As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, California’s public higher education systems are preparing for the fall semester. At a virtual event last week, PPIC president Mark Baldassare talked with the leaders of the University of California (UC), the California State University (CSU), and the California Community Colleges (CCC) about how they are dealing with multiple challenges—from shifting rapidly to online instruction to ensuring educational equity.
CSU chancellor Tim White outlined a confluence of factors that have led CSU to move classes online for the fall semester. “It’s the disease itself,” he said, as well as the need to protect students and staff on campuses. Ultimately, the challenge is to recognize that “we can’t change the biology of this disease, that we can only change our behavior.”
UC president Janet Napolitano underlined the challenge of ensuring that students learning remotely are “getting the kind of education that they will need for the future.” Noting steep declines in campus revenues as well as state budget cuts, she added, “Obviously, we all have resource issues.”
However, these challenges could spur innovation. As CCC chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley put it, “All the uncertainty that we’re feeling right now has really created an opportunity to think about how we become more resilient” and “to rethink the residential higher education experience, how we think about access to technology, how we engage with students in a deeper way.”
Napolitano agreed. “The state should just adopt a goal of broadband for all,” she added. “It would put California ahead of other states, so it’s a very competitive thing to do as well as an equitable thing to do.”
Equity—a key focus in public higher education—looms large in the context of a pandemic that, as White noted, “disproportionately affects underserved communities,” as well as mounting public pressure to address a range of racial disparities. All three leaders talked about modeling and improving equity on their campuses—through policing, student support, staffing, and curricula.
Ortiz Oakley pointed out that the community colleges educate a large proportion of California’s law enforcement personnel: “We have a role in the culture of policing,” he said. As a result, “We’re taking a hard look at our curriculum and trying to understand how we can improve it.”
Napolitano applauded the UC Regents’ vote to endorse the repeal of Proposition 209, which prohibited affirmative action in public education and employment. She sees the ban on considering race, ethnicity, and gender as an “artificial limitation” of the admissions process. White said that the restoration of affirmative action could help close equity gaps in graduation rates: “We could create scholarships and other programs to promote retention and progress toward degrees.”
Speaking more broadly about the pandemic’s inequitable economic impact, Ortiz Oakley stressed the need to invest in “millions and millions of Californians who have very few prospects of employment in this current economy” by providing training and links to employers. “We have to take this on as state policy,” he said.