If you think you can contribute to making UCLA an even greater place — just do it.
Dr. Andrew Leuchter, new chair of the UCLA Academic Senate, has taken this motto to heart throughout his 25 years on the faculty. "If you think, ‘I could fix that problem if somebody gave me a chance to,’ then you’re obligated to try and do it," he said.
A professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, Leuchter has contributed to efforts ranging from enhancing curricula in the medical school to improving support for research. He has served leadership roles as director of the Division of Adult Psychiatry, vice chair of the Department of Psychiatry, chief of staff of the Neuropsychiatric Hospital and associate dean of the School of Medicine.
Several years ago, he enlisted in Academic Senate efforts, in collaboration with UCLA administrators, to overhaul operations in the Office of Research Administration, including the complex arenas of protecting human subjects and managing contracts and grants — the very lifeblood of research.
Through that experience, which led to substantial improvements in that office, Leuchter recalled, "I saw that you can effect change." He also discovered that "it’s very fun to do that on the broader campus scale. In the Senate, I get to be in the same room with English and arts professors, geologists and astrophysicists and sociologists… and we’re all working together on the university’s problems."
Leuchter’s post as senate chair may be his most challenging leadership role yet, given the current economic climate.
"The budget crisis that the state faces and that has been passed on to the UC system… is reshaping the university," he said. "It’s clear that the public commitment to supporting higher education has eroded significantly and, unfortunately, is likely to continue to erode. So we’re on our own more than we have been before."
Faculty, he said, are being asked "to be more selective in what we teach, more creative in how we teach, and more efficient in how we administer." The challenge is to accomplish this without jeopardizing UCLA’s core values of excellence, accessibility and diversity.
Academic excellence is threatened by the budget crisis in myriad ways, Leuchter said, not the least of which are faculty recruitment and retention. For faculty, "excellence means having a critical mass of peers who are topnotch leaders in their fields," he said. But with faculty hiring having slowed significantly while senior faculty continue to retire, "it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain the breadth and the depth of our programs. How are we going to sustain a young and vibrant faculty, a new generation of scholars, when we’re hiring less and less?"
Added to that, he said, "it can be hard to hold on to outstanding faculty who get very good offers from other institutions. We have done extremely well, better than many of our peer institutions have done in faculty retention, but it’s a continuing challenge."
Also at risk, Leuchter said, is faculty diversity — the "representation of a broad range of views and a broad range of sociocultural backgrounds that makes for a vibrant academy and serves as a role model for a diverse student body." And student diversity itself may be impacted by escalating tuition costs, making affordability an increasing issue for the significant proportion of undergraduates who depend on Pell Grants and other financial aid.
"Our extraordinary accessibility has been a strength of the UC system," Leuchter said. "UCLA — where at least a third of our undergrads will be the first in their families to graduate from college — has been an engine for social mobility, taking people who come from disadvantaged backgrounds and giving them access to a leading world-class research university. How many institutions can do that?"
This social mission has special meaning for Leuchter, whose first language was Polish and whose parents came to this country after World War II. "My parents had the advantage of coming to this country with excellent educations. They always taught me that education is the key to success in life," he said.
Having the faculty reach out to the public to tell UCLA’s story is one of Leuchter’s goals as senate chair.
"Most people don’t realize what an engine of social mobility we are," he said, "and what an economic engine we continue to be" as a major employer in the L.A. region, center of research that advances medicine and technology, and launch pad for new businesses. "People in the community don’t necessarily know that extraordinary things happen here every day."
Much of this work stems from UCLA’s "entrepreneurial environment," Leuchter said. "This is one of the things that has always drawn me to UCLA, and which is an exciting aspect of being on the faculty. If one has an innovative idea, if one has an unorthodox approach to addressing a major problem, there’s room to pursue that in our system.
"UCLA has always been very encouraging of risk-takers, people who are pushing the edge of the envelope in the work that they’re doing in terms of teaching or research or service," said the Senate chair.
Leuchter’s own research, which "seemed a bit out of the mainstream originally," has opened up new approaches to treating neuropsychiatric disorders. For the past several years, he and his colleagues have devoted themselves to identifying biomarkers — such as brain scan data — to enable psychiatrists to personalize medications for individual patients suffering from depression, fibromyalgia and other conditions.
"These are terrible illnesses, in many cases extraordinarily disabling," said Leuchter. "Depression costs $83 billion a year in terms of lost productivity, absenteeism from work and the cost of treatment itself, not to mention causing immense human suffering." When Leuchter and his colleagues first began their research, psychiatrists were successful only about one-third of the time in prescribing the most effective antidepressant to help a particular patient. Today, he said, "We’ve developed methods that can predict with about 75 percent accuracy whether the medication that we’ve chosen is the one that’s going to get the patient well."
UCLA’s bent for risk-taking entrepreneurism has taken on more urgency in recent years, Leuchter said. "Not only do we have to be innovative in thinking of new research questions to ask, but we have to think very creatively of new sources of funding, new ways to support ourselves."
One promising avenue, he said, is the more aggressive pursuit of translating faculty research into practical — and profitable — applications, from life-saving medical devices to cutting-edge technology. "To the extent that we can recognize and capitalize on these opportunities" — via licensing to and partnering with industry through UCLA’s Office of Intellectual Property — "these can be tremendous sources of revenue for the campus," he said.
Ultimately, Leuchter would like to see faculty have a greater voice in campus strategic planning in collaboration with the administration — a next step in the system of shared governance that, he said, works quite well at UCLA. "Faculty partner very effectively with the administration. The administration is very open to the faculty’s viewpoint, and the faculty frequently are influential in helping set priorities.
"I would like to see the administration and the Senate work together in crafting a strategic plan, making decisions about the direction in which we want to go with our programs," Leuchter said.
"One thing that economic pressures have brought to bear is the sense that we can’t necessarily be all things (to all people). We need to decide what are our major strengths, where we need to increase our strength and where we might even want to start new programs. It just comes down to making choices."