Message from Dean Gerardo Aldana 11/3/20

November 3, 2020

This message was sent to CCS Students on November 3, 2020


Dear CCS Students,

I look at my schedule for the day, and part of me thinks ‘this is impossible.’  It’s not that the workload is uncommonly excessive—it’s much more that with the election finally reaching its end, I have trouble seeing how I’ll be able to remain focused.  I know the anxiety level among my friends and colleagues is pretty high, and I’ve heard from them a common response:  people are doing what they can (e.g. voting, helping at polls, reaching out to others), but they are also “keeping busy.”  Now is a good time, it turns out, to turn to those tasks that have been neglected, or just overrun by other responsibilities.  Working on various tasks keeps our minds off those larger issues we can now do little about.  Such a perspective, for example, is actually helping me finally finish this letter to you all.  It’s been ‘on my desk’ for weeks, but I haven’t been able to complete it.  I have, however, committed to doing so today… and I will admit that I am aided in this endeavor since, as I write, I imagine that we’re actually just chatting over zoom, or in… and that connection to you, our student community, helps put it all in perspective.

So, besides politics qua politics that is on a lot of minds, I know there is also a lot of interest locally in how we as a campus are responding to the pandemic.  By now, for instance, you’ve probably seen that most courses on GOLD show up as being offered remotely.  You may be wondering if Winter will be more or less like Fall.  The short answer is yes.

Let me be clear, though, that there will be changes during Winter Quarter, and there are changes transpiring even now.  With the county’s move from the purple COVID-status category to the (better) red, we are now able to increase the campus population, and that is beginning with faculty.  Currently, that is, some faculty are beginning to return to campus, authorized to teach from their offices and in some cases, to engage research activities from them.  This is a significant step because, to this point, fewer than 2,000 people total have been on campus on any given day since it was closed down in April.  As I’ve mentioned before, these have been faculty and staff engaged in “essential” activities.

The return of some faculty is by no means a grand re-opening of the campus.  Buildings are managed by committees charged with ensuring that a minimum number of people are in any given department at one time.  Overall, the population is still very low.  The mantra across campus is to ‘minimize exposure.’

The next step will be to bring graduate and undergraduate students back in measured fashion.  There are, though, some very real complications to this effort.  For one, we can’t require students to return to the area if they want to take a class that is offered with an in-person option.  That means that faculty have to be able to provide a remote option even when they offer an in-person class, which in many cases results in the instructor essentially teaching one course as two.  That is a significant (and complex) workload increase.  Second, all in-person classes have to be ready to go remote if an outbreak occurs and we are moved back into a red or even purple category.  Again, this means creating essentially two versions of every in-person class.  

So the process is challenging and logistically difficult.  But those are far from the only reasons behind my support for a slow re-opening.

I can’t speak for the whole university, obviously, but I can share why I am in favor of the campus’ efforts to take a conservative approach to re-opening.  (And by “conservative,” I mean slow and risk-averse, as opposed to politically conservative, which is pretty much the opposite.)  Yes, I readily acknowledge that there are great costs to taking such an approach.  We are not able, for example, to have the types of pedagogical interactions that we have all relied on as core to the college experience.  In-person instruction in seminars, studios or labs are suspended or significantly modified.  We are not able to visit the library—for its archival resources or its work spaces.  We don’t even get the occasional experience of dodging skateboarders on that long walk between South Hall and Engineering II.  All of those experiences of being on campus are denied us and that is a loss.

There’s also a substantial financial hit that we’re taking.  Without students on campus, our university income suffers.  Campus employees—faculty, staff, administrators and facilities management alike—we all are confronting the likelihood of days off without pay.  Also, the local economy suffers.  Local business do not benefit from serving our full student body.  Without the demand, some may close (or already have) or are laying off employees, compounding the economic toll.

