Spring 2019

Looking back over 10 years: A Q&A retrospective with Jennifer Wolch


After ten years of dedicated service, Jennifer Wolch will be stepping down from her post as Dean of the College of Environmental Design at Berkeley at the end of the spring 2019 term. The first woman to serve as dean of the College, Jennifer assumed leadership during a time of intense economic challenge, as well as social discontent symbolized by the Occupy and Black Lives Matter movements. Guided by the bedrock values of the College, she has since spearheaded strategies and initiatives that have enhanced CED’s stature as one of the leading design and planning schools in the country.

In this Q&A below, Jennifer reflects on her tenure as dean, her priorities, challenges, joys, and what she looks forward to next.

Q — You have a doctorate in urban planning from Princeton and your research has focused on both social and physical aspects of the built environment of cities, crossing many boundaries — from homelessness and service delivery challenges to questions of sustainable urbanism to issues around environmental justice and access to green space. How has your research shaped your priorities as dean?

Jennifer Wolch— It is very clear that cities require interdisciplinary understanding as well as solutions that cross disciplinary boundaries. No one academic field has a lock on the answers. And in the real world teams are the norm. So one of my priorities has been to get more interaction among departments, as well as between the College and the rest of the campus.

Another priority has been to strengthen our focus on housing. The through lines of the College have always been around ecology and sustainability, economic development, and social justice issues, especially housing. Yet over time our strength in housing policy, housing design, and how housing fits into the landscape receded as faculty leaders in these areas retired.

It’s vital for the College to have an emphasis on housing, particularly given the housing crisis in California, in cities across the country, and in places around the world. So recruiting talented professors who are working on housing, and recruiting Carol Galante and supporting her launch of the Terner Center for Housing Innovation, were key. We’re now rebuilding our strengths in housing design and architecture, and making sure we are mounting cross-disciplinary studios focused on housing.

Jennifer’s tenure as dean has been transformational for CED. The improvements to the Wurster Hall physical environment are impressive. These projects are not easy under the best of budgets. Finding the funds and negotiating the complex campus process is a real accomplishment.

Secondly, Jennifer has raised the profile of CED within the campus administration. She has re-energized the Design Review Committee bringing in high profile professionals and making its work an integral part of the campus building process. She is also a leader among the deans, particularly the professional school deans who began to meet as a group during the darkest of our budget and administrative times.

Finally, Jennifer has been innovative in creating new academic programs to meet our changing times, moving CED beyond the traditional professional programs and continuing to serve to better prepare the next generation of environmentally focused students.

Sam Davis, F.A.I.A.

Professor Emeritus of Architecture, UC Berkeley College of Environmental Design
Principal, Sam Davis Architecture

Can you talk more about your emphasis on interdisciplinary collaboration and how that started?

JW —Because a city is a multidimensional object of study, a set of systems that shape people’s lives and opportunities, there is no one discipline that has all the insight. To solve problems, you need to have different voices and ways of collaborating. The departments in the College have always been happy to interact on an opportunistic basis, but such interaction wasn’t institutionalized. One of the reasons I wanted to create a major like sustainable environmental design was to have this kind of cross-disciplinary involvement. Similarly, the creation of introductory courses for all majors, taught by multidisciplinary teams, was a way to instill a broader intellectual scaffolding for the more focused work students do in their majors.

Many of programs that have been created in the last decade were designed to link the College with other parts of campus. We now have certificate programs and minors that involve collaborations with Engineering, Business, Arts and Humanities, Natural Resources, and Social Sciences. And the Mellon-funded Global Urban Humanities Initiative creates a strong linkage between CED and the Division of Arts and Humanities.

Jen negotiated to get me to CED, inspired and supported me in my efforts to create The Terner Center for Housing Innovation and worked miracles to create the Interdisciplinary Graduate Certificate in Real Estate and the Master’s of Real Estate Development and Design. These significant achievements are a testament to her remarkable drive and skill. Her abilities have raised the value of CED to alumni, practitioners, and students alike.

Carol Galante

I.Donald Terner Distinguished Professor in Affordable Housing and Urban Policy
Faculty Director, Terner Center for Housing Innovation, University of California, Berkeley

Diversity Platforms is a formalized initiative in the College’s Strategic Plan, the development of which you helped guide early on in your tenure. Why is diversity a priority at CED?

JW —Diversity is a priority for two reasons. First, we want the cadre of professionals going out into the world to mirror the population of California. But diversity is about more than representation. Diversity leads to new ways of approaching problems, modes of intervention, and speculating about alternative futures. Diversity is, fundamentally, about intellectual excellence.

We’ve gone a long way on the gender front, but not nearly as far as we need to in other aspects of inclusion and diversity. Diversity Platforms recognizes that diversity is not something that should be restricted to the classroom, but rather should be reflected, and indeed amplified, through co-curricular programs that create common spaces for discussion, debate, and dialogue. Diversity Platforms is one college-wide vehicle to support these types of vital programs.

