U seeks to improve bio-sciences programs

by Shannon Hahn

Administrators presented proposals to unify the University’s biological sciences programs and increase the quality of its education and research at a forum Wednesday.
The proposals were part of a draft for discussion on reorganizing the University’s biological sciences. The draft was presented to more than 110 University faculty, administrators and staff by Academic Health Center Provost Frank Cerra and Robert Elde, dean of the College of Biological Sciences.
The Deans of Biological Sciences Policy Council, which created the draft, is still in the early stages of making plans, said Elde. Plans for reorganizing the biological sciences began last summer when University President Nils Hasselmo and University provosts were looking for ways to improve the University campus, said W. Phillips Shively, provost for Arts, Sciences and Engineering.
“Although we have lots of wonderful people working in the biological sciences, some of their efforts get dispersed,” Shively said. That shows up in the biological sciences national ranking and in the recruitment of graduate students, he said.
About one-third of faculty at the University work in the biological sciences. These faculty are spread throughout the schools of the Academic Health Center, the College of Biological Sciences and the College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences.
Because of the number of biologists and biology programs at the University, some classes, research and services are duplicated in different departments, Elde said.
“In my opinion, we’re in an era of limited resources, but still want to take new initiatives,” said Harry T. Orr, a neurobiology professor who is on the committee planning the reorganization. By reorganizing he hopes the biological sciences could become more cost efficient and free up funds for those new initiatives.
One proposal to improve the quality of undergraduate education is to create a group of the best professors from all the biological sciences units. These “master professors” would teach undergraduates. This proposal would address the concern that undergraduate education isn’t the primary focus of faculty, said Orr.
These professors, along with other staff in the College of Biological Sciences would create a core curriculum for all undergraduate biology students. Elde said that improvements in undergraduate curriculum could include the use of more multimedia teaching tools in the classroom and more advising.
One proposal for graduate program improvement is to cluster programs within biological sciences that are academically related. So, plant biology, agronomy, horticulture, plant breeding and plant pathology could all make up the plant biology “cluster.” Each “cluster” would have its own advertising, recruitment, admissions, funding and core curriculum development.
Having a broad-based core curriculum for graduate students was another proposal. But, according to the draft, specialized degrees would still be offered. To meet marketplace needs, Elde said, it is important that students be trained so they are flexible and able to work with people in different disciplines rather than only in specialized tracts.
“It borders on unethical to be training students thinking they’re going to replace us,” Elde said.
The draft didn’t include proposals for an administrative structure for combining the biological science schools. Instead, Cerra, posed questions to the crowd ranging from “Should schools be combined?” to “Should departments be restructured along disciplinary lines?”
Some faculty expressed concern that the restructuring process will break up programs that already work well and move people around who are needed in their departments.
George Wilcox, a professor of pharmacology, suggested that before faculty are relocated into new groups, technology such as interactive video be used to test whether various mixes of people in different areas of biology could be more productive.
Other faculty showed their support for changes.
Gary Dunny, a professor of microbiology, said he is glad that the discussion on reorganizing is taking place. He also likes the idea of master professors, he said, adding that his department is essentially already doing that and it’s working well.
Administrators plan to present a draft of their plans for undergraduate and graduate education in the biological sciences to the Board of Regents by June 1.