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Undergraduate Education

Is UC Berkeley’s College of Chemistry in danger?

Undergraduate petitions chancellor not to dissolve chemistry college to fix budget woes

by Celia Henry Arnaud
March 1, 2016 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 94, ISSUE 10

UPDATE: UC Berkeley has decided not to disband the College of Chemistry. Read more here.

CORRECTION: On March 18, 2016, the timeline in this story was updated to correct Gilbert N. Lewis’s identity. He was a physical chemist by training, not an organic chemist.

With rumors circulating on campus that the University of California, Berkeley, was considering disbanding its College of Chemistry for budgetary reasons, one chemistry undergraduate sprang into action to kill the idea before it gained momentum.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Students and faculty at UC Berkeley fear dissolution of the College of Chemistry.

College of chemistry history

Proponents of keeping the college intact point to its many accomplishments.

1868: University of California founded.

1872: UC Berkeley’s College of Chemistry created.

1912: Famed physical chemist Gilbert N. Lewis becomes dean, serves until 1941.

1949: William F. Giauque receives Nobel Prize for his work in thermodynamics.

1951: Glenn T. Seaborg receives Nobel Prize for his work on transuranium elements.

1957: Chemical Engineering established as separate department in College of Chemistry.

1961: Melvin Calvin receives Nobel Prize for his work on carbon dioxide assimilation in plants, the eponymous Calvin Cycle.

1986: Yuan T. Lee receives Nobel Prize for his work on the dynamics of chemical elementary processes.

1997: Gilman Hall named a National Historic Chemical Landmark by the American Chemical Society.

On Feb. 24, Jonathan F. (Jo) Melville posted a petition on calling on Nicholas B. Dirks, the university’s chancellor, to preserve the college. Within 24 hours, more than 1,500 people had signed the petition. After just five days, more than 3,300 people had signed.

But such concerns are premature, says university spokesman Dan Mogulof. The university has made no decisions on the future of the College of Chemistry. The idea to dissolve it is just one of many being considered to address UC Berkeley’s financial woes. On Feb. 10, Dirks announced the launch of a strategic planning process in the wake of reduced state funding and the university’s persistent $150 million budget deficit.

UC Berkeley is “embarking on a comprehensive strategic planning process, the aim of which is to reimagine the fundamental structures and processes of our university,” Dirks wrote in his announcement. “Every aspect of Berkeley’s operations and organizational structure will be under consideration.”

Melville, a senior undergraduate in the College of Chemistry, learned from his research adviser, Jeffrey R. Long, a professor of chemistry and of chemical and biomolecular engineering, that one of the changes being considered was the dissolution of the College of Chemistry, which includes the Department of Chemistry and the Department of Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering. Such a plan could make chemistry a department within the College of Letters & Science and move chemical and biomolecular engineering to the College of Engineering. Changes such as these aren’t necessarily being considered just to save money on administrative staff and infrastructure, Moguluf says. They’re also being considered to make it easier to attract philanthropy and generate other revenue.

“I want to make it clear that I am aware that the dissolution of the College of Chemistry is only under consideration at the current time,” Melville says. “Although the Chancellor’s Office has called this petition ‘premature,’ it is our goal to settle this matter before any sort of commitment is made by the administration.” He wants to “smother the plan in the crib,” so the university will choose other solutions to its financial woes.

Circulating the petition led to an outcry from others within the broader chemistry community. Carolyn R. Bertozzi, a former UC Berkeley professor who is now at Stanford University, posted on Twitter “Good lord, do NOT dissolve @UCBerkeley @UCB_Chemistry” with a link to the petition.

When he signed the petition, Timothy M. Swager, a chemistry professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, commented that an “elite network of top departments” sustains U.S. dominance in the chemical sciences. “Degrading the role that UC Berkeley plays in this human resource ecosystem will be detrimental to US Science,” he wrote.

An alumnus, Kristopher McNeill, a professor of environmental chemistry at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich (ETH) who earned his Ph.D. at UC Berkeley, says that such a move would bring the structure of UC Berkeley’s chemistry programs more in alignment with universities around the world. But “part of Berkeley Chemistry’s unique success comes from its unique structure,” he says. “While such a reorganization might benefit the university, it doesn’t seem like there is any way it can be better for Chemistry. The best-case scenario is that it’s no worse.”

UC Berkeley chemistry professors think much would be lost by dissolving the College of Chemistry. Christopher J. Chang, who is a professor of chemistry and of molecular and cell biology, says: “By embracing the synergy between science and engineering and fostering an educational environment emphasizing smaller class sizes and student mentoring within a very large public university, the College of Chemistry is an institution that brings unique value to Berkeley and the greater scientific community. It’s a place I’m proud to call home.”

