CBS dean candidates make cases

The four people in the running to lead the college all recently made their pitches on campus.

by Liz Anderson

Four academics from the Big Ten, the SEC and the Ivy League are jockeying to lead the College of Biological Sciences.

The candidates — Mark Farmer, Lynne Regan, Valery Forbes and Kelly Mayo — presented their visions for the college’s future to faculty, staff and students over the past two weeks, each highlighting the importance of research and interdisciplinary collaborations.

The search for a new dean began last spring, about six months after former dean Robert Elde announced his plans to retire after 18 years as head of the college. Interim Dean Tom Hays has overseen the college since July.

A 12-member search committee, in collaboration with an external search firm — called Isaacson, Miller — selected the final four to visit campus for their formal interviews and public forums.

Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost Karen Hanson will make the final hiring decision, which must then be approved by the Board of Regents.

Interdisciplinary collaboration

In their public interviews, the candidates focused on broad world issues like food security, health care and sustainable energy, which they hope to address through interdisciplinary research.

The contenders’ plans closely align with the University’s strategic plan released earlier this fall. The plan focuses on addressing broader societal problems, or “grand challenges,” through cross-disciplinary collaboration.

Forbes, director of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s School of Biological Sciences, said she hopes to increase collaboration with not only the STEM disciplines, but also the social sciences and humanities.

“I don’t think biology can do it alone,” Forbes said. “I think the scale and complexity of the challenges we face extend far beyond the boundaries of the biological sciences.”

Regan, who is the director of Yale University’s Raymond and Beverly Sackler Institute for Biological, Physical and Engineering Sciences, cited an integrated graduate program for physical engineering and biology students within her school.

The program has attracted many students, she said, and similar initiatives at the University would drive graduate student interest while creating connections between disciplines.

“The benefits are huge,” Regan said. “These students spread out to form networks across the University.”

Farmer, chair of the University of Georgia’s Division of Biological Sciences, also addressed the idea of linking different areas of study, pointing to disciplines like engineering, agriculture and architecture. Collaboration between those fields, he said, could aid in constructing urban greenhouses, for example.

“[Collaborations] can tap into the strengths and synergies of existing faculty and resources that are already present at a place like the University of Minnesota,” he said.

Research and community outreach

CBS has approximately 380 employees and a budget of about $60 million, not including grants and awards.

As the college’s leader, the dean is responsible for managing and recruiting top faculty and students and allocating funds across the college.

In the job description, college and University leaders said they hoped to find someone who can connect with stakeholders outside the institution.

Farmer said he thinks the most effective biologists can convey how the field can play a role in larger society.

“We have to become better spokespeople for our own profession. We have to change the way we train ourselves,” he said. “I’m focused on building a university for the 22nd century.”

An advocate for students

CBS is home to more than 2,000 undergraduates and about 250 graduate students.

Mayo, associate dean for research and graduate studies at Northwestern University, said he would maintain the college’s undergraduate population through hiring and retaining top-notch faculty.

He said he plans to hold monthly outreach forums with CBS students to encourage direct communication about the student experience and any possible concerns they have.

Mayo said he also wants to support junior faculty through increased funding and mentoring to ensure they’re fully prepared to apply for tenure.

Regan said she has plans to support top faculty hires, especially through cluster hires — hiring multiple faculty at once for the purpose of interdisciplinary research — which are currently underway at the University.

“We need to mentor and advise [new faculty],” she said, “and I would put in place — for all faculty — a system to do that.”