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UCSC Chancellor Cindy Larive on Housing, Pandemic, and Research

2020 was full of learning for new university leader

This past March, UCSC Chancellor Cindy Larive hoped Covid-19 would only shut down campus for a month. COURTESY PHOTO

In spite of what’s been a tough year in many ways, UCSC Chancellor Cindy Larive says the school she leads has a lot to be proud of.

The university created a robust Covid-19 testing lab and has been involved in a long list of research projects. Larive, who took over in July 2019, notes that the school hired its first Nobel laureate, molecular biologist Carol Greider, this past May. She also finds herself fascinated by a wide breadth of campus research. That includes a new $5 million astrobiology grant to study the possibility of life on other planets. Other accomplishments include issues local to the West Coast, like studying wildfires, coastal erosion and the genome of chinook salmon.

Larive, a bioanalytical chemist, previously served as executive vice chancellor for UC Riverside. We talked to her over Zoom about the university’s up-and-down year, the future of on-campus housing, and what’s next for higher education. 

2020 has been a challenging year in a lot of ways. What has it been like for you?

CINDY LARIVE: I’m really proud of the way the university’s responded. We’ve had the pandemic, and then we’ve had the fires and the budgetary disruption. But the university’s really pulled together. Our faculty and staff turned on a dime to start remote instruction in March, and I look back now and see how naïve I was. I figured, ‘We’ll go to a week of remote instruction; then we’ll have finals; then we’ll have spring break. We maybe need another week. And then we’ll come back and things will come back, and we’ll all be OK.’ Wow, we’ve all learned a lot about infectious disease since then. The spring term, we did well. Then, so many faculty worked over the summer to refine their course material—trying to make remote learning engaging, relevant, fun. 

Then managing infection rates—our testing laboratory’s a real point of pride for us and what it’s been able to do for our campus and for the county. That a campus without a medical school could stand up a testing facility in May, thanks to our faculty and staff, and now we’re doing 800 tests a day—that’s just really gratifying.

So how has the pandemic affected the university?

The UC leaders set up pretty regular meetings to talk about the pandemic. Those have continued with President [Michael] Drake’s arrival. The chancellors and the Office of the President meet every week for an hour to talk about Covid and what’s happening on our campuses. Carrie Byington, who is the systemwide vice president arrived shortly before the pandemic, and she is not only an expert in infectious disease, but worked on the SARS virus. She knows a lot about these things. That was very helpful. Also participating in these calls is [UC San Francisco] Chancellor [Sam] Hawgood, who is himself a physician. And now we have Michael Drake, who is a physician. Those conversations have benefited me personally but also all of the campuses in thinking proactively about managing throughout the pandemic.

How has distance working been going for you and your colleagues?

It’s going well. I’ll be honest: I was a skeptic about remote work. I thought, ‘A big part of work is showing up and being there.’ And I’m really going to be excited when I can go back to being on campus every day. But people have worked very hard to be able to find continuity. And for some, remote work is better for them. That can be for a variety of reasons. It can be because they’re balancing a partner’s work schedule and family responsibilities. It can be because they’re not spending long hours commuting, and they can use that time for work and for life balance, and it may let them live in a place that they prefer. But for most of the university, I think we’ll go back once it’s safe to do so. For some of our staff, depending on their jobs and their personal situations, we’ll see an increase in remote work, and I think that will be more or less universal. That’s not confined to the university.

What about distance learning? How’s that going for the school’s students and teachers?

For some interactions, the remote access has some benefits. Remote psychiatry for some students makes them feel a little more comfortable. For others … there are some who have trouble staying engaged. We did a survey of students to see how things are going for them this quarter. And it’s hard to separate out—what are the impacts of remote instruction, and what are the consequences of the pandemic? For many students, it feels like the whole world is falling apart, so it’s kind of hard to parse those things out. But there are a number of students who report that it’s harder to stay engaged and motivated. I think that also spills over to some of the remote work. We lose some of the human interactions that allow us to stay engaged. But I don’t think those challenges are unique to UC Santa Cruz, and we’re doing everything we can to support students, faculty and staff through this time.

The UCs have not granted students a break in tuition after the switch to remote learning. Do you worry at all about students getting full value out of their education?

