Nanney Autobiographic Essays
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Tilting at Windmills - Educational Misadventures in the Big Ten (Draft 02-10-06)
David L. Nanney

7. The Genetics Graduate Program

The quick consolidation of genetics teaching within the School of Life Sciences misled me about the ease of curricular change at Illinois.  I soon discovered that the genetics staff was not limited to the School, and that geneticists held positions in the Psychology and Anthropology Departments within the College of Liberal Arts.  Even more were located within the College of Agriculture – particularly in the departments of Agronomy, Animal Science and Dairy Science.  I sent out an invitation to all the geneticists on campus that I could identify to meet one Saturday morning in Burrill Hall.  At least 20 appeared and they seemed enthusiastic about developing a graduate training program that would provide opportunities of interaction with each other, enhanced exposure for their students, and freedom from what some considered to be obsolete departmental requirements.

A genetics committee was formed to define a graduate program in Genetics, with basic requirements in molecular, cellular and population areas and possibilities of specialization.  The University endorsed the program and it was sent to the state legislature for approval as a new PhD degree.  Graduate students were to be supported primarily by assistantships within departments or in the laboratories of their advisors.  Regular seminar programs were to be offered.  Some resistance to the program began to develop eventually, mainly from departmental administrators who saw the program as parasitic, requiring departmental resources but not providing credit except to participating faculty.

The preferred solution to the problem of financing of graduate students seemed to be by way of training grants, which were being offered by national agencies at this time. A training grant would be seen as supporting departmental faculty and students. Having served a term on the NIH Genetics Study Section, which evaluated research grants, I was familiar with the processes and criteria for grants.  I was confident of obtaining a training grant.  I prepared a grant proposal and took it to the Graduate College office expecting a quick signature from Dean Tom Wall.  Dean Wall looked over the papers and finally said “I can’t sign this thing”.  The “problem” was that NIH required the sponsoring agency  (the Graduate College) to provide financial services for the budget.  Wall informed me that he was a research chemist and only a half-time Dean.  If he allowed programs to be administratively housed in the Graduate College, his duties would multiply, and he could no longer do research. I don’t know how much research he was doing at the time, but he accepted an administrative post in the California system and left a few years later. In any case, the excuse given wasn’t the real excuse, and the decision probably wasn’t made by the Dean.

When I realized that the Graduate College would not support the intercollegiate genetics program I took the problem to the Academic Vice Chancellor.  Jack Peltason just shook his head sympathetically.  He explained to me some things about the governance of the University that I had not realized.  He told me that he was professionally a political scientist, and was fully aware that power does not necessarily flow according to the lines drawn in organizational charts. However, he said, Illinois was especially idiosyncratic in the siting of authority. Most significant academic decisions on this campus were not made in the office of the Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs, but in the office of the head of the Chemistry Department.  This anomaly had persisted for decades. “Go see Herb Carter”, was his advice.  Peltason left the campus in another year or two to head some national council of learned societies.

I decided I was not brave enough to take on this bizarre chain of command and had better stay closer to home. I realized that an intercollegiate program without a budget had no future.  I resigned as chair of the Genetics program, and recommended that the degree be terminated.  Sufficient numbers of faculty members, however, found enough advantages in associating with a wider academic community, rubbing students together, and sponsoring seminars, to retain the program. Jan Drake a virus geneticist in Microbiology took over as director of the program. He later left Illinois for a position in North Carolina, and subsequently accepted an appointment as editor of Genetics, the primary genetics journal in the United States.

The experiences with the genetics program didn’t make much sense at the time. I wasn’t yet able to connect the signals coming from the Illinois administrative labyrinth. However, an apparently unrelated event about the same time could have been connected.  This event (described in my Candide essay) was the invitation for me to succeed Orin Halvorson and become the second Director of the School of Life Sciences. Halvorson was approaching retirement and the long planners were considering the succession, though the search committee for Halvorson had not been appointed. I. C. “Gunny” Gunsalus was a biochemist who had come from the Bacteriology Department at Indiana with Salvador Luria in 1951.  He was then a Professor of Biochemistry and the liaison with the biological community.  Gunny invited me to have lunch at the (then) prestigious Urbana Lincoln Hotel, and announced to me that I had been chosen to be the next Director of SOLS. I declined the honor, on the grounds of procedural irregularities, as well as my own distaste for administrative responsibilities. That private act, however, had personal and programmatic consequences.