The California legislature established UC Berkeley’s College of Chemistry in 1872 at the request of university president Daniel C. Gilman. The college’s six buildings were home to 855 undergraduate and 501 graduate students as of the 2014–15 academic year.

Mogulof seeks to reassure the campus community. “What is not under any discussion or any consideration is whether or not Berkeley will continue to conduct world-class research and provide world-class education in chemistry. What is under consideration and review across campus—for everything that we do—is how we do what we do.”

UPDATE: UC Berkeley has decided not to disband the College of Chemistry. Read more here.



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Jake Kemp (March 1, 2016 7:21 PM)
First know the contribution of Berkeley in Chemistry before having childish thoughts of restructuring, dissolution, or disbanding.
Srihari Keshavamurthy (March 1, 2016 11:58 PM)
Having been part of the UCB College of Chemistry, and having seen many other departments around the world, I can safely say that trying to disband the unique College of Chemistry will be academic suicide and a great loss to science.
Dr. Charles W Spangler (March 2, 2016 4:13 PM)
I read with disbelief the possible plans for "chemistry" at UCB. During my long career, i was ecstatic to have recruited several graduates of UCB for our Chemistry Department. while I served as Chairman They were excellent additions and I have followed their careers ever since. I agree with Prof. Bertozzi that this ii a really bad idea. I am now CSO of a late stage/pre-clinical Pharma company in Montana, and I would be overjoyed to attract UCB graduates to our company. Don't mess with a success
Roger Manning (March 2, 2016 4:39 PM)
It would seem that we should be should be agitating for greater funding for universities so that odious decisions, which face Berkeley administrators, become unnecessary. How much of our problems with state funding for universities results from fiscal blunders by politicians and others?
Joseph A. Castellano (March 2, 2016 4:46 PM)
The Chemistry Department at UC Berkeley is a world-class institution and has been for many,many years. It would be a travesty to science education if it were disbanded. Although I did not receive my Ph.D. from Berkeley, I hope other graduates of the university speak out on this issue.
Harold Hastings (March 2, 2016 4:56 PM)
Let me hazard a guess about budget effects - I would think that grant overhead from the College of Chemistry contributes significantly to UCB budget, and that first-rate faculty and students would leave if this college were to be disbanded - yielding a strong negative effect upon the budget. Keep UCB Chemistry for the sake of science, the students and the budget.
Stephen C Brown, PhD (March 2, 2016 5:37 PM)
A unique institution, like no other academic Dept. of Chemistry I have ever been involved with since. GN Lewis had created a culture and legacy I didn't appreciate until I left in 1979, and saw how things worked elsewhere. A national treasure to be proud of and guarded from re-organizational disruptions.
Matthew (Biochemistry) (March 2, 2016 6:45 PM)
This seems like much ado about nothing to me. Essentially every other university on the planet survives just fine without a special college dedicated to chemistry. Berkeley is undoubtedly a great school for chemistry, but let's be honest - there are many dozens of other great schools for chemistry in this country alone. The chemical sciences in the US are not going to suddenly collapse if elite Berkeley chemistry professors start having to mingle with the mere mortals in the science departments housed in the College of Letters & Science. To me, this comes across as nothing more than entitled elitists complaining about losing their special status and privileges despite the clear and concrete financial difficulties the university faces.
Jason (Chemistry) (March 9, 2016 4:17 PM) perspective on this issue. After reading these comments, you would think that the entire college is being dissolved. Yes, it's a great school of international repute, and often scientists don't appreciate the financial difficulty that administrators must contend with, but I think the proposal (as I understand it) has merits. This will not mark the end to chemistry at UCB, in fact, far from it. (Careful) Reorganization can benefit with regard to utilization of resources, within and across departments, creating a more streamlined and successful college. In the end, the devil is in the details....
Janusz Kowalik (March 9, 2016 7:20 PM)
And you can safely say that there are many dozens of great schools of economic sciences, history, social studies, literature, biology, physics etc. in this country alone and neither of those areas would suddenly collapse if they were to be suddenly closed. That is not an issue at all. The issue is that UCB Chemistry is a breading ground for excellent science, has always been. You do not destroy such a place with a decision of some bureaucrat, who does not appreciate significance of science but only looks at the bottom line. I will venture to saying that it would make much more sense to me to limit the population of bureaucrats, well paid, who do not provide valuable and ground-breaking thoughts and contributions leading to important and real progress of humanity. Keeping science and scientists funded and happy is more important for humanity than supporting those, whose contributions are less noticeable, if at all.
Ajay Banga (March 2, 2016 7:15 PM)
I am a current member of Nova Southeastern University's Chemistry Club who has a strong likelihood of becoming the club's president next year; for me it is unfortunate that my own school doesn't have it's own College of Chemistry and the news of such a prestigious Chemistry Department being dismantled is equally as saddening as it is devastating for the field of Chemistry in the U.S. at large. I hope that the administration at UC Berkeley will reconsider, and not pursue to diminish the College since many students like myself who do not attend the university hope to find themselves there one day doing research or working towards a PhD.
