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UCD department shuttered as more budget cuts loom

Dave Dallas, a graduate student in nutritional biology at UC Davis, searches for a book Friday morning at Shields Library. Sue Cockrell/Enterprise photo

Dave Dallas, a graduate student in nutritional biology at UC Davis, searches for a book Friday morning at Shields Library. Sue Cockrell/Enterprise photo

By
July 2, 2011 |

The closure of a department founded by the father of the hydrogen bomb is another in a wave of cost-cutting moves rapidly changing the face of UC Davis.

The College of Engineering closed the department of applied science Friday.

The department’s 45 graduate students and eight undergraduates will be able to finish out their degrees, though their choice of electives will be more limited. Of the department’s 16 faculty, 14 are moving into other departments while two are retiring.

A student affairs officer and development engineer have been laid off. Earlier, when the management staff officer left the department, the position wasn’t filled.

The move likely will save less than $100,000 annually, according to an estimate from the college — a drop in the bucket compared to the still-growing budget shortfall that the campus faces.

UCD began hacking away at its budget again at the beginning of the year based on a projected $107 million shortfall, including an estimated $73 million state budget cut.

The state budget signed Thursday, however, included an additional $150 million cut on top of the $500 million that the University of California system had been bracing to absorb.

UCD’s share of the additional state cut is estimated to be $22 million.

Just how big of a hit the campus actually will take depends on whether the UC Board of Regents approves a 9.6 percent tuition increase the UC Office of the President announced on Friday. The board meets July 12-14 in San Francisco.

The Davis campus has weathered tuition increases, faculty and staff furloughs, layoffs and more, absorbing $222 million in state cuts over the past three fiscal years.

“The budget issue is what pushed (the decision to cut the department of applied sciences) over the top,” Associate Dean Bruce Hartsough said Friday.

The department of applied science’s final chair, Yin Yeh, retired last week at age 72.

“I cannot support the administration’s decision, but that’s the way it is,” said Yeh, who came to UCD in 1973. He said he believed savings from the department’s elimination will amount to “far less” than $100,000 per year.

The decision came largely as result of the department’s fading ties to Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Hartsough said, and subsequent inability to grow its undergraduate program.

To understand that is to know something of the department’s unique history:

It was founded in 1963 at the urging of Edward Teller, the physicist dubbed the “father of the hydrogen bomb.” He was both looking for teaching opportunities for his senior staff at the national laboratory and a way for younger staff members to complete their doctorates.

Teller had become a controversial figure in the scientific community after testifying against his former Manhattan Project colleague, UC Berkeley physics professor J. Robert Oppenheimer.

The Berkeley campus rebuffed Teller’s plan to start an academic program. He then apparently received a cold shoulder from the UCD physics and chemistry programs, which had drawn faculty from Berkeley, before finding a home for a graduate program within the UCD College of Engineering.

The original applied science faculty received 50-50 appointments at the laboratory and at UCD. As Teller’s colleagues retired, the department steadily hired faculty with more varied research interests beyond nuclear physics, delving into biotechnology, material science and other areas, and looking beyond Livermore for their research collaborations.

An increasing number also settled in Davis.

Then, in 2001, Lawrence Livermore decided to end its long-standing practice of giving special consideration to UCD students for fellowships, letting students nationwide compete.

The department attempted to stabilize its future by developing an undergraduate program for the first time, in optical science and engineering. It grew to about 70 students.

Then the tech bubble burst. Enrollment toppled.

When Yeh became chair in 2008, “it was immediately obvious that we were in pretty deep water,” he said. Though its faculty successfully continued to garner outside funding and the graduate program remained solid, the struggling undergraduate program “made it basically untenable” in the college’s eyes, Yeh said.

Hartsough said the college wanted the faculty involved with undergraduate education “in a meaningful way.”

“Over a decade, they were unsuccessful in coming up with a critical mass (of undergraduates),” he said.

The disbanding department’s faculty was given their choice of which other department to approach as a new home.

Those departments then voted on whether to extend an invitation. In each case, Hartsough said, the results were “very positive.”

Some of the faculty on the move will have joint appointments. The largest number, the equivalent of four full-time professors, will settle into the department of mechanical and aerospace engineering.

The relatively small savings from the move are a result of departments taking on the costs of supporting faculty who have joined them, he said.

Hartsough said the moves will strengthen the college’s other departments.

For example, the arrival of associate professor Walter Harris, whose research centers around the upper atmosphere and near space, as well as space flight instrument design, strengthens the teaching of space-related classes in mechanical and aerospace engineering.

“He’s a perfect match,” Hartsough said, adding, “My sense is that once people start attending faculty meetings with their new colleagues, it’s really going to work out very well.”

Unlike the elimination of the geography department during early 1990s campus budget cuts, there has “not been any backlash,” Hartsough said. “We haven’t seen that in the dean’s office.”

Yeh said while he chose not to take his fight to save the department public, “We were trying every which way to hang together.” The department came up with a plan to rejuvenate the undergraduate program, he said, but was told in January by Dean Enrique Lavernia that its time had run out.

Yeh said the move may yet hurt UCD’s reputation and faculty members may go elsewhere. He worries that some will have trouble rebuilding the status they had achieved in his department.

“Faculty camaraderie does not simply come about by saying ‘You go to this program and you go to this one,’ ” he said. “The way it happens is that we recruit people who are interested in being part of our program and nurture them within our academic plan.”

Cutting the department doesn’t sit well with graduate student Neil Troy. In an email message, he called it a “travesty” to make the decision based on numbers. The undergraduate program in optical engineering was one of only a handful nationwide and its graduates had landed good-paying jobs, Troy said.

He added that the program had recently passed accreditation and that the work of a staff member who had created partnerships with optical companies for equipment and scholarship money may be for naught.

Sonny Ly, who graduated last month with his Ph.D., is something of a throwback to the old days of the department. He landed a fellowship with Lawrence Livermore, where he works with lasers and optics, and hoped to be hired on, making him one of the few with direct ties between the lab and UCD.

He called the loss of the department “terrible.”

“I just feel sad it ended up this way,” he said. “I know Professor Yeh tried so hard to save the department. With Professor Yeh’s help and the help of my adviser (Thomas Huser), I ended up with a lot of grants and fellowships that would have been impossible in another department.”

Ly, who joined the program in 2005, said some grad students may not have rushed to defend it because of the perception held by some that, even after the department last year dropped a difficult preliminary exam, the curriculum remained more rigorous than other programs in the college.

Owing to its longtime ties to Lawrence Livermore and lack of undergraduate program, the department maintained a sort of outsider image within the college, he said, which hurt it when times got tough.

The department’s name didn’t help, either.

As Hartsough said, “ ‘Applied science’ was always kind of a nebulous thing — everybody in engineering is an applied scientist.”

Ly said he believed the department would have attracted more undergraduates if it had changed its name to “applied physics” — the very name Teller imagined in the early 1960s before the campus’ physicists rejected the idea.

Among other changes across the UCD campus this summer: bachelor’s degrees in nature and culture and avian sciences have been cut, as has a master’s degree in integrated pest management.

In all three of those cases, enrollment had dwindled or vanished and savings will be modest, officials said.

— Reach Cory Golden at [email protected] or (530) 747-8046.

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Cory Golden

Cory Golden

The Enterprise's higher-education and congressional reporter. http://about.me/cory_golden
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