Q&A: Gilless reflects on CNR
After 11 years leading the College of Natural Resources at UC Berkeley, Dean J. Keith Gilless stepped down from his post in June. As dean, Gilless has been dedicated to supporting CNR's diverse research, teaching and outreach activities. He has led the college through major growth, launched a number of interdisciplinary initiatives and tackled infrastructure-renewal projects. After completing his second term, Gilless—who has been a professor of forest economics at Berkeley since 1983—will continue to teach, conduct research and serve as the chair of the California Board of Forestry and Fire Protection.
Looking back on the past 11 years, what are your proudest moments?
The entire CNR community has a lot to feel proud about. We've doubled the number of undergraduates in the College by responding to students' intellectual and career interests and creating a strong culture of advising and student support. Despite budget constraints, we found ways to create two new cross-campus centers: the Berkeley Food Institute and the Institute for Parks, People, and Biodiversity. We launched the Master of Development Practice program. We became more successful and sophisticated in our fundraising efforts, allowing us to increase graduate student support and make some much-needed improvements to our infrastructure. We expanded our network of research forests at a pivotal time for understanding the effects of climate change on California's ecosystems. And we've been a major contributor to campus-wide initiatives in biofuels and gene editing.
Beyond this long list, what makes me proudest is that UC Berkeley has come to recognize CNR as one of its most successful and dynamic centers of excellence. Our college embodies the relevance in modern society of the vision that created the land-grant universities. We share the mission of Berkeley —and of public education generally—to serve society through problem-solving research and discovery, instruction that enables students to realize their potential, and public service. Here, we really do aspire to “See the bigger picture and make a better world.”
Favorite memory of being dean?
That's easy: congratulating students at commencement. Education transforms lives. My own education—and my participation in the research and educational mission of UC Berkeley—transformed my life and my understanding of society and the environment around me. Berkeley students are overwhelmingly the first or second generation in their family to attend college. When they cross the stage in cap and gown, and their families and other loved ones applaud and cry, I feel privileged to have been allowed to be a part of their joy on that day.
What are the needs and opportunities you see for the College going forward?
Continued success for CNR depends on our ability to continue to grow our philanthropic base. Success here will help us to improve our facilities, fund cutting-edge research, and achieve strong financial support for our graduate students. We must also ensure that all members of our community feel they are heard, valued, and respected. I firmly believe that we can meet these challenges, in part because what we do is so directly relevant to many of the difficult problems facing our world—these are problems people want to solve. Complex issues require interdisciplinary solutions, and that's something at which this College excels.
CNR doesn't exist in a vacuum. Our fate is inextricably tied to the fate of the campus, and the fate of public education. No single unit can succeed without collaborating across administrative boundaries—and without the campus successfully addressing its financial challenges with respect to aging infrastructure, accessibility, and housing, among other issues. CNR needs to help Berkeley thrive in order to thrive itself.
Any other thoughts?
I've been part of the Berkeley and CNR community for 35 years and have enjoyed it all. I never cease to be amazed at the opportunities to interact with brilliant and inquisitive students; faculty colleagues who set the bar for excellence in research, teaching, and service; and dedicated staff who keep the College running no matter how difficult things get. I have never known what to expect at each new stage in my career here, other than that I would find myself working with people who inspire me to try harder to do a good job. As I change my business card back to reading simply “Professor of Forest Economics,” I know this feeling will continue.