaching of core biological sciences, such as biochemistry, into more unified and efficient departments. For example, “basic biology programs will be pulled together on the Minneapolis campus,” Shively said.
But this plan has brought to light a number of concerns among faculty. Messages posted on the biology Website have expressed these concerns about the prospect of channeling too many resources into Minneapolis.
This could potentially weaken the effectiveness of St. Paul education and research by imposing an even greater dispersion for those who remain, such as the Department of Plant Biology, which cannot relocate because its greenhouses are on Gortner Avenue in St. Paul.
“You can’t just put all the biology people on the Minneapolis campus, or vice versa,” Professor Rubenstein said. “You have to have a biological footprint on both campuses.”
But Provost Allen said he is aware of concerns of St. Paul faculty. “I do not plan to be a part of a plan that guts the St. Paul campus.”