Jacob Jorne (March 2, 2016 7:53 PM)
The synergy between chemistry and chemical engineering at Berkeley is legendary. We need G.N. Lewis to save the College of Chemistry...
Darwin Poulos (March 2, 2016 10:32 PM)
I cannot comprehend the thought of dissolution of the College of Chemistry. I studied Chemical Engineering at UC Berkeley, and found that having ChemE close chemistry was very helpful in my understanding of chemical principles. Placing ChemE in engineering would, I believe, degrade the quality of the ChemE curriculum. Why would the University potentially degrade the education of the students that it claims to it wants to help. I ask whether athletics is also being considered to be cut or dissolved.
Jester Boomer (March 3, 2016 3:44 AM)
I can only echo the sense of disbelief in so many comments that UC Berkeley would even consider dissolving the world leading College of Chemistry. Possibly the highest ranked department at the institution. If there are budget problems, try dissolving half the administrative fat before cutting science.
Gary L Jones, PhD, MD (March 3, 2016 4:41 AM)
I wonder what mentor Henry Eyring, PhD (1927) would have to say about this. The voices of proud graduates who are no longer with us can only be inferred, I suppose. (1901-1981)
Paulette Rand (March 3, 2016 12:53 PM)
Though I do not have a PhD since I returned to school to pursue Chemistry late in life I can attest to the synergy between Chemical Engineering and Chemistry. I worked at a Chemical Start-up in the 1990s and early 2000s and though we did not survive due to mismanagement we were well known in the area for the number of Chemical Engineering patents we held due to just such synergy.
Manfred E. Wolff, Ph.D. (March 3, 2016 1:27 PM)
The College of Chemistry is one of the stars in the UC Berkeley constellation. From its early days it comprised high achieving faculty like G.N. Lewis who developed a whole new theory of acids and bases and in later years it included Nobel laureate Melvin Calvin working in bio-organic chemistry. Generations of physicians, dentists, and pharmacists have benefited from its undergraduate courses in chemistry. Many health science faculty at UCSF have relied on the advice of colleagues in the College of Chemistry in their work. My recommendation to the Berkeley administration is not to tamper with success!
Linda (March 3, 2016 1:32 PM)
One of the best decisions that I ever made was in deciding to major in Chemistry and NOT just Molecular Cell Biology under the College of Letters and Sciences where EVERYONE else seem to be. This is where I had the support to help me in pursuing my doctorate in Chemistry from UCSD and have joined many teaching faculty in the CA community colleges.
In the time that we stress how important STEM education is, how does this make any sense? And in the time that we, in higher ed are asked to make decision based on evidence, what is the evidence for dissolution of College of Chem?
Crazy Making. Please think about the students!!! After all that is who you are suppose to serve!
Robert Buntrock (March 3, 2016 4:35 PM)
Another case of penny wise, pound foolish reminiscent of the Dow/Dupont "submerger". And UCB doesn't even have stockholders to report to. If it ain't broke, don't try to fix it.
Miguel A. Sierra (March 4, 2016 6:10 AM)
Just one more evidence about the worldwide thinking that Chemistry is just an auxiliar branch of Science and therefore expendable. Let's see what will happen when (like many times before) the world needs us, the Chemists, to solve the mess the politicians helped but those scientists considering chemistry as a minor branch of Knowledge, had created.
Ethan C. Galloway (March 4, 2016 4:00 PM)
I'm a graduate -- PhD '55. No question but my connection with Cal benefited me greatly in my career in the chemical industry (Former Senior VP and member of Board of company). I found it hard to believe that a university with the world reputation of Cal and the recognition/honors which have been accorded the College of Chemistry for its research and teaching would be considered by administration for reduction in support. The College has received support from industry, graduates and federal sources over the years, but less and less from the university. Now, this change? Unthinkable!
Stephen Weininger (March 4, 2016 11:19 PM)
Just to keep the history straight - G. N. Lewis was a towering figure but emphatically not an organic chemist, although his work obviously had lots of ramifications for organic chemistry. He was brought to Berkeley to build up p chem which he did very successfully. Beyond that, the history of the College speaks volumes about its central place in the history of American and international chemistry.
Prof. Dr. Holger Butenschön, Leibniz Universität Hannover, Germany (March 6, 2016 1:56 PM)
UC Berkeley's College of Chemistry has an enormous international impact, the active worldwide exchange of Chemists, particularly post docs, send the Spirit of Berkeley everywhere and coin their science in both, industry and academia. The cooperation between chemistry and chemical engineering makes it strong. Nobody would understand if one stopped a winning team!
Ben C (March 7, 2016 1:19 AM)
It should be more clear that this isn't the dissolution of the chemistry major and just the administrative body of the College itself. It is also one of many cost cutting proposals and is not a reality yet.
Edward M. Kosower (March 7, 2016 1:32 AM)
Prof.Emeritus Edward M. Kosower, Tel Aviv University, Tel Aviv Israel (March 7, 2016)
As a frequent visitor and visiting Professor at Berkeley, I felt that the College of Chemistry was unique in the rich professional contacts in all fields connected to chemistry (physical organic chemistry, infrared spectroscopy, physical chemistry, surface chemistry among others) and it would be a mistake to discard this international resource.
Stephanie Choing (March 7, 2016 2:27 PM)
As a current graduate student in the College of Chemistry, I would like to say the following things:

