Remarks to the UC Board of Regents - Sept. 9, 2021

UC President Michael V. Drake's remarks to the Board of Regents at its Sept. 9, 2021 meeting, as delivered:

Thank you, Chair Estolano. Good to see everyone.

This was a meeting we would normally have during the annual retreat, where we have a chance to relax a bit and have more thoughtful conversations about where we are and where we’re going. I regret that we have to do it virtually but appreciate everyone being here this morning for our discussion. So thank you. Very good to see you. 

Board meetings are often busy with the immediate issues facing our very complex institution. But from time to time it’s important for us to step back and examine where we are today, and where we are going.

We have spent much of the past 18 months reacting to pandemic-related crises…today, as we reflect back, it’s important that we also look ahead.

Reviewing this past year, we see significant achievement in the face of these headwinds. In our health care world, we can safely say this has been the most challenging period in our lives. I’ll give three illustrative examples:

First, the heroic efforts of our health care colleagues have been awe-inspiring. We stood at the forefront of technology and the forefront of science particularly in these most difficult times: We were one of the first systems to develop in-house testing of the coronavirus; our scientists helped the world understand how the virus works and how to treat its effects; we leveraged 3-D printing for face shields; and we helped the State pilot a California-wide app to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

So to our food service workers, bus drivers, laboratory scientists, clinical staff, our doctors, to our day-and-night bedside nurses, we cannot thank you enough. Many times your efforts resulted in miraculous cures, as seen in our better than predicted morbidity and mortality rates…literally answering our patients’ prayers.

Sadly, we have also collectively suffered far too much loss. Particularly in the face of that loss, the courage of our health care workers, our patients, and their families has been stunning. In the most sorrowful of times, our own people have stood in for families in the last moments of patients’ lives – a most regrettable burden, carried time and again, with grace and humility. On occasion during my career I’ve done this myself, and there is no greater responsibility or higher honor. So to all of our colleagues, for all that you do, thank you.

Second, in addition to the obvious impact of the pandemic on our health care enterprise, it affected our daily lives in myriad ways. Most notably, in the spring of 2020 we pivoted to virtual instruction across our landscape in a matter of weeks. Our extraordinary faculty and students showed remarkable resilience, creativity, and fortitude in the way they adapted and worked together in a brave commitment to learning.

Although not at all what we would have wanted, there were silver linings in what we accomplished together this past year. Using a test, sequester, retest algorithm, campuses began to bring some students back last fall. Circumstances and public health directives differed from region to region, but the experience was similar. Our campuses achieved and maintained case positivity rates much lower than those in surrounding communities – even during the winter surge.

Our communities stepped up, and working together, drove this success. I am very proud of the way our entire community rose to this challenge; and though not perfect, we are grateful for the solid results we achieved. As a nice bonus two of our campuses, Davis and San Diego, received extensive national praise for the innovative and engaged quality of their efforts.  But again, all of our campuses exceeded expectations. Congratulations and thank you for that.

Third, at the same time, our campuses have shown tremendous creativity and care in meeting our students’ basic needs. For example, all 10 UC campuses’ basic needs support staff were classified as essential service providers. This allowed them to continue operating and providing in-person services and to expand remote services. I look forward to seeing this support continue to strengthen and grow even as we emerge from the current crisis.

In addition to the challenges of dealing with the pandemic, this last year also gave us all, yet again, an opportunity for collective recognition of the racial inequity that has plagued our nation since before its founding.

As part of our effort to engage our community around these issues, the University formed campus task forces, convened a pair of systemwide symposia, and sought input from a broad variety of community members on the issue of campus safety. We’ve now heard from people representing thousands of UC students, faculty, staff, and stakeholders. With this robust input, we developed and recently announced our UC Community Safety Plan.

Implementation efforts are now well underway. That includes the formation of two systemwide workgroups – one focused on collecting and sharing campus safety data, and another on vehicles, uniforms, and equipment. UCOP is currently gathering nominees to serve on these workgroups; they will be established by the end of the month. Shortly we will begin recruitment for a Systemwide Campus Safety Director. These activities reflect a new approach to levels of safety, security, and respect that our community members rightfully expect.

We have achieved all of this while remaining focused on the core mission of our University, which is the discovery, examination, re-examination, and sharing of knowledge. I would make sure everyone sees an article came out yesterday in Forbes magazine – a very good reflection of everything we’ve been seeing.

At a time when many universities are struggling, we saw historic increases in applications. University-wide, there were nearly 250,000 applications for freshman and transfer admission for the fall of 2021 – the largest and most diverse applicant pool in our history. Our admitted class reflected this: 43 percent of California freshmen come from underrepresented groups, 45 percent are first generation students, and 45 percent are also from lower-income families. These are historic figures. Our freshman four- and six-year graduation rates are also at historic highs, as are the number of degrees awarded.

We also enjoyed historic support from our state and federal leaders. Our 2021-22 budget reflects the largest state investment in UC’s history, and we received important support on policy and governance that will make all of our jobs easier and more effective as we move forward. We are fortunate to have many good friends in the state government, but I would like to acknowledge in particular the importance of the critical support of the Governor, the Speaker, and the Senate President pro Tem. On the federal side, we are grateful to Congress, our delegation there, and all who are fighting hard in Washington to support students and research. All of this state and federal support translates into real, tangible impacts on our scholars, our campuses and our communities. This was an historically good year; and we look forward to many more.

Our faculty continue to lead and contribute to the research enterprise at the highest levels. The University was awarded a remarkable $3.58 billion in federal research awards alone in 2019-20, with robust funding from the NIH, NSF, and other agencies.

