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Physics Program's Star Dims at Berkeley

UC department has lost stature and some top faculty members due to its declining facilities.

July 14, 2003|Stuart Silverstein | Times Staff Writer

BERKELEY — Here he was, a top physics researcher in a basement lab, where flooding, power failures and minute building vibrations were damaging his long-term experiments.

UC Berkeley's "facilities were inadequate, and they were getting worse," said J.C. Seamus Davis, a 42-year-old specialist in low-temperature physics.

Then Cornell came calling, offering him new quarters and equipment worth up to $4 million. So last year, Davis left Berkeley, where he had taught and completed all of his graduate studies -- the place he had considered "one of the best physics institutions in the world."

Once the envy of academia, UC Berkeley's physics department is suffering from what an outside review panel recently called "genteel decline." Though still a powerhouse, the department over the last four years has lost six of about 50 tenured professors -- all rising or established stars. They have headed to mostly top-notch private universities, including Harvard, Cornell and Caltech.

"We're bringing them in at the beginning of their careers, but then five years later they're disappearing," said Christopher F. McKee, Berkeley's physics chairman.

It's a subtle but important shift for a school that has been a leader in physics research for more than half a century. Seven of its professors won Nobel prizes from the 1930s to the 1960s. It was home to Ernest O. Lawrence, known as the "Atom Smasher," who invented the cyclotron; Owen Chamberlain and Emilio Segre, the discoverers of the antiproton; and J. Robert Oppenheimer, who led the effort to develop the first atomic bomb.

The department's problems are emblematic of the difficulties faced by leading public universities that compete against private institutions for star professors. Drawing on plump endowments, private schools often can woo faculty with higher salaries, more generous benefits or better research facilities.

Higher-education experts fear that the disparity will only worsen as California and other states struggle with financial crises.

The longer this wealth gap persists, "the more public universities are going to lose," said Roger L. Geiger, a Penn State University professor who specializes in the history of higher education and issues affecting research universities.

A sustained decline in physics at UC Berkeley could have marked repercussions. It's not just that students might miss out on studying with luminaries or that they could opt to go elsewhere. In a broader sense, the university and state could feel the loss.

Physics underlies most scientific inquiry and technological progress. It has applications in everything from electronics and biomedicine to national defense and space exploration.

At Berkeley, considered one of the finest public universities in the nation, faculty long have attracted offers from Ivy League schools. But recent developments in the physics department dramatize the growing competitive pressures.

In March, a committee of outsiders hired by the university warned that the exodus of young professors, "a crumbling physical plant" and other problems had dimmed the department's luster.

The department is still among the nation's most highly ranked; its graduate program was in a four-way tie for No. 3 in last year's ratings by U.S. News & World Report. But the "decline in its fortunes will continue unless immediate and significant actions are taken," wrote the reviewers, a high-powered team including two Nobel laureates.

That hard-hitting assessment prompted UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert M. Berdahl to pledge $12 million to $14 million to renovate the program's facilities. That project has not begun, but the money has been set aside. He said the university expects to build new labs in coming years, although that hinges on passage of a bond proposal and fund-raising.

Berdahl views the department's problems as isolated -- and fixable. "I don't see any general slippage at all," the chancellor said, referring to Berkeley's overall standing and reputation.

But the physics review underscored concerns among faculty members.

"We are becoming increasingly outgunned in terms of what we can offer faculty, especially in laboratory facilities," said Mark Richards, who oversees the physics department as Berkeley's dean of physical sciences.

Deals are made or broken on the basis of lab facilities, which can be costly to equip and renovate, and difficult to squeeze into an already cramped campus.

"It's very hard for us to attract new faculty," said Colin McCormick, a graduate student specializing in optics. "New faculty want to go places where they can do their research, and where they don't have to worry about dust, electrical power supplies, acoustic noise or space limitations."

McCormick has air ducts in his top-floor lab that draw in dust and dirt, a major nuisance for a scientist working with sensitive lenses and mirrors.

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