The State Of California: The UC System's Fall Reopening

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By KCBS All News 106.9FM and 740AM

Higher education in California is facing its worst crisis in decades, with learning disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic and deep budget cuts in the offing.  

Janet Napolitano is the president of the University of California. Before taking the helm of the U.C. system seven years ago, she was Governor of Arizona and the U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security. She joined KCBS Radio's “The State of California.” 

We just heard from Chancellor Christ about Cal’s plans for the fall. What do you envision systemwide this fall? Will there be any U.C. campus, whether it’s Santa Cruz or Davis or Merced, that is able to provide more on-campus learning and not have to rely so heavily on Zoom and distance learning? 

Well, I think most of our campuses will be somewhat similar to Berkeley. Some may have more, a bit more in person learning and a bit more density in the dormitories. But you know, the number one thing is to be able to resume in-person activities safely. That means having testing and tracing and quarantining and social distancing and all those measures in place. Doing that on a college campus is enormously complicated, so we have got to take it in rational steps.  

We know a lot of students, and I imagine some professor as well, are very reluctant to go back to campus. What do you have to say to them? And for those who are on the teaching staff that don’t feel comfortable going back to campus, will you be able to accommodate them? 

I think we should be able to. The classes, even those that are being offered in-person, will also usually be offered online. And instructors will be able to instruct remotely as well. So, we’re well prepared to make all reasonable accommodations that we can.  

I have to ask you about the budget. I know your system lost over $1.5 billion since the pandemic hit. What are you going to do if you don’t get the money that you need from the state of California?  

Well, our budget from the state of California is a bit of a mystery because it goes up and it goes down, but it's all in the same budget. The going up part is contingent on the federal government putting in some money in for the states, which we hope that the feds will do when they negotiate the next CARES Act in July, in Washington D.C.  

But in the meantime, we’ve been taking measures to contain costs. We’ve frozen salaries for the bulk of our staff. We have frozen the faculty salary scales. The chancellors and I took a 10% salary reduction. We have a hiring freeze, a travelling freeze, all of the kinds of things necessary to contain costs while still maintaining the core academic excellence of the University.  

At the same time though, there are enormous costs associated with coronavirus, with getting campuses ready, with the precautions you have to take. So, how do you handle that? How do you pay for the things you have to pay for this fall at all the various campuses, especially when you don’t know if the federal money is coming through and if it doesn’t, how much of a state budget cut you're going to have to absorb? 

Well, the campuses are figuring all of that out. What the additional cleaning costs will be, if they're buying plexiglass, for example, to have dividers in the dorms between beds, what the costs will be. I'm very confident that we’ll reach a workable solution, not ideal, but something that will allow the University to be resilient and continue being the great university that it is. 

In the meantime, a large part of the losses you mentioned, the $1.5 billion, were attributable to our hospitals, which converted into being COVID-19 hospitals, and cancelled or suspended a number of procedures that, among other things, we generate revenue from. But, in recent weeks we’ve been able to repopulate the hospitals with those kinds of paying procedures and the likes. We're catching up on the revenue there.  

I want to shift gears and ask you about Prop 209. Californians are going to get to vote on that this fall: the repeal of prop 209, which of course would mean restoring affirmative action in college admissions. Can you speak to what that would mean for U.C.?  

Yeah, I think it would be a good thing. In our admissions process we look at 14 different factors about a student. We want to look at the whole student. The only thing we’re not allowed to take into account is the student’s race, ethnicity or gender. It's such an artificial limitation. And what 209 has resulted in is a student body that’s frankly not as diverse as we’d like it to be, and that is not fully reflective of the diversity in California. So, I’m glad it’s going on the ballot and I hope it gets repealed.  

I want to ask you another question about the admissions process, and that is the SAT and ACT. U.C. recently decided to stop using that and develop its own test. Could you talk a little bit more about that decision process, and what you think it's going to mean for the future of who gets into the schools? 

Well, what our Board of Regents decided was to wean ourselves away from the SAT and ACT. So, for the next two years we’ll be test optional, meaning that students can decide for themselves whether they want to submit a test score. For the next two years after that, we would be test blind, meaning that if a student submitted a test score it could be used for different purposes like course placement or qualification for certain scholarships, but it couldn’t be used for the actual admissions decision. And then by year 5, by the year 2025, we won't use the SAT or ACT at all. 

In the meantime, we’re going to explore the feasibility of whether we should have a separate test for U.C. -- and probably it would be for CSU as well -- that matches up better with the course requirements, the content that we think students need to have mastered to demonstrated their preparedness for the University of California. So, we are a long way away from deciding whether we will indeed have another test, but were going to explore the feasibility of that.