As the world emerges from the COVID-19 crisis and faces new realities, colleges and universities will play a role in shaping the future — both through the work of researchers and scholars studying pressing societal issues, and because institutions of higher education will be able to serve even greater numbers of learners.

That was a unifying idea discussed by some of the experts brought together by the Milken Institute at its Global Conference, which was held in Beverly Hills Oct. 17–20. The 24th edition of the conference convened thousands of leaders from government, health care, finance, technology, philanthropy, media and higher education to tackle urgent global economic and social issues.

Building on the conference’s theme of “Charting a New Course,” UCLA Chancellor Gene Block joined several discussions with the aim of sharing lessons learned from recent social movements and the global pandemic to reimagine a more prosperous future for all.

The first conversation Block participated in on Oct. 18 focused on the future of cities and also featured Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti; Stephen Benjamin, mayor of Columbia, South Carolina; Annie Donovan, executive vice president and COO, Local Initiatives Support Corporation; and moderator Lois Scott, president, Epoch Advisors.

“Cities keep growing and they keep thriving, but they’re changing. We’re seeing from the pandemic something that we refer to as ‘social scarring,’ or deep psychological impact that’s not going away quickly,” said Block, who shared research from UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs about the evolution of cities. “It’s changing people’s behavior and how they feel about density.”

Given changing needs and demands of residents in urban centers, all of the panelists noted there is an opportunity to reshape how a city serves its constituents. Garcetti and Block agreed that this is an exciting moment for urban centers and urban planners, as more residents want to live, learn, work and play all within a few miles of the same area. Panelists also felt that this is the time for more public-private partnerships, reinvestments in innovation and infrastructure, and risk taking to address income inequality.

Recognizing that people’s behaviors may be altered for a long time, Block said cities will need to adjust the ways in which they provide transportation, entertainment, housing or health care. Block also emphasized the need for students and scholars within universities to contribute both as an intellectual community and as individuals to address collective challenges facing the urban core.

Later, Block joined a wide-ranging conversation on the value of higher education and the ways the pandemic has transformed teaching and learning.

Moderated by Jeffrey Selingo, contributor to the Atlantic and the Washington Post, the panel brought together a variety of  perspectives from online education companies and more traditional institutions. Other panelists included Daphne Kis, CEO of WorldQuant University; Jeff Maggioncalda, CEO of Coursera; and Gabrielle Starr, president of Pomona College.

The panelists acknowledged that while the pandemic created numerous challenges for higher education, it also opened up new opportunities and new ways of thinking, such as embracing hybrid modes of teaching or fully remote programming. Panelists discussed the need for educational institutions to be more flexible and more receptive to transformation and technological evolution.     

Block said that while he believes in the value of a residential campus experience, UCLA saw successes with remote education, including improvements in performance among first-generation students, Pell grant recipients and underrepresented student groups, in particular.

He stressed that the university can and should expand its educational offerings and shared that UCLA recently launched the Bruin Promise, a “lifetime warranty” for UCLA alumni that will allow them to take classes after graduation wherever they are in the world or wherever they are in their careers.

“It’s an idea that your relationship stays with us forever,” Block said. “All of our alumni become part of this large educational network and we can continue to serve their needs.”