Stanford Report Online

Stanford Report, September 27, 2000
Osgood to conduct Faculty Senate


Perhaps a preview of Brad Osgood's leadership of this year's Faculty Senate came during that body's last meeting in June, when he bade farewell to outgoing chair Mark Zoback with a humorous musical tribute. With an accompanist on guitar, Osgood interrupted the staid proceedings by belting out a song to the tune of "Zorro" whose original lyrics included: "Zoback! Zoback! Zoback! In moments you will be free. Zoback! Zoback! Zoback! Next year, it will be me!"

The tribute was pure Osgood because it included music -- his beloved avocation -- and humor, one of his defining traits.

Asked last week if the senate should expect regular musical interludes from him, Osgood, a professor of electrical engineering, noted that he plays solo trombone. "And solo trombone, unless you're on a street corner playing 'Rock of Ages' for coins being tossed in, does not usually go over that well." (But the trombone apparently went over well enough a day earlier, when he lugged his instrument, along with a spectrum analyzer, to his Sophomore College class titled "Mathematics of the Information Age" and played a few notes as part of a discussion and demonstration of the frequency spectrum of different instruments.)

In fact, not only will Osgood presumably not be singing or playing trombone at this year's senate meetings, he won't even be talking much. Or at least he's not supposed to: The job of senate chair is chiefly a behind-the-scenes one, helping the steering committee set priorities, invite guests and the like.

"All I can do is say, 'This comes to us moved and seconded by this committee and we're going to move to a vote.' I'll have to think of some way to spice that up. I'll try something."

This year should be an interesting time at the senate, he adds, what with a new president and a new provost at the university's helm. "I've decided my first act is to declare a honeymoon period." And how long will that last? "As long as I'm president of the senate. I hope it will last that long."

While the faculty and the administration are occasionally of necessity friendly adversaries, Osgood knows and respects President John Hennessy and Provost John Etchemendy -- and is pleased to observe that both of them come very much from a faculty perspective. During last year's steering committee meetings, he says when dealing with Hennessy "it felt like you were talking to one of your colleagues on the faculty -- albeit a very knowledgeable one, one who knew more than you about the big picture. I think he and Etch will be the same way."

But aren't there going to be some natural tensions?

"There's naturally a certain distance . . . it's not like snapping towels with them in the shower room or something like that. And that's properly so."

Here's a math problem: How much faster does Brad Osgood talk during a 90-minute interview compared to the average Faculty Senate member? And since Osgood's field is geometric function theory, perhaps he also could graphically map out the constantly changing angles of discussion subjects during that same interview. Senate meetings, with their relatively set agendas, will -- again presumably -- not jump around as much.

The topics ricochet around his office in the David Packard Electrical Engineering Building like so many firing neurotransmitters: music, his wife's paintings (three of them on the wall), his first hand-built computer (the casings littering the floor), his fondness for sitting on faculty committees (really!), the Science, Math and Engineering Core and the potential stuff of future senate agendas: interdisciplinary programs, the housing crisis, recruitment of Stanford staff and the undergraduate science requirement. Not to mention the aborted vacation he, his wife and two children took this summer; well, they actually drove as far south as San Simeon but wound up back in Palo Alto at 2 a.m. when no lodging of any kind could be found anywhere.

"Talk about not having any credibility left with your kids," he says, reliving for a nanosecond the automotive odyssey to which he had subjected his 6- and 11-year-olds.

Osgood's election by his peers to senate chair seems natural following all the volunteer work he has done as a faculty member since arriving at Stanford in 1985. He was initially hired as a math professor, but left following a disagreement with the department over the teaching of calculus. Now 45, he's served several terms in the senate, sitting on such key panels as the Committee on Committees, the Committee on Undergraduate Studies and the Steering Committee. He also has been tapped for other tasks, serving on the Commission on Undergraduate Education, chairing the Science Core Advisory Committee and, just this year, leading the search committee for the new Dean of Religious Life. Only three years after arriving on campus, he won the Gores Award for excellence in teaching. In 1992, he was the first recipient of the Bing Centennial Teaching Professorship, which recognizes the highest level of excellence in teaching and is awarded to a faculty member "who has exhibited singular commitment to undergraduates during his or her career at Stanford."

