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Academia (vs. Industry)

Trouble At UC-Berkeley

There have been a lot of recent news items about trouble in the chemistry department at UC-Berkeley. (This article at the campus’s Daily Californian a week ago seems to be have kicked off the story, and good for them if it did). The situation is not good, but it doesn’t seem to be as catastrophic (yet) as some of the follow-on headlines have it. I hope.

From what I can see, the university is in the middle of figuring out how to close its (substantial) operating deficit, and they’re floating all sorts of ideas about how to do that. One of them is closing the College of Chemistry as it exists today, but that doesn’t mean that Berkeley is getting rid of chemistry or firing the professors. The idea seems to be that some of the faculty would end up in the College of Engineering and some of them in the College of Letters and Sciences.

Now, this still seems like a really bad idea. The first objection is how financially useful it would be. (I know that’s not most people’s first objection, but I’m trying to look at it from the same viewpoint that got this idea considered in the first place). From the outside, it seems as if the university would mostly be saving some administrative costs through this scheme, and I’m not sure how much they’d realize there, since adding a pile of professors to each of those other areas would surely mean some extra administrative staffing as well. No one’s showing any real figures about how much less expensive it might be if the College of Chemistry were, in fact, dissolved – and if anyone ever does, you can bet that there will be room to dispute them.

Until such figures emerge, my guess is that this proposal isn’t that far along. This may have been someone’s idea of a trial balloon – “Just putting this idea out there, folks” – and in that case, the university has gotten a preview of what they can expect if they get serious. But a serious proposal requires real financial details, and my suspicion is that if those were out there, someone would have found a way to leak them. So with any luck, this isn’t quite as real a threat as it might seem.

If it is, though, it really does look like a mistake. Berkeley’s chemistry department is basically legendary, one of a select group of chemistry departments in the country that can legitimately lay claim to that adjective. Fundamental discoveries, great professors, Nobel Prizes, influential graduates – they’re all in evidence, and how. Breaking up the department would seem to have no chance at all of improving it, and runs (you’d have to think) a very real risk of doing the opposite. It’s true that the Cal administration doesn’t seem to be talking about that end of things at all – just the financials – but whatever cost savings might be realized will have to be weighed against the damage that will be done.

My knowledge of the university’s finances is minimal, so I have no suggestions to offer. But if they’re seriously proposing measures like this, then you do have to wonder how a great university ended up in such a situation. The state of California has financial problems running through it from top to bottom, though, and no doubt Berkeley’s situation is part of that larger one. Maybe the question is how a state like California ended up where it is today.


57 comments on “Trouble At UC-Berkeley”

  1. petros says:

    Happened a lot in the UK. Kings College London was probably the most notable closure. Chemistry has since made a comeback within other departments

    1. Stephen Davey says:

      King’s College Chemistry reopened some eight years after it was shuttered:

      1. Metacelsus says:

        King’s is one example of how incompetent short-sighted management close down perfectly fine departments, sacking academics and then realising a few years later that they cannot be a serious university with no chemistry presence. Exeter University (also in the UK) closed chemistry and sacked academic staff, technicians , grad students and undergraduates (who had to find other universities to continue their education). QM in London are struggling to re-establish chemistry. Sussex was so badly managed that they were unable to recruit sufficient undergraduates at a time when they had two Nobel laureates (Kroto & Cornforth). what all these places have in common is incompetent, overweaning and overpaid senior management. They see faculty as a burden and scholarship and those who undertake it ar not central to their mission.

  2. says:

    Wasn’t UC Berkeley the top contributor of Obama (even more than Goldman Sachs)? Wonder what will happen in a Trump presidency.

    1. T says:

      How’s all that hope and change working out for you, Berkeley? 🙂

    2. Anchor says:

      May be he will resuscitate Trump University!

    3. Am I Lloyd says:

      Of course it’s Obama’s fault. Of course it’s true that daily injections of Smirnoff enabled my great aunt Thelma to live to a hundred and twenty.

    4. Joe Q. says:

      The donations came from employees and graduates of the university, not from the university itself.

  3. NTV says:

    There were several department of chemistry that close in the UK in the early 2000, including exeter

    When I look at the Njardarson poster of pharmaceutical product evolution over the years (link below) I cannot help but think that it may be linked with the fact that chemistry is fallout out of favor

  4. watcher says:

    Many major chemistry depts across the US are located in a larger School of Science or A&S, which is probably where they got the concept. It’s certainly not a death knell for the discipline within the university, even though it might not give them as much political control or influence.

    In response to, seems that stopping political contributions would be a good place to start bridging financial gaps.

    1. Slurpy says:

      Stopping political contributions by your employees would do zero to bridge a budget gap. Cutting their salary by the amount they are donating would, though.

      1. Hap says:

        Fair enough. Can we apply that to businesses, too?

