For many Bruins, the start of the 2021–22 academic year marked a monumental milestone: a return to the UCLA campus after more than 18 months spent working and learning remotely. Though things in Westwood still look a bit different than usual — large lecture courses remain virtual, masks are required indoors and most events have other safety protocols in place — the transition back to in-person instruction and activities was a major step toward resuming regular campus operations.
At this pivotal moment for the campus, UCLA Newsroom talked with Chancellor Gene Block, who is overseeing the response to the pandemic, about the state of the institution and some of his priorities for the coming year.
Most UCLA students and faculty, and a good number of staff, returned to campus this past month for the first time since March of 2020. What does this moment mean to UCLA? What does it mean to you?
For UCLA, I think the return to campus was a landmark event. Students, in particular, have been eager to get back to in-person learning and activities that are difficult to reproduce in a virtual environment — things like chatting with friends in residence halls late into the night, getting involved in student organizations, or coming out to cheer for Bruin sports teams alongside thousands of others. There is a sense of excitement and even liberation from the pandemic, but it’s tempered by a few things. Many of us have been through some very, very hard times. We know that our current situation is fragile and remains dependent upon everyone following health and safety protocols. There’s also a new maturity and recognition that the pandemic experience is not binary; we may be coping with a lingering, endemic situation for years.
For me personally, our return is a validation that UCLA remains strong and durable and that we were able to overcome some incredible challenges to reopen in person. More than anything this is due to our people and their flexibility, creativity and forethought.
I also take pride that we’ve stuck to our mission, stuck to our values, and supported our community over the last year and a half. We made the decision not to lay off any of our employees due to the pandemic, and we kept that promise. We worked hard to provide students learning remotely with a rich academic experience, and overall we succeeded.
With the quarter just getting underway, are you concerned about COVID-19 outbreaks on campus, whether among unvaccinated community members or from breakthrough cases?
We know that UCLA will see infections this year — we can tell based on our own early data and from the experiences of our peers on the semester system who started school over a month ago. Thankfully, with 96% of our students vaccinated, most cases likely will not be extremely serious. We have contingency plans in the event of outbreaks, accommodations in place for those unable to attend class, and 500 spaces set aside for isolation or quarantine. I am feeling confident in our preparation.
Are there plans to shift to remote education if needed?
Yes, a shift back to remote — whether for a short period or longer duration — is one of our contingencies. We were able to switch promptly to remote education in March of 2020 and we have the infrastructure in place to do it again if need be.
At the start of last year, UCLA was facing a pandemic-related financial impact in the hundreds of millions of dollars. How are campus finances looking now?
Without minimizing the impact that the pandemic has had on UCLA finances, I can say that we have fared as well or better than many of our peer institutions. Our CFO Gregg Goldman uses a great analogy to describe our campus budget; he often says that our financial support comes from many sources, almost like legs supporting the base of a stool. Even if one or two of those legs get a little wobbly, the stool can stand. Most of the legs of UCLA’s stool have remained sturdy throughout the pandemic — including sponsored research funding, tuition income, state support, philanthropy and, after an initial dip, revenue from our health system. The most significant impact we saw was in auxiliaries such as housing and hospitality. As the living units mostly emptied out, we had far fewer students paying for housing or for meals in the dining halls, so revenue took a hit. The good news is that these services will be quick to recover now that students have returned to campus, and we will make up for those losses over time.
Do you think UCLA will ultimately emerge from the pandemic significantly changed? In what ways?
I think UCLA and all of higher education will change as a result of this massive, forced experiment in remote work and instruction.
I admit that I was initially skeptical of remote work for our employees — I thought we’d be dealing with productivity issues and people would run into all kinds of distractions — but it turns out I was completely wrong. Many of our employees can work remotely very well at least part time, and this can really improve quality of life — not least by cutting down on time spent commuting in LA.
Increasing remote work, in turn, asks us to think about new approaches for our use of campus space. If employees are coming to campus only twice a week, they may not need their own dedicated office space. Since our campus is low on student activity space, and in some cases educational and research space as well, this changes how we think about our available real estate.
We also need to consider the implications of remote learning. Today, we have more familiarity with building course content for remote education and we have better platforms for delivering that content. One way I want to capitalize on this is by making it easier for our alumni to return to UCLA — virtually — to take courses throughout their lives. I don’t want our graduates to go get a degree from an online institution or build their skills elsewhere if they can get high-quality instruction from their alma mater.
Additionally, remote learning means we have the capacity to reach many more students. UCLA is the most applied-to university in the country, and each year we have to turn down tens of thousands of qualified applicants. That has never sat well with me. If we were to incorporate some online education into our traditional residential college experience, we would be able to serve more students. Maybe the UCLA experience of the future is not four years in Westwood; maybe it’s three years in Westwood, and one year of service spent teaching in a public school in downtown L.A. or conducting research in the Congo basin while taking a remote class in the evening.
With more and better remote education, we can also make the summer quarter a much more robust academic term. This would help our students progress more quickly to their degrees and thus allow us to serve more learners.
After a banner admissions year, UCLA’s incoming class is one of the most diverse in campus history. Offers of admission to Pacific Islander students more than doubled; offers to African American students increased by 21%; and to American Indian students by 28%. How do we build on that success?
This year’s numbers really were exceptional. Still, there is room for improvement if we are to better serve all of the diverse peoples that make up our state. One area we can invest is in our yield efforts — the work we do to convince the very best students to actually come here once they’ve been admitted. That’s a sales job, and it’s a job done best by peers. We have student communities who play this essential role in helping us recruit top students, and we can do more to deepen those partnerships.
We also know that over the long term, greater student diversity at UCLA can only be sustained if we foster a healthy and supportive campus climate that allows everyone to feel at home here. So we are investing in student support and campus climate initiatives like the new Black Bruin Resource Center, which just opened in Kerckhoff Hall. We also just announced a host of initiatives to build up our academic community related to Latinx life and issues. The BruinHub in the John Wooden Center, which just opened last week, is another model that provides rest spaces and a community hub for students with long commutes and those experiencing housing insecurity.
Aside from managing the twists and turns of the pandemic, what else is on your mind as we begin the academic year?
There are many exciting things in the works. We just launched DataX, an initiative that will help students and researchers in any discipline incorporate data science knowledge and techniques into their work. We are laying the groundwork for a really transformational effort to bring more diversity to the makeup of our faculty body; a wider breadth of backgrounds and perspectives within our faculty will broaden the kind of work scholars take on, ensure students who are historically underrepresented in higher education find role models in academia who look like them, and help all of our students learn how to operate in an increasingly multicultural world. Another major focus this year will be on making improvements to our campus safety operations to ensure that every member of our community feels welcome, respected and protected from harm.
What are you personally most excited for as UCLA once again becomes a bustling residential campus?
There’s a rhythm to this campus that’s unmistakable — and it’s so wonderful to see it re-emerging. I love hearing the sounds of our musicians practicing, watching dancers out on Bruin Plaza, seeing students and faculty out on campus engaged in conversations, whether they are important or casual. I just love all of the energy that flows through the campus when it is fully alive.