UCLA Chancellor Gene Block joins Future U podcast to discuss the future of higher education

In an era of surging demand, how will UCLA continue to deliver the high-quality educational experience for which it is known while finding a way to serve more students?

“If you want to have the kind of education we provide … [with] the traditional residential experience where students spend time on campus doing directed research while they are here and getting to know faculty, there is a limit in physical size,” UCLA Chancellor Gene Block told Jeff Selingo and Michael Horn, hosts of the higher education-focused podcast Future U.

Selingo and Horn were on campus recently to record an episode of their podcast. While at UCLA, they interviewed Block and led a panel discussion with other school leaders. The episode will be released on May 17.

While increasing access to the school is of great importance, Block said, it cannot be done at the cost of the special combination of academics, campus life, research and community impact that make up the UCLA experience.

At only 419 acres, UCLA is the smallest physical campus within the University of California system; consequently, there’s a limit to the number of students it can serve. But, Block said, there are opportunities to expand the campus’s reach by reimagining how it uses technology and its academic calendar.

“We have to do our part so we are thinking creatively on how to better use summer and spring quarter [and] how to use some remote educational opportunities,” Block said about how the UC system can grow to serve more students. The system aims to increase enrollment by 20,000 students across its 10 campuses by 2030.

During the last two years, faculty and staff have demonstrated ingenuity and innovation as they transformed traditional in-person lectures to remote and hybrid classes that combined in-person instruction with online components, Block said.

But while UCLA saw successes in remote instruction, Block warned against an uncritical embrace of technology as the only solution. He emphasized the inequalities remote instruction exacerbated among students, especially from underserved communities.

“There is a digital divide. [There are] lots of reasons why remote education does not give you the expected outcomes we’d like to see,” Block said when describing the challenges of fully remote instruction. “That doesn’t mean throwing it away, but it means being respectful of the fact that it has limitations, figuring out ways to overcome that.”

To help close the divide in 2020 and 2021, UCLA provided students with laptops and personal internet hotspots to help increase internet connectivity.

Block also cautioned that even if universities can surmount the digital divide, they must avoid creating a situation whereby students from lower-income brackets choose to save money by learning remotely from home — thus missing the rich experience of campus life — while other opt for The traditional, residential environment and the opportunities that come with it.

Following Block’s interview, Selingo and Horn held a discussion with Monroe Gorden, vice chancellor of student affairs, Tracy Johnson, dean of the division of life sciences in the UCLA College, student Sarah Wang, external vice president of the Undergraduate Students Association, and Jason Belland, vice president, Education Cloud GTM at Salesforce.org.

Reed Hutchinson/UCLA

From left: Gene Block, UCLA chancellor; Michael Horn, co-host of the Future U Podcast,; Sarah Wang, external vice president of the Undergraduate Students Association at UCLA, Monroe Gorden, vice chancellor of student affairs at UCLA; Tracy Johnson, dean of the division of life sciences at the UCLA College; Jason Belland, vice president, Education Cloud GTM at Salesforce.org; and Jeff Selingo, Future U co-host.

When asked about education trends they hope will continue well beyond the pandemic, Johnson mentioned broader and more robust instructor use of teaching and learning centers.

The pandemic “really engendered a different level of empathy among faculty that has changed how we think about the job,” Johnson said. “Granted, there are challenges. We’ve built in centers for learning and teaching excellence to go from where we were years ago to how we create inclusive classrooms and enhance pedagogy so that students from all backgrounds see themselves in the class and feel like they are welcomed.”

In sharing her experiences during the pandemic, Wang said she hopes to continue seeing the prioritization of people’s well-being.

“Mental health is the ultimate key to making sure we have a well-rounded and healthy experience,” she said. “It’s important recognizing the humanity we have and build a community with compassion.”

After the discussion, audience members had a brief opportunity to ask the panelists questions. When asked about what universities can do to equip students for the workforce, Gorden reinforced the importance of building students’ learning and life skills and noted how learning can take place outside the classroom.

“Many opportunities present themselves in just day-to-day life,” he said.

Gorden also assert that UCLA needs to be very intentional in its outreach and partnerships with different industries and industry partners.

In noting that students, staff, faculty members and administrators all continue to navigate the unknown future of higher education, Johnson ended the conversation with a simple yet powerful thought. “[Let’s] encourage the sense that having lived through this challenging time is our superpower and [use] that [as inspiration] to do amazing things.

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