  5. Hap says:

    1) Lots of state universities have done badly (because state funding has generally gone down over time), but the UC system seems to have gotten worse faster than most.

    2) I wonder if this is a threat to try and get the state to give them more money or let them raise funds in other areas – bureaucracies tend to be self-preserving, and unless they threaten to hurt something that their target donors see as worthy of protection, the threat isn’t very meaningful.

  6. Anon says:

    As a Berkeley chemistry grad, I have been looking back for years watching the university’s priorities migrate from a focus on world class science and academic scholarship toward an emphasis on celebrating bloated administrative Offices of Multicultural Sensitivity and Justice (or whatever).

    1. Argon says:

      “…since adding a pile of professors to each of those other areas would surely mean some extra administrative staffing as well.”

      The logic sounds reasonable but past experience with fiscally-driven re-organization suggests the remaining administrative staff will have to cover more work and anything that can be offloaded with be made the responsibility of the PIs themselves. In turn, they will delegate downward to lab staff.

    2. oldnuke says:

      Not yo mention all of the Departments of Ya-Da-Ya-Da studies and the College of Do-You-Want-Fries-With-That.

      1. milkshake says:

        identity studies and postmodern lit gorp do not require expensive toys filled with liquid helium. It it is a far better moneymaker than chemistry, on a student basis.

        The problem is that there are too many large chemistry groups across US, all competing for grant funding that did not keep up

        1. Andy says:

          I agree that chemistry/sciences require more investment than any of the humanities and that the ROI for the university is better if one only considers teaching undergrads as the primary mission of the university. Any major discovery in chemistry though (usually requiring huge investments) has a much bigger upside financially.

  7. Ash says:

    When universities turn into businesses they must occasionally divest their withholdings. I am sure Seaborg would be pleased to hear this.

  8. NMH says:

    Maybe a plan for the school to rid itself of deadwood faculty. Short term for the department, that is good. Long term for our country, I dont think so: anyway to block schools from hiring grad students by having a bloated faculty without grant money is a good thing.

  9. Reformed Chemist says:

    Other universities will soon be in this situation. Admin budgets have grown far faster than both student enrollment and teaching budgets.

    From the LA Time this October:
    Is UC Spending too Little on Teaching, Too Much On Administration?

    It is the next layer of well-paid administrators that has grown most significantly over the last two decades. From 2004 to 2014, the management and senior professionals ranks swelled by 60%, to about 10,000, UC data show.

    Administrators now outnumber tenure-track faculty members, whose ranks, over the same decade, grew by just 8%, from 8,067 to 8,722, and have not kept pace with rising enrollment.

    And now those administrators get to shape the budget cuts.

    1. Hap says:

      Another topic-related source:

      About ten years ago, the NYT noted that students were paying an increasing portion of the costs of education, and that those increasing costs were not due to increases in faculty size, but primarily due to increases in administration costs (I couldn’t find the source immediately, so use salt lick at your discretion), so it wouldn’t be surprising to me to see that trend continue. Some of the increase in administration would be necessary due to increasing student body size, but most of it is probably due to creation of a critical mass of administratium.

    2. Lane Simonian says:

      The rise in administrative salaries is a major part of the problem.

      Administrators not only determine the cuts they also largely determine their own salaries through various public boards (most typically compliant board of regents). While state contributions to public education have slowed, salaries for administrators have risen much faster than inflation. In most states, deans at community colleges make more than the governor.

      To make up for costs that are rising faster than state funding, the choice that is usually made is to increase student tuition and to hire more adjunct faculty. Or in some cases such as this to make “programatic changes” to get around tenure protections.

      The detailed budgets of higher education are notoriously difficult to get a hold of and examine. If they were made available, it would raise some serious questions about how the money is being allocated.

  10. Nick K says:

    How did California with its incredible hi-tech sector end up in such dire financial straits in the first place?

    1. Joe Q. says:

      I don’t live there, but as I understand it, CA has a dangerous mix of huge unfunded pension and health-care obligations along with a barely functional state government, and is highly dependent on state income tax revenue (subject to economic boom-and-bust cycles).

      1. MTK says:

        Correct, Joe Q.

        They have the largest state legislature in the Union, I believe. That means the only way anything gets done is by lots of backscratching, i.e. you vote for this and we’ll throw in this kicker for your district. It makes the system rife for waste.

        At the same time in 1978 when Prop 13 was passed California had the fourth highest tax burden in the country. Today, nearly 40 years later, it’s still the fourth highest taxed state in the country. All Prop 13 did was shift the tax revenue from stable predictable property taxes to volatile sales and income taxes. It makes budgeting very difficult.

    2. Gail Burke says:

      Robots don’t pay taxes.

  11. Jose says:

    A dept I know better than Berkeley but same problems:

    15 yrs ago there was one, maybe two lecturers – now there are NINE?
    And Apple pays how much corporate tax?

