As a boy, Ken Janda liked figuring out how things work. He’d take apart clocks, then try to put them back together. He’d study a candle and wonder where the flame came from. Explosions, fires – chemical reactions of all kinds – fascinated him. In short, he was “a typical nerd,” Janda says.

These days, as professor of chemistry at UCI, Janda still likes to figure out how things work – little things, like molecules and atoms. And the “nerd” has been elected chair of the UCI Academic Senate, a one-year post he assumed Sept. 1. His background in chemistry should serve him well in his new role.

“Chemists are problem solvers,” Janda says. “They deal with issues that range from theoretical to practical. They’re educated to think about issues from a broad perspective.”

Janda will face all kinds of issues as head of a senate that includes 1,358 faculty members and 26 committees. Under the UC system, the faculty shares in the governing of the university through the Academic Senate. Each campus has its own divisional senate composed of faculty members whose duties include reviewing departments, determining academic policy and advising the administration on personnel issues such as promoting or demoting professors.

“The faculty is uniquely empowered to help the administration make important decisions about how the university should work,” Janda says. “They can’t complain they don’t have influence over the direction of the university. That’s why UC is one of the best university systems in the world, and why UCI has become a major research university in only 40 years.”

Among the key issues the senate will grapple with during Janda’s tenure: a strategic growth plan for UCI, proposed changes in the curriculum by a task force on undergraduate education, the demand for student housing, the continued growth and quality of the graduate program, and the fate of the Farm School. Janda notes that his predecessor, former Senate Chair Joe DiMento, did a great job of discussing difficult issues in a collegial atmosphere, and he hopes to maintain the high standard.

Dealing with potentially divisive issues “takes an upbeat personality and a focus on long-term goals. You have to talk to a broad distribution of people,” Janda says. “We’ll have some very interesting discussions.”

A native of Denver, Colo., Janda received his doctorate from Harvard University in 1977 and joined UCI in 1992. He lives in University Hills with his wife, Patricia. “The most interesting life I can imagine is being an academic scientist,” he says. His work sheds light on how atoms and molecules fit together, and his findings on chemical bonding have helped establish UCI as a top research university.

“I’m really excited about working at a young university that’s still growing and still being defined,” Janda says.