I’ve also worked to increase diversity of the faculty, although that’s a slower process because the faculty stay in place for long periods of time and thus change comes incrementally. That said, we have made particular progress in recent years attracting Latinx faculty.

Our undergraduate student population is extremely diverse — 41% of our students are first generation; over 40% of our students are low income; we have higher shares of both international students and underrepresented minority students compared with the rest of campus. We clearly can do more, but we also have to ensure that we have the services students need to succeed.

At the graduate level, achieving diversity goals is much harder because our peer programs are mostly private institutions and are able to provide far more financial support to masters and doctoral students of color. But every program in the College tries its utmost to expand graduate student diversity populations.

The College now has both undergraduate and graduate diversity officers, who help guide efforts to support students of diverse backgrounds. We also created two cadres of Admissions Ambassadors – one undergraduate, one graduate. The Ambassadors are students who help recruit and communicate with prospective students about the College and what the climate is like for students from underrepresented populations.

Luckily we also have the CED Students of Color organization, partnering with us – and also pushing us – to do more!

Dean Wolch has opened new paths in positioning our college at the forefront of environmental design. Her leadership has supported our individual and collective growth to address context conscious design within each of our disciplines and through interdisciplinary convergence. Fueling new models that challenge assumptions around complex twenty-first-century issues from poverty to identity, Dean Wolch encouraged innovation across a wide range of spheres in our college. Her leadership was both visionary and equitable.

Dean Wolch’s distinctive leadership was instrumental for my own academic development. From my first years as Assistant Professor to post-tenure, she has not only recognized the value of interdisciplinary design agency and research, but she has also promoted the role of women in design and STEM. I will always be grateful for her mentorship and support.

M. Paz Gutierrez

Associate Professor of Architecture

QS ranked UC Berkeley’s architecture/built environment subject area as third in the United States and sixth in the world in 2019. Maintaining the stature of the school while dealing with the growing gap between state funding and increased costs is certainly daunting. What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced during your tenure?

JW —There have been three different challenges. First, protecting and enhancing academic quality is essential, and the main way to do this is to hire outstanding faculty at the cutting edges of their fields. For example, 10 years ago, our landscape architecture programs had not fully incorporated digital tools into the curriculum. However, successive Landscape Architecture & Environmental Planning department chairs have been able to make curricular changes and hire new faculty in this area, and now we have students producing fabulous award-winning work with digital media. It’s my job to provide support for those kinds of broad changes.

Just having enough faculty is also part of this challenge. Last year, the architecture department lost 4.5 full-time faculty due to retirements. Also, for various reasons, City & Regional Planning’s faculty numbers fell. My focus has been to convince upper administration to allocate faculty positions to the College, help persuade prospective faculty to join us, and also support the departments as they try to adapt to shifts in numbers and resources.

The second big challenge is simply the financial situation of the College. We’ve always been a very lean organization. With repeated and often major budget cuts over the last decade, I was faced with a choice – cut expenses (mostly staff), or generate revenue. Not surprisingly, I’ve always opted to try to generate revenue. There is no one silver bullet here. So we have developed a diversified approach, including summer programs, self-supporting degree programs — like the new Master of Real Estate Development + Design (MRED+D) – executive education, and more. These initiatives have allowed us to maintain quality, recruit strong cohorts of students, and do so without compromising staff support or academic program quality.

Expanding philanthropic giving to CED has also been a big part of maintaining academic quality. During the last decade, we added four new endowed faculty chairs, matched by a challenge grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. That was a big move forward at a tough time and was especially important for a college like CED which had so few endowed chairs. Attracting future revenue for individual initiatives is crucial. But we rely on our generous and committed contributors to the CED Annual Fund to help support the College’s aspirations and wide range of needs.

The third challenge is about operations. Historically, departments managed a lot of their own functions (finance, HR, etc.), and under budgetary pressure, had made a series of successive budget and staff cuts. But in the onset of the Great Recession, in a relatively small college facing very substantial cuts, this no longer made sense. So I centralized undergraduate advising, creating one of the most innovative and admired advising units on campus.  We also centralized finance, HR, and building operations, and created an infrastructure and information technology (IIT) unit encompassing AV/IT, the Fabrication Shop and Digital Fabrication Lab, and more. As a result, the College is able to provide a broader range of support services and provide them more effectively.

