At UCLA, it’s the start of a fall quarter unlike any other. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the vast majority of students are off campus and engaged in remote instruction, while staff and faculty are largely working from home. In addition, the campus is struggling with a substantial pandemic-related financial deficit and grappling with how to better support members of its Black community and others traditionally underrepresented in higher education.
But UCLA Chancellor Gene Block, who is shepherding the campus through this tumultuous period, remains optimistic. UCLA Newsroom talked with Chancellor Block — over Zoom — to learn about his priorities for the year, hear his advice for new students joining the Bruin community this fall, and get his thoughts on how this moment could change UCLA and all of higher education.
At this time of year, you’d typically be out welcoming students and participating in all the usual hustle and bustle that comes with the beginning of the fall quarter. What has your experience been this year?
So much of the start of the typical academic year is tactile — students and families carry these great big boxes up to the residence halls, old friends reunite with a hug, and my wife Carol and I usually spend time on the Hill shaking parents’ hands and talking with students and giving directions. Aside from graduation week, it’s my favorite time of year.
This fall, there is this strange dissonance. The campus is largely quiet … but the hustle and bustle is still there; it’s just taking place online. I joined virtual welcome events this year and spoke with student leaders from across campus, and our students are approaching the quarter with a lot of creativity and vigor.
The pandemic is affecting nearly every aspect of the university’s operations. What are some of your biggest concerns as we continue to wrestle with it?
The health of the community is really the highest priority, especially as we ramp up certain activities on campus. UCLA’s health system has of course remained open and has treated hundreds of patients who’ve contracted the coronavirus, but we are now conducting more research as well as some teaching on the campus. As we do more work in person, we need to be vigilant about health and safety.
Managing our finances is also an ongoing challenge. Looking at both increased costs and lost revenue, the pandemic has had a financial impact on UCLA of about $650 million — and counting. That’s a huge number. We’ve asked all campus units to reduce costs and start to plan for other long-term reductions, and we’re also thinking about how we can boost revenue in a variety of ways to make up the shortfall. We remain committed to protecting our academic core and to maintaining the quality of a UCLA education.
What aspects of how UCLA and our community have responded to the pandemic make you proudest?
There are so many responses that make me proud. Foremost, I’m grateful for our frontline health care workers and other staff who have worked to keep the larger Los Angeles community healthy. I’m also deeply appreciative of the faculty, staff and students who have transitioned this huge campus to a mostly remote educational platform. And I am inspired by all of the innovators — the faculty, staff and students who have designed new testing technology, generated educational programs for contact tracing, designed inexpensive ventilators, produced masks and more.
Do you think the pandemic and the upheaval that has accompanied it will result in lasting change to UCLA and all of higher education?
Without a doubt. At UCLA, I could easily imagine part of our workforce working fully or partially from home after the pandemic. This will have a positive impact on people’s quality of life, reduce our carbon footprint and free up space on campus for other needs including student services, program space and research space.
Looking more broadly at higher education, I think the pandemic has helped us see both the great power and some of the limitations of remote instruction. Public institutions like ours exist to provide excellent, accessible higher education … and it has never sat well with me that we can only admit a fraction of the students who wish to come here. In the next few years I think we may see some interesting experiments in virtual or hybrid instruction that aim to expand the number of students universities can serve.
You taught a seminar last spring when the campus made the switch to remote instruction. Why did you choose to do that — and how has it deepened your appreciation of what most students and faculty are experiencing this term?
The switch to remote instruction required an extraordinary effort on the part of our faculty, who had to transform their courses practically overnight into a new format. I thought it was important for me to be in the trenches with them, at least in a small way, so I taught a Fiat Lux seminar for 20 or so students that brought together faculty and administrators to talk about aspects of leadership during emergencies. We had Fielding School of Public Health Dean Ron Brookmeyer talk about the HIV/AIDS crisis. We had UCLA Chancellor Emeritus Al Carnesale talk about 9/11. We had former Vice Chancellor for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Jerry Kang talk about bias and discrimination during times of strife, looking at how Japanese Americans were treated during World War II and at the anti-Chinese rhetoric we’ve heard this year.
I also taught the course because I wanted to see how students were faring. One thing that really struck me was how remote instruction laid bare some of the socioeconomic differences in our student body. It drove home the need to look at our teaching through an equity lens.
What advice would you give to new students who are joining UCLA at this unique moment in our history?
I would say that much as we love our physical campus, UCLA is — above all else — a community of people. You are joining a community of scholars and you will not be deprived of the intellectual horsepower of UCLA even under these difficult conditions.
But this is also a moment that will require you to reach a little bit more. When a student is on campus, they’re inundated with clubs and sports and activities and opportunities to meet people. In an online environment, you’re going to need to go looking for those things more than you would have.
Finally, I would encourage you to “keep the faith” as all of the great aspects of a residential education will be available to you as soon as we can safely bring more students back to campus.
This summer, after the killings of more unarmed Black men and women, we saw a surge of activism and institutions around the country struggle with how to respond to longstanding racial injustice. How is UCLA deepening its own commitment to equity, diversity and inclusion?
I was deeply shaken by the events that occurred this past year. George Floyd’s death — an overt murder, really — was just horrific to watch. And I recognize that while broader society had a sort of awakening this year, this mistreatment and violence has been the experience of Black Americans and others for many, many decades.
At UCLA we have worked hard to make the campus a place where students of all backgrounds can thrive and succeed … but we still have more to do. There have been significant hurdles for students of color and, in particular, Black students. This summer, Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Emily Carter and I committed to a set of actions we called “Rising to the Challenge.” Some of these include creating a Black Student Resource Center and enhancing the intellectual environment for both Black Bruins and the study of issues affecting Black life. We are also talking with students, faculty and staff about our public safety operations to determine how we can create an environment where our whole community feels safe and respected. We just announced an update to the efforts a few weeks ago — the work must be ongoing.
With all of these critical issues on your mind, what can you tell the UCLA community about the importance of wellness during times of great anxiety?
Regarding the pandemic, it’s become clear to everyone that this is a marathon, not a sprint. All of us need to pay attention to our physical and cognitive well-being, however we can, and to think about what we need to stay healthy over the long term. For me personally, I’ve become a regular on the treadmill. I’ve returned to repairing some of my antique tube radios that have been accumulating dust in the basement. I’m also learning how to program my Arduino microprocessor with the hopes of someday building a robot for my grandchildren.
I think we also must remain optimistic. This is a very challenging moment for UCLA and for all of us, but we will get through it, and in some ways, our campus may even change for the better.