‘Looking at the horizon’: Strategic plan town halls tackle interdisciplinary studies, housing

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Jihoon Park/File

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Campus administrators hosted two separate town hall discussions Thursday and Friday to gain feedback on Chancellor Carol Christ’s long-term strategic plan.

About 20 staff members and students attended each meeting to ask the representatives of various working groups questions about the strategic plan, which was released April 25. The representatives covered topics ranging from the future of housing on campus and the issue of private-public partnerships to the creation of more interdisciplinary majors and the restructuring of campus finances.

“At the moment, we’re at the stage of really coming up with a vision and ideas, and the implementation stage will follow,” said Fiona Doyle, dean of the Graduate Division, on Friday. “We really made a conscious effort to not get bogged down in weeds and details and instead to think big about what we want the campus to look like in 10 years’ time.”

The new strategic plan is the first since 2002. It is headed by the Strategic Planning Steering Committee and involves four working groups: the financial working group, the enrollment working group, the student experience working group and the signature initiatives working group. The working groups met with the ASUC Senate, the Graduate Assembly and other campus bodies during the initial stages of development.

Undergraduate students who attended the discussions expressed concerns about housing affordability and access. According to Doyle, the working groups have not focused on housing because “that work has already been done,” referencing the Housing Master Plan Task Force, which published a report in January 2017.

Doyle also pointed to the impending opening of David Blackwell Hall, which will add 770 beds to the campus.

Campus junior Christopher Orner said during the Thursday meeting that Blackwell Hall’s prices are “by students’ definition … not affordable.” Orner added that the hall is projected to offer single rooms that cost $18,000 per year and double rooms that cost $16,000.

“When we build housing like this,” Orner said at the Thursday town hall meeting, “we’re leaving a lot of students behind.”

According to Henry Brady, dean of UC Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy, the campus does not have the capital to rely solely on public funds to create housing. The campus has reached its debt limit, which is pushing it to look at public-private partnerships, but Brady said the deals made in these partnerships will be scrutinized to ensure the best possible deal is acquired.

“We don’t have that capacity. (We) have to use public-private partnerships,” said campus sociology professor Jennifer Johnson-Hanks. “What we can bring to the table is our land.”

The Thursday town hall meeting also touched upon another contested issue: how to foster a more interdisciplinary approach to UC Berkeley’s education. Roel Dobbe, an electrical engineering and computer science graduate student, asked the panel how the administration will plan on fostering “movement” among students from different majors.  

Doyle said during the forum on Thursday that one of the goals of the strategic plan was to allow undergraduates and graduates to “explore in between and across disciplines on an ad-hoc basis.” Doyle added during the Friday town hall that the Steering Committee is looking into creating “half-majors,” which would give students the opportunity to study a variety of fields without spending the amount of time it takes to double major.

In response to questions concerning the financial structure of the campus, Vice Provost for the Faculty Benjamin Hermalin said the financial working group aims to increase transparency within the administration in order to “rebuild trust” among the campus community and to consolidate fundraising efforts.

“If we don’t make those changes, we’re gonna be in deep trouble,” Hermalin said during the Thursday meeting. “We can be more than the sum of our parts.”

ASUC Senator Katya Yamamoto, however, said she was concerned about the lack of student involvement in the overall implementation of the strategic plan. Yamamoto pointed out that the financial working group only had one graduate student.

Attendees were encouraged to give input during the meetings or online. According to the strategic plan website, the Steering Committee is in the process of reviewing and amending the report to reflect critiques made during public comment. By the end of this summer, the committee will finalize and publish the report, which will then be sent to Christ.

“Can we, in six months, think of tremendous ideas for Berkeley? Absolutely,” said Richard Lyons, dean of the Haas School of Business, at the Friday town hall. “This is an opportunity to be looking at the horizon again.”

Contact Francesca Munsayac and Sabrina Dong at [email protected].