And yet, many faculty members do not seem to pay particular attention to faculty governance issues, at least as evidenced by low participation in senate elections.

"On the one hand, the faculty want to have a say. But they're also happy if someone else is running things -- as long as they agree with their decisions," he says.

But he's eager this year to do as much as possible to generate more awareness of what the senate does, "because it really is a forum for the faculty to most directly participate in self-governance. It's a place where the president and provost do sit among the other members of the faculty, and there are many discussions that are genuinely interesting and important."

For example, the importance to Osgood of a senate discussion several years ago leading to changes in the distribution requirement for the sciences only recently has come into relief.

"The general education requirements policy for the sciences was kind of made up in the senate in the course of discussions," he says, readily acknowledging that "I was part of that discussion." But, he says, "I don't think we realized that actions don't just have reasons, they have consequences. And I don't think we fully realized the consequences of the actions that were taken as far as the science requirements were concerned. I think the science requirements were weakened."

Those comments came after discussing the status of the Science, Mathematics and Engineering (SME) Core, a program for undergraduates who are not interested in majoring in the sciences that for Osgood clearly has been a labor of love. He has team-taught the core's "Light" sequence. Pointing to the set of loose-leaf binders at the top of his floor-to-ceiling bookcases, he says, "Those notebooks up there are full of nothing but 'Light' course material. I've worked like hell on this. I'd hate for this to go to waste!"

SME, a cross-disciplinary approach to learning with an emphasis on real-world relevance, is struggling because of the simple fact that fewer students than had been hoped are enrolling in its classes. Osgood says there are a number of reasons why, and the program is being fine-tuned this year. But he says the absence of a lab requirement attached to the general education requirements is one factor. SME courses have labs.

"If [a lab] were required, we'd be a much more attractive way of doing it" for those students not primarily interested in the sciences, he says. But of the possibility of revisiting the science requirement during this year's senate, he says, "whether or not that's something ready for prime time, I just don't know. And it would be tough for me because I'd just have to be sitting there -- I couldn't take part in the discussion."

What senators can expect to discuss this year include, on Oct. 12, a presentation of the administration's proposed revisions of faculty housing programs. There also may be another update on the university's General Use Permit proposal, which faces action by local authorities at the end of October. Also possibly on tap is a discussion about attracting and retaining university staff when housing in the area is so expensive.

The senate also will be called upon to act on renewing various interdisciplinary programs (IDPs). Its review of such programs generated much debate last year, as some faculty proposed imposing greater scrutiny over IDPs and raised questions about their funding and status.

How interdisciplinary approaches can be taken toward research and learning, Osgood says, "is I think going to be one of the biggest challenges to universities in general in the next 25 years, and Stanford may be leading the way toward this challenge." While he is an obvious fan of crossing department lines, "interdisciplinary research and interdisciplinary teaching puts a strain on traditional departmental boundaries, and Stanford, I think, excels in putting strains on those boundaries." Bio-X is great, he says, but it too will be stressful to departments. "Not to put it as where your loyalties lie, but if you're involved in this, then you're not involved in that," he says.

While senate meetings are likely to move more linearly than a conversation with Osgood, the new chair may add a wild card to the mix: the agenda item called New Business.

"As far as I can tell, that's a vessel waiting to be filled. As far as I know, there never has been any new business. It's a standing agenda item," he says. That item could be used to allow faculty members to speak briefly on a topic of their choosing.

But not a lot of words, or tunes, are supposed to be coming from Osgood. This year, he's just the conductor.

Brad Osgood posed on the Main Quad with his trusty trombone. The electrical engineering professor, who grew up with musician parents, rehearses weekly with a 17-piece big band and performs regularly with a sextet. No performances are included on upcoming Faculty Senate agendas, however.
Photo: L.A. Cicero