  12. “The state of California has financial problems running through it from top to bottom.”

    This is out of date – California today is actually doing better than most of the rest of the US (see article in the link, among many others).

    1. Another CA liberal says:

      California’s state finances are currently doing better than most of the rest of the US, but the comment about being highly dependent on state income tax revenue (which goes up and down with the economy and the stock market) is also true. In most of the rest of the US, local governments get their revenue from property taxes, which are severely limited in California by Prop. 13.

    2. MA Liberal says:

      Derek got Kansas and California mixed up.

  13. Natural says:

    Finally a solution to the problem of churning out graduates with no real potential for employment.

  14. JSR says:

    Derek is out of date on the state’s finances. Try this: Google the term “California state deficit.” The search results will show CA actually has a billion dollar surplus–stories from May show the surplus to be $2-8B, depending on the calculation.

    1. Anon says:

      Derek said that the University, not the state, is currently operating under a deficit. But, to your point, even if the state of California is no longer operating on an annual budget deficit (not sure if that is true or not), that is not terribly relevant if you ignore the fact that the state currently has an enormous debt: $443,000,000,000 in 2015 according to

      1. Hap says:

        CA has a budget of about $170B – so their debt is about 2.5 times their budget. Not good, but better than the US budget (at that rate, our debt would have to be about $6T not the $18T? it is).

  15. db says:

    This sounds like the standard thing that municipal and state governments do when they are in budget trouble; they put forth a ridiculous proposal to defund and shut down essential services rather than marginal ones. This strategy is guaranteed to whip up public support for increased (or at least unchanged) spending rather than a real look at how to save money.

    Rather than make a serious proposal to close down the money wasting operations that deliver no value, they threaten to immediately lay off firefighters, police officers, and garbage collectors. If they really want heavy public support, they’ll temporarily close a school or two so that the citizens have to find and pay for some alternate day care for their kids. A few days of that and the public gets fully behind whatever tax increase the bureaucracy wants.

    It’s a bait and switch. They have no real intention of shutting down the chemistry department.

  16. dearieme says:

    If the essential requirement for a chemistry department is properly equipped chem labs, then reorganisation isn’t likely to achieve much unless it’s a away of avoiding large capital costs for lab refurbishment. I’m a sceptic about academic reorganisation: to really save money you have to close departments.

  17. J. Peterson says:

    Maybe if they cut back on $3M+ for football & basketball coaches, they’d have enough money left over for science.

    1. anon says:

      J. Peterson,
      Successful football and basketball programs are big revenue generators. Salary spent on coaches that provide the school with a winning team is probably a wise investment from a purely financial point of view. (The trick, of course, is finding a coach that will get you the winning record, rather than someone like Sonny Dykes.)

      1. Hap says:

        Most college sports programs don’t (seem to) make money; they might generate money, like raising the profile of the school or by allowing alumni a rooting interest that connects them to the school and persuades them to give more money than they otherwise would, but they mostly don’t make money themselves.

        (This doesn’t mean that the NCAA isn’t making money, I would guess, but that most schools don’t make money, or hide it well.)

  18. dearieme says:

    Another thing I learnt in universities is how much turns on antagonism between personalities. My last employer had, when I joined it, two chemistry departments, due to some antediluvian rivalry. It still has two maths departments.

  19. salamander says:

    Is such a reorganization really such a big deal? They’re not talking about dissolving a chemistry or chemE department, but placing them into bigger schools (like is the case for biology). Aren’t most ‘top tier’ schools set up like that anyway?

  20. Anon says:

    For Berkeley it is a big deal symbolically because the chemistry department has had great prestige and success on its own. Other science disciplines at Berkeley have never had the distinction of having their own department. Becoming just another part of a larger department will symbolize that chemistry is no longer a standout there.

  21. anon says:

    I don’t see a problem. It’s not like they are firing professors or closing down the department. No need to be emotional.

  22. Lyle Langley says:

    One way universities can cut the professor pool is by doing what Berkeley might be doing. Usually, they combine departments, or will move professors to other departments and then they have to re-evaluate the tenure process because there may be differences in the two departments. Then, there will be some professors that don’t get re-tenured in the new department and hence you have a mechanism of letting professors go. So there may be a mechanism of realizing savings outside of just administrative.

  23. anon says:

    are there examples where this has actually happened?
    tenure is usually at the university level, especially in a university with hard money/teaching responsibilities. the department or higher can move space, research access and other things, but I have not heard of merging departments as a way to “re-evaluate tenure.” This would cause an uproar, and rightly so.

  24. anonyomous academic says:

    the effect is also on future hires — as a Department operating under the College of Letters and Sciences or the College of Engineering, Chemistry hires would be prioritized alongside other hires within the College. It’s unlikely that the Dean of CLS would be a chemist.