Lastly, we need Wurster Hall to work! For me—especially since I’m not an architect—it was both a challenge and a lot of fun to understand how the building works and doesn’t work. It was opened in 1964 and like many mid-century buildings, it needs maintenance attention and needs to adapt as needs change. A full-on renovation of the building would take many millions, but nonetheless, we have been able to make significant improvements. Over the past decade, in partnership with many CED donors and well as our departments, we created Wurster Gallery; built the Digital Fabrication Lab and made major upgrades to the Fabrication Shop; refurbished the auditorium and installed a state-of-the-art sound system; redesigned the architecture department office and created the undergraduate student advising office; created the 2ndfloor student hub; redesigned the 7thfloor studio; renovated two large ground floor classrooms as well as three large 4thfloor south studios; created the MRED+D program office; built the Ong & Ong Plaza and helped our Slanted Door partner, Charles Phan, open Rice & Bones Cafe.

Dean Wolch has, among her many other accomplishments, expanded the opportunities for alumni to participate in the life of the college. The Berkeley Circus, initiated by the Dean in 2011, is a day-long gathering that brings together undergraduate and graduate students, faculty and alumni from all disciplines. Every year, I am inspired by the student’s work and always amazed by the quality of thought and professionalism of the dialogue. This event is just one of the ways in which she, through her inclusive and collaborative nature, is leaving a significant legacy and providing the foundation for the next generation of leaders in the profession.

Jim Crawford

Partner, Richard Meier & Partners

Circus Soiree 2017

You’ve been responsible for a number of significant achievements that have strengthened the CED community, including what’s been mentioned so far. What are you most proud of?

JW —At the outset, I need to say that any and all of CED’s accomplishments over the past decade are the result of an academic community working together. Nothing happens without the incredible dedication of faculty and staff and students. That is the bottom line. It is a team effort. The dean can facilitate things and have some ideas, but a lot of the innovation comes from alumni and members of the college community. It’s not just one person with a baton and an orchestra following along. Thus I’m proud of what the entire CED community has accomplished.

I’m proud that the College has built a reputation on campus for being bold, innovative, and taking risks in order to maintain its quality. That approach has been essential for advancing the College, keeping up morale, and not incidentally, paying the bills!

I’m proud that CED has been able to launch a variety of successful new academic programs, from certificates to majors to graduate degree programs – often in collaboration with other units and faculty from across campus.

I’m proud that Wurster Hall has been kept in reasonably good repair and that we’ve been able to make important renovations and additions designed to improve teaching, learning, and work environments for students, faculty, and staff.

I’m proud of how CED now presents itself to the world. The College now has a dynamic, content-rich website, an updated eNews, an internal college community newsletter (Inside CED), a revamped Frameworks, and WursterLife — a whole new platform for community interaction.

Lastly, I’m proud that the College community has engaged a widening circle of alumni. Nine years ago we started the Circus. At this year’s Circus, many alumni said to me, “I feel so connected to this college, in a way that I haven’t felt for years.” That’s what community building can do — and by building a strong intergenerational community, the College will succeed over the long term.

How will she be best remembered?

  • The Dean with the quickest email reply times.
  • The Dean with a love of parties — boogie-ing at the start of every school year, emceeing at the Soiree, choreographing Circus, and leading in the commencement parade.
  • The Dean that eliminated the aroma of boiling cabbage from Ramonas.
  • The Dean that replaced all the stools in the tower, ensuring straight backs for future generations.
  • The Dean that put “multi-“ in front of “disciplinary”.
  • The Dean that worked tirelessly to ensure the College’s financial stability.

Renee Y. Chow

Professor, Architecture and Urban Design
Chair, Department of Architecture

Rice & Bones kitchen

What do you wish people knew about the College that they might not?

JW —What a lot of people don’t recognize is the extent to which we punch above our weight!

But you will still be teaching as a full-time professor after you step down, right?

JW —In the summer I’ll start a sabbatical. I’ll be doing research in India. And then there are courses I’d like to teach when I return.

Thinking back on your deanship, is there one moment or image that most fills you with joy?

JW —What I’ve found really amazing — especially when we give out distinguished alumni awards — are the incredible things that people trained here have gone on to do, and the fact that UC Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design gave them a start.

It speaks to the inherent value of the education that CED provides, and how the original through lines of the College and its values — issues of environment, social justice and economic vibrancy — have remained remarkably steady. On the one hand, no institution should be static, but having bedrock values is also important. I think we have these values and can be proud of that.

Any last words?

JW —I have to thank the Chancellor and the Provost that appointed me. In doing so, they also invested in the College in ways that allowed me as dean, and the College as an academic unit, to weather a turbulent decade and prepare for a future in which state funding does not fully support UC’s academic mission. For that, I am very grateful.

Dean Wolch during her tenure expanded the culture and resources of the CED out into the campus and bay area landscape. From the creation of new cross-disciplinary majors and research, a renewed interest and relationship with alumni, and the creation of new endowed professorships that support faculty research and practice. As the recipient of the David K. Woo Chair, I can attest to the critical support and resources that are made available for student and community support.

Walter Hood

Professor of Landscape Architecture & Environmental Planning and Urban Design