The courses are different. Some courses may work better online. And students are getting the credit. They’re making their progress toward their educational outcomes. I don’t think UC Santa Cruz intends to become an online university. But after this, I expect that we will have more online courses and more online programs, and that’s important as a point of access because access to higher education is one of our core values. We saw that, in the summer quarter, our summer course enrollments were up 35%. That’s because summer’s optional, and all those courses were available remotely and online. There’s a balance between the in-person experience—and the value that that can bring—and providing access. … I think about—what will students of the future want? Will they all want a four-year residential experience? Probably not. I think people will not look at education in the same way in the future.

You sound optimistic about the long-term changes to education that the pandemic may have sparked.

I’m an optimist by nature, so I am optimistic about that. I also think that, if you think about UC Santa Cruz—what do we have that makes us distinctive? And much of it is that experience, the experience of being on our campus, which is one of the most beautiful campuses in the world. It’s the experience of research. So many of our students do research. It is also those experiences that students have while they’re here that help to bring value. It’s two sides of a coin. One side is that, yes, some students are going to want more access to online or remote or flexible learning. After the pandemic, I think all of us are going to put a higher value on experiences—whether that experience is doing something interactive at the university or just having some freedom to go to art galleries and museums and other types of things that we like to experience indoors that right now are more problematic.

That’s what I think about this flexibility idea. And how do we think about things in a way that’s maybe more flexible than the traditional academic calendar? We’ve been married to an academic calendar that devalues summer. This might work best at the master’s level, but we can think about a course where you do most of it online and then you come for a high-intensity MFA during the summer.

Are graduate students still withholding grades as part of a strike to request a $1,400 monthly raise?

No, I don’t think that will be an issue for us this quarter. I think that has quieted down some, although the challenges of graduate students remain. And while I don’t think the COLA [cost of living adjustment] is the solution, housing in Santa Cruz is a problem for folks. And it has to be a number-one priority of the university. We also have some structural changes that will make grade withholding less effective in the future—by having grades that aren’t turned in in a certain period of time convert to a passing grade. That’s something our Academic Senate did.

Just to clarify, that change is something the Academic Senate already passed, meaning that it has now gone into effect?

Last spring. It’s really handy, not just due to the disruptions we experienced last year. Even when I was at Riverside, we would often have a situation where a lecturer might leave the university and not turn in their grades. Or there would be an unlikely thing where someone becomes ill or passes away. There are a number of reasons to want to have just a simple mechanism for just resolving those kinds of grades issues, when they’re not submitted in a timely manner.

Did you or anyone else learn anything from the strike and the resulting impasse?

It may be too soon to say, and you may know that we are still in litigation about this. I would probably prefer not to comment at this time.

Who’s suing whom?

I wouldn’t characterize it as a suit, but there are unfair labor practice charges against the UC system and UC Santa Cruz and also against the UFAW.

What was your reaction to a Santa Cruz County judge rescinding approval of Student Housing West, a major proposed on-campus housing project?

I actually think it was a good ruling for the university. The judge affirmed our environmental impact report, the EIR. That’s the environmental analysis done under CEQA for this project. Getting that affirmed is a very major accomplishment for us. It’s important for us, because we know that housing students on campus is good for us and good for the community. Study after study shows that students living on campus have a better chance at success and then, also, they’re better able to take advantage of those experiences that I talked about earlier. So we’re eager to be able to house more students on campus to relieve housing pressure also in Santa Cruz. What the judge said was that the process that the Regents went through in which they approved our project didn’t follow all their own rules. He has said that the Regents need to reaffirm the project. Sometime in the spring quarter probably, we will be going back to the Regents to have them look at the project again.

We always hear from Santa Cruz community members that UCSC needs to build more housing. Were you at all surprised or frustrated by the pushback in light of those pressures—the high demand and high cost of housing?

I wouldn’t say I was surprised. Set the university aside and look at housing developments throughout the Bay Area. There’s a lot of resistance to building housing. We’re starting to see some changes in the Santa Cruz area, but I hope that in the future, for the university, for people who live in our region and in the Bay Area more broadly, that people understand the importance of affordable housing and the value that brings. I hope we can move down that road at some point.

Update, Tuesday, Dec. 15, 3pm: An earlier version of this story misspelled UCSF Chancellor Sam Hawgood’s name.

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