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Golden Scholars: Berkeley faculty explore space for habitable planets and reconsider how a university should be judged

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Professor Geoffrey Marcy endures hardships to pursue his belief that habitable planets exist in the solar system and Dr. John Douglass wants to redefine our criteria for evaluating universities.

This is not a planet, but oooh, space!
This is not a planet, but oooh, space!
Julian Finney

The final frontier

The New York Times recently wrote an extensive profile on Professor Geoffrey Marcy of the Astronomy Department. Marcy dedicates his research to the exploration of space and the discovery of potentially life-supporting planets, primarily by first determining if they orbit a star.

Only 20 years ago, the notion of other worlds and other life was dismissed as science fiction in respectable academic circles. Now astronomers have evidence that there are more planets than stars out there, a billion chances for Darwin, a billion potential real estate deals, a billion sci-fi dreams come truea signature shift in cosmic perspective, in which Dr. Marcy played a leading role.

This hasn't come easy for Marcy. While every researcher understands the pain of failed experiments and the resulting feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt, it was a little deeper for Marcy, who felt singled-out and ridiculed for his work.

"I got really hammered in Pasadena," he recalled.

He was devastated. He felt stupid and ill judged. "I was so obviously a fraud," he recalled thinking. He consulted a psychiatrist.

He wondered if he was suicidal.

Marcy came quite close to calling it quits at this point, but decided to go out in a blaze of glory, standing behind the research he believed in and in search of these planets. Marcy's work is a dramatic tale, including working with Mario Savio (the leader of Berkeley's Free Speech Movement) and, when he began to find success as part of a collaborative team, having that very success and attention drive him and his colleagues apart. We're not talking about a band breaking up because the frontman gets too much of the fame; we're still talking astronomy. One of his colleagues described this schism as being like a divorce where "the kids are the telescopes" and the years of data. Data's cool and all, but I'm not sure what the visitation rights are like for your stacks of lab notebooks.

After potentially discovering roughly a dozen such planets, Marcy was still faced withand shaken byskepticism from his peers, who maintain it was neither personal nor targeted, but rather the rigorous review process that is commonplace in science.

In 2009, NASA launched the spacecraft Kepler, which stares at stars looking for a characteristic blink that is indicative of an orbiting planet passing between Kepler and said star. While this is a useful tool, it told little more than the probable existence of a planet and its size. While it's cool to identify a planet, Kepler cannot determine the composition of the planet. If this planet ends up being gaseous, that's like going out on a first date and finding out your date is gassy. Not really desirable... Marcy came in with some tools to help determine the planet's composition.

He was particularly interested in learning at what size a planet went from being a rock with water on it, and possibly habitable like Earth, to being gas, like Neptune. The question was of more than academic interest, since most of the Kepler planets are between Earth and Neptune in size. The data seemed to suggest, he said, that the break-even point between rocky and gaseous was about one and a half times the size of Earth. Kepler has shown that there are plenty of such worlds out there.

Fortunately, Marcy seems to have risen above the adversity he previously met, with his choice of collaborators and students and an appreciation for the ability to express his thoughts and beliefs at Berkeley. When he's not training with the Cal Women's Tennis team, he's still staring into a telescope with a childlike wonder at the prospect of what planets he'll discover next.

Evaluating methods to evaluate universities

Dr. John Douglass, a Senior Research Fellow of the Center for Studies in Higher Education, is challenging the criteria we use to evaluate the quality of a university. Douglass rejects the current modeltermed the "World Class University"which focuses on productive research and "a culture of excellence," which results in a bias not just towards science and engineering in general, but also towards published results in certain fancy-pants journals.

It is not that these indicators are not useful and informative. But government ministries are placing too much faith in a paradigm that is not achievable or useful for the economic and socio-economic mobility needs of their countries. They aim for some subset of universities to inch up the scale of this or that ranking by building accountability systems that influence the behaviour of university leaders, and ultimately faculty.

Instead, Douglass proposes the merit of the Flagship University.

This model does not ignore international standards of excellence focused largely on research productivity, but is grounded in national and regional service, and with a specific set of characteristics and responsibilities that, admittedly, do not lend themselves to ranking regimes.

Indeed, one of my goals is to articulate a path and a language of a Flagship University that de-emphasises rankings and helps broaden the focus beyond research. Flagship universities are research-intensive institutions, or are in the process of becoming so, but have wider recognized goals.

In his original publication, Douglass describes the profile of the Flagship University. They key areas where it deviates from the traditional definition of a World Class University seems to be a focus on teaching, leadership, autonomy institutionally and academically, and a commitment to public service. Douglass is not necessarily discarding the research- or results-oriented criteria of the World Class University, but seems to be expanding the role of a university to develop well-rounded individuals rather than successful students and intellectuals.

Which model do you find has more merit for evaluating universities in this day? Do you think Berkeley can succeed as a World Class University and a Flagship University?