Proposed merger in biological sciences would reorganize life sciences departments.

Amy Olson

A proposal going before the Board of Regents today could have some life science professors on the St. Paul campus packing their bags to move to Minneapolis.
In an effort to accelerate University President Mark Yudof’s initiative in molecular and cellular biology, the regents will consider a proposal authored by the faculty members in biology, agriculture and medicine to reorganize the biological science disciplines at the University.
The University has two biochemistry departments: one in the Medical School and the other in the College of Biological Sciences. The separate departments grew out of the 4-mile separation between the Minneapolis and St. Paul campuses.
The proposed plan would merge faculty in existing departments from the Medical School, College of Biological Sciences and the College of Agricultural, Food and Environmental Sciences into four new departments.
About one-third of the University’s approximately 3,000 faculty members are in biological disciplines.
During its last session, the state Legislature appropriated $206.8 million for capital improvements, including $4 million to renovate Snyder Hall and Gortner Laboratory in St. Paul into a biological technological center. It also allocated $35 million to begin constructing the new building to house the molecular and cellular biology institute on the East Bank. The state Legislature is expected to appropriate an additional $35 million next session to complete construction.
The new biology building will be located where Owre-Millard-Lyon Labs currently stand in Minneapolis. Jackson Hall will be renovated before the complex is torn down; its faculty will move to temporary space. Faculty in St. Paul will remain there until the Minneapolis building is completed in 2002.
The Legislature also appropriated funding to hire new junior and mid-level faculty members to support the initiative.
Robert Elde, dean of the College of Biological Sciences, said the reorganization would eliminate the duplication of classes and departments, encourage research collaboration and combine resources. Elde said the new departments will eventually save the college money by streamlining administration and faculty.
“The reorganization of departments will create opportunities for faculty to work together,” said Robert Bruininks, executive vice president and provost. He said the reorganization will bring new human and fiscal resources to the departments.
The reorganization effort began in November 1995 when former University President Nils Hasselmo charged the Biological Sciences Policy Committee with examining the decline in the University’s reputation in the biological sciences. A faculty committee concluded the fragmentation of faculty in three colleges on two campuses caused the decline.
If regents approve the reorganization, the four new departments would include: biochemistry, molecular biology and biophysics; genetics, cell biology and development; neuroscience; and plant biology.
Faculty in some of the existing biology departments have collaborated with colleagues in agriculture and medicine. Stephen Gantt, the plant biology department head, said professors in his department have been working on joint projects with researchers in plant pathology, horticulture and agronomy over the last decade.
By drawing these faculty together, Gantt said he hopes joint research projects will qualify for more grant money from other sources, including the extension service. Currently, most joint projects receive funding from federal grants.
Charles Louis, head of the new biochemistry, molecular biology and biophysics department, said the separation restricted faculty interaction among departments. He became the department’s acting head in July.
Louis said the challenge to keep the department together will remain after three of the four department divisions move to Minneapolis. The microbial biochemistry unit will stay in St. Paul.
Gantt expressed concern over the potential loss of basic scientists in genetics, biochemistry and cellular biology to Minneapolis, who lend expertise to faculty in agriculture, veterinary medicine and plant biology.
“It’s a huge, huge undertaking,” Gantt said. “I hope we’ll all come out better for it.”