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Richard Caldecott

How to make a college from scratch

Richard Caldecott, founding dean of the College of Biological Sciences, talks about his vision for CBS and forces that shaped the college.

Back in the early 1960s, University of Minnesota President Meredith Wilson was concerned that the University of Minnesota wasn’t keeping up with the emerging field of molecular biology. The reason, external advisors said, was that biology fell between the cracks. Agriculture was strong, but research was related to food production And while the Medical School had a national reputation, the focus was on clinical care and research. There was little in the way of basic research to understand how things work at the molecular level. So Wilson determined to create a college of biological sciences and convened a search committee to recruit a founding dean.

Dick Caldecott was asked to join the group, even though he wasn’t actually a University of Minnesota professor at the time. He had a USDA appointment and funding from the Atomic Energy Commission to study molecular and radiation biology on the campus. He had made a name for himself with the Atomic Energy Commission investigating the effects of radiation on human biology and had done research for both the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations. He was in the Midwest to study the effects of radioactive fallout on Minnesota wheat.

The committee tried to attract a molecular biologist from a leading University, but was unsuccessful because they didn’t have any buildings or a faculty to offer. So the committee drafted Caldecott, who accepted the challenge. In 1965, the College of Biological Sciences came into being with Caldecott in charge.

The University gave Caldecott the botany and zoology departments (formerly part of the College of Liberal Arts) to get CBS started. Dick formed genetics (his own field) and ecology departments. He acquired the Dight Institute of Human Genetics, the Bell Museum of Natural History, and the University’s field stations at Itasca and Cedar Creek. Later, he generated some friction with faculty when he closed the zoology department and divided faculty between the genetics and ecology departments. Cell biologists were reassigned to genetics (which became genetics and cell biology) while behaviorists went with ecology, which became ecology and behavior. The decision wasn’t popular, but Caldecott felt the breadth of expertise within the zoology department was dated and not conducive to collaborative research.

Dick says excellent faculty in key areas and administrative assistants enabled him to get CBS off to a strong start. He is particularly quick to credit administrative assistants, all of whom were women, for their role in creating the college.

In 1965, CBS had only one building – Snyder Hall, on the St. Paul campus. Plans were underway for Gortner Laboratories, which was constructed in 1967. Gaining funding for additional facilities, which were essential, was an uphill battle. Caldecott worked closely with University administration and the state legislature to win funds for the Biological Sciences Center. And he established relationships with legislators that led to tens of millions in support for Hasselmo Hall and the Molecular and Cellular Biology Building.

Asked what he would want his legacy to be, Caldecott said “A guy who played it straight and lived up to his convictions even though people gave him hell.”

Caldecott stepped down as dean in 1984 and worked on special assignments in the University’s central administration until his retirement in 1992.


Dean Elde interviews Founding Dean Richard Caldecott