Sciences

Amy Olson

A key Board of Regents committee voted unanimously on Thursday to approve a proposal to reorganize departments in the College of Biological Sciences.
In what he called one of the “best faculty-driven efforts in higher education today,” Executive Vice President and Provost Bob Bruininks outlined the proposal for members of the Regents’ Educational Planning and Policy Committee.
The proposal would create four new departments in core areas: biochemistry, molecular biology and biophysics; genetics, cell biology and development; neuroscience; and plant biology. The four departments would be jointly funded and administered by the College of Biological Sciences, the College of Agricultural, Food and Environmental Sciences and the Medical School.
Bruininks said the reorganization will improve the education of more than 4,000 University undergraduate students who take introductory biology courses; about 270 students earn bachelor’s degrees in biology each year. Approximately one-third of the University’s faculty members work in biological sciences, which includes agricultural and medical faculty.
If the plan works, Bruininks said the reorganization could serve as a model for creating integrated programs in other areas like liberal arts.
The proposal stems from a 1995 mandate by former University President Nils Hasselmo to examine the decline in biological education.
Since Hasselmo’s mandate, faculty members from all involved departments have worked together to craft the proposal.
Robert Elde, dean of the College of Biological Sciences, told committee members that at one point the University had two independent biochemistry departments in the College of Biological Sciences and Medical School and two partial departments in the agriculture and veterinary medicine schools.
The division of disciplines, in addition to a four-mile separation dividing the Minneapolis and St. Paul campuses, did little to encourage faculty cooperation or lead to scientific breakthroughs.
“In the best of all worlds, we wouldn’t have this four-mile alley between the campuses,” Elde said.
The reorganization will pool resources and faculty, enabling the University to develop strength in core disciplines that were not supported well under the current structure.
Regent Patricia Spence said the proposal has some faculty on the St. Paul campus concerned about being “swallowed up by Minneapolis,” while Regent Michael O’Keefe expressed concern about draining expertise from the plant biology program.
Elde said those fears appear to be dwindling, adding that the new biochemistry, molecular biology and biophysics department would have four divisions, including one which would remain in St. Paul. Elde said the college would also hire professors in plant genetics and other disciplines to support the plant initiatives.
The proposal will go before the Board of Regents as a whole today, where it is expected to pass.