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Professor Robert Brentano Promises "Fast, Proactive" Academic Senate

by Julia Sommer, Public Affairs
posted October 21, 1998

On the history faculty since 1952, professor Robert Brentano is this year's chair of the Berkeley Division of the Academic Senate.

As such, he is responsible, with the help of the Senate's Divisional Council, for supervising the Senate's 35 working committees, planning and running Senate meetings, and representing Berkeley faculty on the UC-systemwide Academic Council. With a membership of 2,210 this year, Berkeley's Senate includes all tenure-track and emeriti faculty, instructors, some lecturers and certain administrators.

Asked why he would take on such a demanding, full-time job at age 72, Brentano answers cheerfully, "because I thought it would be fun, because I'm curious, and because I've complained about what other people have done, although Bill Oldham (Brentano's immediate predecessor) was as perfect a chair as I could imagine."

With only a year to make his mark, Brentano says he has three major goals for the Academic Senate: to work more closely with the ASUC Senate, to improve the state of the library, and to support the new admissions policy and outreach efforts.

Brentano predicts this year will be one of accord between the Academic Senate and the administration. "Our job is to keep an eye on each other," he says.

"Our great hope this year is to be proactive and fast. It's often said about the Senate that once you send something to committee, it stays there forever, and that the Senate only reacts."

Brentano and ASUC officers have already initiated two collaborations: a Senates Saturday School for high school sophomores who might not consider attending college, and monthly brown bag lunches for leaders of the Academic and ASUC senates.

The six-week Saturday School started Oct. 17. Divided into four groups, the 60 high-schoolers began to learn first-hand what professors do -- from Brentano, Robert Spear (public health, Senate vice-chair), and Stephen Small (sociology and African American Studies).

"We want everyone involved to be excited intellectually," says Brentano.

As for the brown bag lunches, Brentano says, "students and faculty have identical interests -- teaching and learning. It's silly not to know what each other is interested in doing."

Regarding the library, Brentano says that most faculty who use it think it's a disaster. "We need to increase staff and build the collections," he says.

Brentano notes that "Prop. 209 made us think about admissions and outreach. I think our new admissions plan is tremendous. It allows us to look at applicants as individuals. We must find the most promising young people for our way of educating at Berkeley, which includes diversity."

An ongoing concern of the Academic Senate, says Brentano, is the growing privatization of UC. "We have to measure and control how non-state funds are used," he says. For the first time this year, non-state funds are supplementing state-funded faculty salaries, he said.

The Senate as a whole meets once a semester, unless there's a crisis or at least seven faculty request a meeting. At the fall meeting on Oct. 8, Chancellor Berdahl and chairs of key committees gave reports and Amanda Canning, ASUC vice president for academic affairs, spoke of the importance of students in faculty decision-making.

History professor David Hol-linger, who specializes in American academic history, says, "scholars of contemporary higher education have often described the Berkeley Academic Senate as one of the strongest in the country."

Brentano is a scholar of medieval English and Italian history. This semester he is teaching an undergraduate seminar on history and writing, comparing 13th- and 20th-century texts.

"The undergraduates are what have kept me at Berkeley," he says.


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