These funds yield real results – last year the University of California produced nearly 10 percent of all U.S. research publications.

In terms of overall economic impact, the University supports almost 530,000 jobs – 2 percent of all California jobs directly or indirectly – and generates economic impact of $82.1 billion. Truly astonishing figures. And on a smaller and more direct scale during this past year we were proud that our Jobs Protection Plan saved over 1,600 jobs, and provided savings to our campuses that enabled them to support staff salaries during an extraordinarily challenging time.

Our efforts continue. Just this past week we began earnest conversations with officials in Washington, D.C., to respond to the present crisis in Afghanistan by committing resources to bring Afghan colleagues to California and to support at-risk academicians and others.

Successful as we may be, we are of course far from perfect. Our safer campus initiatives have not yet resulted in campuses that are free of risk. Our active focus on anti-racist policies and practices has not eliminated all bias or bigotry. Our desire to be more inclusive has not reached all corners of our communities.

We were impacted systemwide by the Accellion data breach, which illustrated the scope and impact of cybersecurity threats in our modern world. We also know also that the basic needs of our diverse communities are met only partially, and that a broad and sensitive understanding of this fact is critical to our goal of helping all within our midst in their quest to achieve their full human potential.  So we have much work to do.

As we look to this coming academic year and beyond we face several daunting but exciting imperatives.

The first is occurring right now, as we return to campus for the first time in a year and a half. We have been among the nation’s leaders in realizing the compelling need for vaccine and masking policies that keep our communities safe and offer a pathway to end the pandemic. We have before us the task of implementing these policies successfully, as an example to the country as well as for our own sake.

Our campus safety plan represents a bold and far-reaching step forward for the University. Achievements accomplished under this plan will set new standards for addressing the level of safety, security, and respect that our community members rightfully expect.

The continued evolution of online and technology-enhanced education will make the path to a UC degree clearer, and for many, shorter.

Each year our newly enacted cohort tuition stability plan will provide millions of additional dollars of need-based aid to our most financially vulnerable students, while offering stability and predictability to UC families, and budgetary support to our campuses. Over time, and with the support of our partners in Sacramento and Washington, we hope to make a pathway to a debt-free UC degree clearly available to almost all UC students.

A shorter time to degree, better student financial support, and more technology-enhanced education will allow more enrollment growth at UC. The demand for UC has never been higher; the value of a UC degree perhaps never greater. Expansion can increase our contributions to California and our ability to help address the world’s most pressing problems. We have a compelling need to grow capacity.

We can accomplish this more efficiently and most effectively by a combination of growth in the traditional sense – adding faculty, buildings and students at campuses with the physical capacity to grow – and in other ways: increasing online courses, establishing new sites for innovative learning like our successful UCDC program, and partnering with others programmatically to maximize use of existing space.

Taking these steps, we hope to grow at a rate that will allow us to add the equivalent of a new campus to our state by the end of this decade. What does this look like in practice? We have set a goal of growing our existing student population by roughly 20,000 undergraduate and graduate students by 2030, and expanding our faculty in tandem. Importantly, we believe we can achieve this level and pace of growth while maintaining the excellence of our 10 campuses. Achieving this expansion through strategic organic growth will ensure that all of our students and faculty are learning and working at one of the world’s leading research universities from day one.

We’ve already established a working group of Chancellors, OP leaders, and campus leaders to develop a strategy and plan of action for achieving this growth.

And as we face today’s challenges, we have the clear opportunity to push forward to the outer frontiers of progress.

The search for truth and the drive to create have always required ambition and boldness. Together, we can lead UC into a new era. When future institutional historians write this chapter of UC’s history, I want the title of that chapter to be obvious – I want the ambition to be palpable. For the sake of future UC students being born across California this very year, I want this chapter to tell the story of an unrivaled commitment to opportunity that matches the limitless potential of those very students.

I have summarized a few of the areas of our great success and impact; I have highlighted some challenges that also carry opportunities, like campus safety and enrollment growth that are front-burner issues for us today. In closing I’d like to add one more to our list, an issue of both immediate and long-term importance and actually reflects some of the comments of the Chair: the crisis of climate change.

The overwhelming threat posed by climate change becomes more frighteningly obvious by the day. The fight against climate change lies at the intersection of our teaching, research and service missions. The depth and breadth of our university allow us to engage meaningfully in this crisis, from science to policy, from equity to economics. There are direct steps that we can take, from supporting the work of our Global Climate Leadership Council; to moving away from fossil fuels and toward supporting sustainable regenerative farming and other behaviors that will mitigate past practices, and not only reduce greenhouse gas production but actually recapture atmospheric carbon. We are working on these every day, and will remain committed to doing all that we can to lead from the front.

Just as all of our actions should expand the access, affordability, and inclusive excellence of our university, all of our actions should accelerate our progress toward a truly sustainable future. We must form a bridge from climate science to solutions. As one of our extraordinary Nobel Laureates, Jennifer Doudna, said: “We must break down the walls that have previously kept science and the public apart and that have encouraged distrust and ignorance to spread unchecked. If anything prevents human beings from rising to the current challenge, it will be these barriers.”

We won’t let any barriers hold back the University of California from helping California and the world rise to the challenge of climate change or any other compelling crisis of our time.

We as a University of California community will exemplify the highest ideals of scholarship, community engagement, equity, and the grateful celebration of our diversity. Our collective talent will be combined and focused on building a California that helps to lead us all toward a brighter future.

As the inaugural poet Amanda Gorman put it:

"there is always light,

if only we’re brave enough to see it.

If only we’re brave enough to be it."

Let us all be brave enough.

Fiat Lux. Thank you.