This past summer, UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ tapped Paul Alivisatos to be the campus’ executive vice chancellor and provost, to assist her in implementing her priorities and to lead the institution’s academic enterprise. We sat down with Alivisatos—a distinguished chemist and accomplished administrator who’s served as vice chancellor for research at UC Berkeley and as director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory—to get his take on students’ current needs, what’s underway on the academic front and why “discovery experiences” should be an essential part of the undergraduate experience.
Your first semester as executive vice chancellor and provost included a listening tour, where you met with different campus groups to get a sense of Berkeley’s most pressing needs. What did you hear from students and parents?
First, I should say that our undergraduate population continues to amaze me. This generation of Berkeley students is so full of energy and talent, and they care deeply about making the world a better place. Their parents are endlessly supportive of them, too.
I’ve been hearing that students need a few different things from Berkeley right now. In their studies, they want to examine real-world problems, which are very often interdisciplinary, so we need to think about how our curriculum goes beyond classroom experiences and beyond individual majors. I’ve also heard that we need to be better at fostering community—that we should build on things like Golden Bear Orientation, the new weeklong introduction to Berkeley that helps incoming students get a sense of this place and learn about the people and programs that will make their college careers successful.
There are more fundamental concerns, too. We have to better satisfy undergraduates’ demands for the gateway courses so that students can get into the classes they require. We need to help with housing—a new dorm will open this year and much more development is underway—so that students can focus on their studies without added stressors. Crime and safety are always concerns in an urban area like Berkeley, and we have some plans in the works to do better in that area: This semester, for example, we’re tripling the number of UCPD-trained student Community Service Officers so that we can significantly expand the BearWALK program, providing free escort to students traveling around campus after dark.
Part of your title—the “provost” part—gives you responsibility for managing the entire academic side of the campus. What’s on the horizon in that area?
Such a tremendous number of academic programs and activities are going on that it would be impossible to talk about them all. But at the highest level, we’re working hard on a plan to grow the faculty size by 100 and to improve the student-faculty ratio, and we’re focusing academic expansion on areas that address the big interdisciplinary questions our community cares about—reducing inequality, climate change, robotics, new kinds of space exploration, data science and more.
Before becoming executive vice chancellor and provost, you served as Berkeley’s vice chancellor for research. How do you view undergraduate involvement in the research side of the university?
Berkeley is one of a few great universities when it comes to the creation of new knowledge, and students want to be involved in this act of discovery. It benefits them, too—their future careers will put them in positions where the ability to think creatively, synthesize multiple concepts, work with others and address a real-life problem will serve them immensely well.
We know that around two-thirds of students are already involved in what we’re calling “discovery experiences”—deep, immersive, self-initiated learning experiences that include, but are not limited to, research projects—and we want to explore how much further we can take that. We’re going to make it more systematic and easier for students to find mentorship and engage in these transformative forms of scholarly and experiential learning; I want people to know Berkeley as “the discovery campus.”