School’s ranking slip spurs talks of overhaul

by Joe Carlson

With nearly one in three professors at the University teaching in the biological sciences, the proposed reorganization of biology education might radically change the nature of education here.
Or then, it might not. The reorganization has ground to a halt, a casualty of the cease-and-desist order placed on the University by the state in response to the dispute over tenure reform.
The restructuring of the College of Biological Sciences has been in the works since fall of last year and is intended to unify the biological sciences and to improve the University’s falling reputation in biology.
“In many of the disciplines of biology, our reputation has been slipping … which is an important problem for everyone,” said College of Biological Sciences Dean Bob Elde, who also serves as head of the Biological Sciences Policy Council.
In a 1995 National Research Council study which ranked the nation’s core biological science institutions, biochemistry and molecular biology ranked 39th, down from a 1983 rank of 28th.
One of the major obstacles blocking many University biology departments from becoming more widely-recognized is “the dispersion of people and resources,” Provost for Arts, Sciences and Engineering W. Phillips Shively said.
Currently, faculty in biology at the University are scattered among more than 35 departments in more than six colleges on two campuses.
“Our present configuration is such that we have encampments of biology, and these outposts are not a very effective way” to conduct biological research and education, Elde said.
Professors with common research interests need to be in contact with each other. “The disciplines of biology are experiencing this incredible centering,” Elde said, because “we now understand that mechanisms used by one kind of organism are used repeatedly by distantly-related organisms.”
One example of this is the research on Charcot-Marie-Tooth syndrome, a human neurological disorder which was previously only known to exist in insects.
“The entomologist had the knowledge base for understanding this human disorder,” Elde said, but only when experts in insect and human biology worked together was the disorder understood.
This sort of cooperation and sharing of resources is much less likely to occur under the current organization of biological sciences at the University, Elde said.
The reorganization is being spearheaded by the Biological Sciences Policy Council, made up of seven biological science deans, advisors and vice provosts.
A year ago, the council was advised by the Phillips Committee, a group of nine faculty at the University headed by Provost for Arts, Sciences and Engineering W. Phillips Shively.
“Nils (Hasselmo, president of the University) asked the provosts to take the lead in exploring the reorganization of biology,” Shively said.
The committee released a report containing the results of its examination, identifying four main problems with the organization of biological sciences at the University.
The problems the committee identified were the lack of a Universitywide organization of biology; a dispersion of faculty across administrative units and campuses; a failure to recruit and retain exceptional faculty; and incentives to duplicate courses.
The report also recommended several solutions, including the formation of a Basic Biological Sciences unit, relocating currently separated biologists with common interests to be in proximity to each other, and improvement of communication with the public.
Although the Phillips Committee report was partly the catalyst for the current reorganization process, it was not the first formal effort.
In 1985, a major examination of the organization of biological sciences at the University also took place. It came to many of the same conclusions as the Phillips Committee.
The current draft for the reorganization of the biological sciences calls for a major reorganization of undergraduate education and graduate studies, according to the draft report of the Biological Sciences Policy Committee, available on the University’s biology homepage.
This will be achieved by merging or reorganizing some of the 14 core disciplines of biology, including animal biology, genetics, and neurobiology.
Also, the draft proposes several ways to increase undergraduate interest in the biological sciences. Among them is the creation of unified set of prerequisite courses called “Fundamentals in Biology,” taught by a regular group of professors called the Master Professors in Biology.
“We intend to significantly bolster the teaching we do in terms of introductory courses,” Elde said.
In addition, the College of Biological Sciences is going to begin to admit freshman, something it currently does not do. The first freshmen might be admitted as early as next fall, Elde said.
Also, the graduate biological science programs are considering a large-scale merger, from 17 departments into three major teaching and research units.
But nothing can happen as of yet because of the cease-and-desist order on tenure reform from the state Bureau of Mediation Services.
Some of the proposed changes, like merging or renaming some departments, would be construed as a change of terms in employment, which is forbidden by the order.
For the time being, “we’re awaiting clarification on the cease-and-desist order,” Elde said.
“We all hope that this tenure problem goes away so that we don’t lose momentum,” Biological Sciences Policy Committee member and Vice Provost for Arts, Sciences and Engineering Norma Allewell said.
“There has been talk of doing this for more than 20 years,” Allewell said, “and this is as far as we’ve gotten.”