As the summer has started to wrap up, the California State Senate has begun considering Assembly Bill 2132, which is on the subject of the tenure policies of the University of California and California State University. The bill’s sponsor is Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens. The essence of this piece of legislation as it pertains to the UC system is to ask the UC Board of Regents to change the tenure process for up-and-coming UC professors. As I personally am involved in this process as we speak, I was asked to provide some perspective on the merits and pitfalls of these proposed changes to the UC tenure policy.
First, my background. I was born in 1974. I grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio, developing an immense interest in chemistry and pursued that passion at Emory University. There I began academic research in a protein chemistry laboratory, learning that academic discoveries could be used to understand and fight diseases. I received a Ph.D. at the University of Chicago in biochemistry and molecular biology on protein folding. Right around Sept. 11, 2001, I learned of a series of deadly attacks — still mysterious to this day — which were caused by anthrax spores mailed through our U.S. Postal Service.
This refocused my attention to pursuing research that was both academically cutting edge but also for the betterment of society as a whole, and I went to Harvard University to embark on post-doctoral studies on the structure and function of anthrax toxin. My work there led to novel discoveries, which landed me a tenure-track faculty position in the departments of chemistry and molecular and cell biology at UC Berkeley in the summer of 2006. Over this more recent and tumultuous period, we have seen the subprime housing collapse, banking collapses, budget crisis after budget crisis, rollback of benefits and salaries across the board, and most importantly for academics, cuts in federal grants and funding. Despite all that I also became the proud father of two sons.
In discussing the potential merits and pitfalls of the AB 2132 we need to establish how the UC schools evaluate tenure cases. The key areas are 1.) research, 2.) teaching and 3.) service. Generally speaking, the order of importance at UC Berkeley is as stated. The candidate is expected to make seminal research discoveries and work at the frontier of his or her field. Teaching at Berkeley should be cutting-edge, exciting and inspiring. Service generally involves working passionately within the department or wider campus as undergraduate or graduate mentors, faculty recruiters, seminar series coordinators, awards committee chairpersons, etc.
The proposed changes in AB 2132 would require a new fourth area: service to the wider community. The language of the bill is:
“[S]ervice may include but is not limited to serving on community boards and committees, engaging in civic activities, working in outreach programs developed to promote cultural diversity in the student body, consulting with public and governmental agencies designed to address student and community needs, developing programs for underserved populations, research and creative activities that benefit our communities, consulting with or addressing student and community organizations or other service activities that are focused on improving the health and well-being of society.”
The ideals of this type of community service are not at issue with myself and those pre-tenure faculty I have had the chance to speak with on the matter. We agree community service is critical to building a stronger society and nation. I will even say I particularly champion these aims. We ought to be educating the public on improving energy policy, making more resilient local food systems, learning organic gardening, feeding the hungry, teaching science better to young people — especially in the face of 30 percent increases in classroom sizes. Yes, these are our nation’s challenges today. However, we also need some serious perspective on what it means to be a tenure-track faculty candidate in today’s funding climate.
Will the Harvards, Cal Techs and Stanfords out there change their tenure policy to match the UC? I doubt it. Why? Because it will place these schools at a competitive disadvantage for research funding. Placing an additional burden on the UC tenure-track faculty outside of the typical university norm would cause a faculty to commit additional time and resources and potentially distract that faculty from building up his or her laboratory, writing research grants and publishing his or her findings in scholarly journals. Is the groundbreaking work of an academic researcher not worthy enough service to the wider community?
And while I favor more activity in our communities, I urge the California Legislature to not pass AB 2132. Community service is critical for all of us to implement in our daily lives. However, it need not be legislated and required of our next generation of young faculty.
Bryan Krantz is a UC Berkeley assistant professor of chemistry and molecular and cell biology who will be up for tenure in several months.
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