  25. texascarbon says:

    Maybe I am just thick ….but I don’t see how this would solve anything. First of all, those chemistry professors must be bringing in a ton of overhead (relative to other departments). How much overhead is the English department pumping in at Berkeley??? Also, the cost of running chemistry from facilities and operating perspective will not change so long as chemistry is being done. Separating the faculty is certainly not appealing optically but from a financial perspective does nothing in my opinion.

  26. yes sir 2 says:

    I think most of you lack an understanding of university finance/politics.

    This will save a lot of $ but decimate chemistry.

    1) Most of the grad students in a college of engineering will be MS students who pay to attend. Other than that most lab work will go through postdoc or technician. There will be only a limited stream of PhD students. College of Letters likely has only a few grad students as profs mostly teach there. This of itself save lots of money.

    2) This is in fact a new position for these profs meaning they would be under a new contract. They may not lose tenure but the % of their salary they need to bring in, number of courses taught, raises, and the rate at which their lab “rents” lab space will change. I have some experience here and it could be hard for them to deal with these changes. What if they cant teach in engineering or in the college of letters you’re required to teach 3 or 4 classes (your research is dead) in letters and science. In fact some of them may have to be research profs (the famous ones will leave). This turns into the downward spiral of death

    3) They will lose the ability to hire new faculty and have limited startups.

    4) The cushy admin deanlet positions will get axed, which is good. Staff will get the can, which is bad.

    1. Hap says:

      When I was going to grad school, I had heard that Berkeley had a nasty habit of taking too many grad students (more than they had research slots available for) because they needed TAs for their lower-level chemistry courses. Someone’s still going to have to TA those courses (because people need them for lots of majors to graduate), and if there aren’t research slots, who’s going to be around to do it?

      1. anon bear says:

        I heard this rumor too when I was an undergrad, but the dropout rate was always pretty low when I was there (2005-10). Certainly there weren’t rounds of grad student firings once someone’s TA commitment was over (which usually isn’t until 3rd year anyway).

  27. Chem yes says:

    It’s cheaper to hire adjuncts

    1. Hap says:

      Than grad students? I wouldn’t have thought that – adjuncts can go somewhere else (they have no sunk costs), and while grad students “cost ” tuition, tuition is the school moving money from one pocket to another (the grad profs are there to do research, which generates the money – getting rid of them removes grad class costs but also lots of overhead money to the university), while paying adjuncts costs money out of purse. Adjuncts make sense (if you don’t worry about your employees) in replacing teaching professors who are much more expensive, but I didn’t think they’d make less than grad students (because they could do better lots of places).

      This would also be longer-term thinking than administrations are wont to do, but where is your next batch of cheap labor going to come from if you decide not to train them? Adjuncts aren’t going to keep playing AAA ball for peanuts if there are no more bright lights at the end of the road.

      1. anon bear says:

        Nothing is cheaper than adjuncts because they don’t get benefits. That being said, I don’t think there were any at Berkeley, at least while I was there.

        1. Lane Simonian says:

          For adjuncts who want to teach, there are no other options. The difference between adjunct pay between most universities and colleges is minimal. The supply and demand squarely works in the favor of administrators–more graduate degree holders, fewer and fewer full-time positions. In the sciences, there are likely at least some opportunities for adjunct faculty who want to continue to work in their field, but in the social sciences and humanities there are few such opportunities.

          As noted above, adjuncts receive no benefits. They can be fired at will. The only problem from a financial perspective is that they are usually the first to be laid off in a financial crunch, but an institution saves very little money by doing so (they may actually be losing money by doing so since the tuition lost when adjuncts are laid off is often more than what the adjunct is being paid; let alone the money being allocated by the state to pay the adjunct’s salary which is often more than the salary that the adjunct actually receives).

          The second strategy involves full-time faculty. First comes pressures for early retirement; then comes departmental restructuring. I have seen this used to eliminate tenure professors at the institution that I work for and a friend has seen it where he works as well. I don’t know how often this strategy is employed and I cannot say for sure this is what Berkeley is doing with its chemistry professors, but I would not be surprised.

          Higher education has become a very big business with the gap between administration and faculty pay growing rapidly. It is easy to blame this on a slow down on spending on higher education, but there is also a conscious decision being made to widen this gap.

  28. Barry Bunin says:

    There is a quick update to this story worth sharing here from the Dean of the UC Berkeley Chemistry Department (that I as an alumni of UCB Chemistry am glad to share here):

    Mar 25, 2016 — Dear College of Chemistry community,
    It is my profound pleasure to inform you that the campus administration has removed the possibility of dissolving the College of Chemistry from the academic structural realignments that are being considered. The College of Chemistry will remain intact as a single independent unit.

    We will move forward now….whole article is below

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