UCOP passes the buck over Lick Observatory

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Alvaro Azcarraga/Staff

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I would like to commend Virgie Hoban and The Daily Californian for the excellent Sept. 2 article regarding Lick Observatory and the university’s astronomy program. But the comments by former UC vice president of research and graduate studies Steven Beckwith and Provost Aimee Dorr about the University of California Observatories Board and the board’s recommendation to cut funding for Lick Observatory are misleading. The board was set up to provide the recommendation that they wanted. Here is how that happened.

In 2011, a prestigious external review committee set up by then-vice president Beckwith reviewed UC Observatories’ programs and praised the work that was being undertaken by UCO.  The committee recommended that a board be set up “to serve as trustees and advocates for the UCO program.” UC astronomers applauded this request, having just made a similar request, but the board the UC Provost’s Office set up was very different from what was recommended by both UC astronomers and by the external review committee. The board was so obviously flawed from the start that at least two senior astronomers refused to serve on it.

Despite the recommendations for a board to help optimize, promote and enhance UC astronomy, the board was tasked by Beckwith and Dorr with a charge that was quite unresponsive to these recommendations. More than 50 UC astronomers signed a letter in 2012 to Beckwith and Dorr requesting changes to the charge. Yet this request was ignored, as were then-UCO director Sandra Faber’s requests for changes to make the board more productive and relevant.

In contrast to the normal process of such boards, this board met largely in secret sessions and excluded the UCO director. Typically, directors are members of such boards or attend regularly so that their in-depth knowledge can inform a board’s deliberations. Remarkably, some board meetings were scheduled when they knew well in advance that Faber would be out of town, including the crucial first meeting when Beckwith gave just his perspective on UCO’s role.  Even when she was in the area, Faber was only given very restricted opportunity to provide UCO’s perspective.  This is unusual and poor behavior, but particularly so because Faber is one of the most highly awarded members of the UC faculty, having been awarded a National Medal of Science by the president. Also in contrast to normal board practice, the board failed to ever meet at any of the institutions or facilities under its remit. The board never met at UCO headquarters in Santa Cruz, California, at Lick Observatory, at Keck Observatory or at any UC astronomy department and so failed to obtain any on-the-ground insight into the day-to-day operations of the institutions they were supposed to be assessing.

With the exception of one astronomer from UC Irvine, the UC astronomers chosen by the provost’s office were known to be antipathetic toward UCO or were largely uninterested in UC astronomy facilities and their operations but supportive of Beckwith. There were also, for one astronomer member in particular, serious conflicts of interest. While the board had good administrators as members, they were clearly undercut by the weak chair and by the UC astronomer members. The provost’s office also presented the board with a budget scenario for UC astronomy that severely constrained their options, particularly regarding funding for Lick Observatory.

Why did the board function in this way? The establishment of a committee in this way is a well-known approach for managers who want to make decisions they know will be unpopular and want to make sure that the blame can be placed elsewhere. Such managers set up an advisory committee that is constrained by its charge and has at least some members who are supporters of the managers and then set the framework — usually by defining budget limitations — to get the answers they want. Beckwith did this with great skill and finesse. It is well known that Beckwith believed that Lick was a dinosaur and that he was uninterested in or negative about the university’s ground-based astronomy facilities — even about the international Thirty Meter Telescope which had been endorsed by the UC president!

In 1.5 years of numerous, largely secret meetings between late 2012 and early 2014, the board only managed to produce one two-page unsigned document. But they provided what Beckwith wanted.  The comments by Dorr and Beckwith in the Sept. 2 article about how they were following the board’s recommendations regarding Lick are misleading and actually disingenuous. They clearly got the advice they wanted from the board and used that advice as justification for the ramp-down of support for Lick and other UC facilities.

The current failed board should be disbanded now that Beckwith is gone from the UC Provost’s office and a completely new board should be established. The new board should be charged to work toward optimizing UC astronomy facilities, including Lick Observatory, in an open, transparent and well­-informed manner. The new board should solicit input from UC astronomy faculty, researchers and graduate and undergraduate students and interact openly with all stakeholders, consistent with the way advisory committees should work in an outstanding university such as the University of California. The remarkable scientific achievements of UC astronomers at Lick Observatory and at the Keck Observatory deserve no less.

Garth Illingworth is a professor of astronomy at UC Santa Cruz.

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  • NoCal-Geographer

    Save yourself, John. The Governor and his appointees have it in for the Public University system in California!

  • David C. Koo

    A missing but telling part of the story is that the Provost office originally selected the UCO Board’s chair to be a UC professor from a department of dance. Fortunately, the outcry from UC astronomers on such an inappropriate choice was one of the few successful attempts to improve the board. Unfortunately, the change of the chair was not enough to result in a well-functioning board.

  • J. Xavier Prochaska

    This is what the University gets when it allows Administrators to form administrative committees that make recommendations on academic affairs without input from the Academic Senate. UC has been successful because of Shared Governance and should always insist on this basic principle.