College's students, faculty raising concerns about decision-making
By Becky Oskin
PASADENA - For most of its history, Caltech has operated with a "bottom-up" management style. Policy changes were often sparked by concerns raised by faculty and students, and the same groups helped guide planning and growth.
While faculty and students still play an active role in campus life, several changes announced this year from budget cutbacks to a new sculpture prompted widespread complaints of "top-down" decisions.
Whether from Caltech's undergraduates, graduate students or faculty, the concerns shared a common theme lack of communication. Many felt important decisions were made without proper consultation.
Vacancies in key administration positions may have affected the rapport. Three out of seven high-level positions are empty or temporarily filled by employees serving double-duty.
Both students and faculty feel the turnover may have caused conflict this school year.
"Perhaps due to substantial turnover in the upper levels of the administration, many students feel the administration has become more distant and that we have less of a voice in helping to shape the future of the institute," said Chip Sumner, chairman of the graduate student council.
Emeritus chemistry professor Jack Roberts added there's been some disarray because the school lost several vice presidents this year.
At a recent student conference, school president David Baltimore put some of the blame for the communication problems on the lack of a dean of graduate studies or a vice president for student affairs.
But provost Steve Koonin, the second highest administrator, said the school is managing well despite the unfilled positions.
Vice president for business and finance Al Horvarth, who lost his boss last month when executive vice president Bill Jenkins resigned, said the school's small size makes it easy to find experienced employees to help out.
And everyone at Caltech, from administrators to students, notes the very nature of the institute makes communication difficult everyone's too busy working to pay attention to the administration.
"There's discussion going on all the time and most faculty and most students are doing what they should be doing research and education," said Tom Apostol, emeritus math professor.
One example is Caltech's new mission statement.
Baltimore drew up the school's first mission statement late last year and released it to the campus in February through the 2001 annual report.
This took many faculty by surprise, and they complained at a meeting earlier this year about lack of input.
Baltimore and Koonin countered that the concept was presented at a faculty meeting in November. Heads of Caltech's six science and engineering divisions were also included in planning, they said.
And many of the unpopular budget changes included consultation from student representatives, said Gary Lorden, acting vice president for student affairs.
A controversial proposal for a $2 million steel sculpture from well-known artist Richard Serra also involved a faculty art committee.
"We've been accused of being a secret, stealth committee, but we thought nobody cared," said history professor Robert Rosenstone, chairman of the Institute Art Committee.
"We've done a lot of things on campus and nobody said anything," he said.
But there is at least one example of the administration going against faculty and student wishes this school year. Rather than following a library task force recommendation for a new library, Koonin has drawn up plans for a distributed library system.
Millikan Library, now full, would have three floors emptied and replaced with administration offices and the books would be used to establish a new humanities library in a different building.
Both Baltimore and Koonin have said a new library is unlikely, to the dismay of students and faculty.
Student protests in the 1960s convinced the administration to change the exterior design of Millikan Library's plaza. Whether history repeats itself remains to be seen.
-- Becky Oskin can be reached at (626) 578-6300, Ext. 4451, or by e-mail at becky.oskinsgvn.com.