(1) This proposal was posited as a restructuring of the College of Chemistry's two departments into the corresponding College of Letters & Sciences and the College of Engineering, not a complete dissolution or discarding of the departments as has been implied heavily in the media.
(2) The CoC has already undergone several campus-wide and department-specific reductions in administrative support over my time here, which have been detrimental to the productivity of the College and the University. I agree that less administrative support for both the faculty and students would be a terrible direction to follow.
(3) Given the hugely negative press surrounding this underdeveloped proposal and the resultant backlash, this "folding" of the two departments into larger branches will likely not be selected.

That being said, I do believe that many beneficial changes could come about from re-evaluating what works about the College of Chemistry and what does not. The demographics of chemistry are changing to include more women, more minorities, and more cross-disciplinary work with biology, physics, materials science, etc. We should not blindly assume that the College as conceived in 1872 was perfect and remains ideal. For example, incorporation into the College of Letters & Science could facilitate more undergraduates who want to transfer their majors to chemistry--which to my knowledge is a rather intensive process now to enter the exclusive College of Chemistry. While the unique autonomy of the College of Chemistry does allow it to operate to its chemists' advantage, I think that interdisciplinary insight is always beneficial at the basic research level and could be good to implement from a hierarchical administrative standpoint.

Ultimately, since it was at best one of a hundred options, I think it's rather ridiculous oppose the idea of restructuring having without a full, detailed list of the merits and flaws of this proposal. We are scientists, aren't we? Let's not be hasty. Obviously, the College of Chemistry is recognized as an important contributor to global research. But let's be clear, that status has developed as a result of its first-class faculty and students who reach out to one another within and across departmental boundaries not because we happen to share a name and a building.
Mehran Moalem, PhD (March 17, 2016 11:54 PM)
I earned a BA in physics from UCB in 1983 and a PhD in engineering in 1989 and I was teaching engineering courses off and on till 2005. I am not a current faculty and have worked in various executive capacities in the silicon valley last 15 years. Looking at the article above and comments made, and remembering my days at UCB, I doubt that the political environment will allow the subject to receive its due consideration and fair shake with the premature publicity that it has received.
In general, the comments that the departments need more resources rather than less, does not address the fundamental issue. We frequently have similar problems in the industry dealing with the workforce or other resources needed for a project. When faced with a limited budget and need to increase service is it better to increase administrators (to better monitor the working people) or is it better to increase the working people to reduce workload of individuals.
The university has a range for the number of admitted students that justifies an independent college status for a major or group of majors. For example, if 4,000 students are the minimum enrollment at other colleges that justifies hiring a full staff for a college including college president, dean, and support staff then COC with only 1,350 enrolled student is highly out of sync with other colleges. That means resources that need to go to support students, classes, and research is being used to pay people that do not have enough to do. The experience of College of Letters and Science has shown that you do not need a dedicated dean and other staff from a particular major to serve that major. The same staff can serve the English major as efficiently as it can serve a Physics or Mathematics major. For a student that needs to discuss his/her issue with a dean, it is much better if there are more deans available and more time slots on the schedule when college is merged with other colleges. With more students, the staff will have a fully utilized schedule and overall cost to deliver the same service significantly drops. However, as a former faculty I can sympathize with the professors. The merging of colleges reduces the job opportunities for the faculty who want to choose an administrative path sometime in their career. It also dilutes the clout of the long-term faculty. It is much easier to plead your case for additional lab space or extra TAs to a fellow Chemistry colleague than to a college president who might happen to be a Humanities or Physics major.
One last point is that the performance, national recognition, and status of the specific majors has not been tied to having independent colleges. Physics, English, and even Econ are winning Nobel prizes and have worldwide recognition at UCB. The thing that affects the status most is much more the number of top graduates, laboratory facilities, and outstanding research than who the college president is. At the level of graduate admission, the individual majors have independence anyway.

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