So without a doubt, I acknowledge the costs, along with many beyond those described here.  What I can’t get past, though, in my assessment of the situation, is the reality of the global pandemic.  Until there’s a vaccine, we are in an extraordinary situation.  And we have to recognize that this is a shared problem.  This is a tough one since there is so much rhetoric in popular culture—far beyond simply that dealing with COVID—that as individuals, we should get what we can.  The president has made clear, time and again—and so many of his colleagues and appointees have followed suit—that the greater population can be disregarded as long as the individual can profit.  Accordingly, we may find ourselves wanting to think that we should have the opportunity to experience college the way it was in the past.  We want to rationalize that it is “safe enough” for us to re-open or that the impact would be ‘minimal.’  In my view, these are insufficient in general, but the case is even clearer at UC Santa Barbara.

We all enjoy the idiosyncrasies of UCSB.  We live in a beautiful area, and we benefit from living within and adjacent to welcoming neighbors in Goleta and Santa Barbara.  But part of that opportunity comes from its size.  The full population of our campus, when we are in session, is approximately equal to the permanent population of Goleta.  Yes, Santa Barbara is significantly bigger, but there’s no denying that UCSB makes the area a ‘college town’ when it comes to the impact of the student population.  And this is a key point.

When students return to campus and engage their pre-pandemic college experiences, they put our community members at risk.  Students do not stay on campus 100% of the time, and that means that even though they may not have symptoms of COVID, they may be carriers, and they may transmit it to non-UCSB members of our communities.  This is not an open question; just a statement of the facts.

What makes the situation unique here is that we don’t have the anonymity of a metropolis.  Those of us who live here permanently see in stark relief what is masked by population densities of other college campuses and other regions.  I would like to believe that I would maintain the same ethical stance if I lived in a large city, knowing that the virus can’t be contained, but the situation here is obvious.  If not controlled, COVID is not running through an anonymous “population.”  Those are neighbors, friends of family, family.

What this all tells us is something that is obvious in our day-to-day lives, but is rendered opaque by statistics and political rhetoric on the media:  this is a shared responsibility.  We cannot approach the pandemic with a ‘get-what-you-can’ perspective.  We have to act collectively.  And that means making sacrifices.  That means acknowledging that we as individuals are giving things up because we do so for the greater good.  I’m giving up some experience so that a neighbor doesn’t have to go on a respirator for a week.  I’m giving up that privilege so a family friend does not have to go through life with a “prior medical condition.”  I’m doing less so that someone else can live another day.  That’s so much more recognizable in a small community, but it holds true everywhere.

This reminds me of a prior time of crisis for the U.S.—a prior time when so many communities realized that we were ‘in this together.’  With the Vietnam War, communities of young European-diaspora men realized that they too were subject to the U.S. government’s abuses of power.  Presidents Johnson and Nixon had drawn the nation so deep into the war that men were drafted from all U.S. communities.  And they were recognizing that politics at the other side of the globe were drastically impacting their own choices and abilities to follow their career, educational or life interests.  The resonance of their position with the Civil Rights Movement in full bloom—drawing together women throughout the nation and people of color—catalyzed a much larger recognition in the nation that we were all in this together.  It strikes me that COVID is doing the same thing.  Global warming will impact us all, but often differentially.  Institutional racism will impact us all, but for many, it appears to be only secondhand.  COVID, too, has impacted communities of color at greater rates than European-diasporic communities, but the demographics are changing.  All current signs are pointing to an even more challenging situation over the Winter.  This is the time to come together and address the situation together.  We should not be looking to gain inclusion or hide within a community that will be sheltered.  We should be reaching out to those most vulnerable and finding solidarity with them to help us all through these challenging times.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to compare the ethical challenges we face today with those of the 1960s.  And I think it’s useful to compare college campus experiences.  So much awareness was raised on college campuses back then… now it appears that our absence from campus has the potential for the same effect.  In both cases, it reminds me, at least, that one of the things I love about institutions of higher education is that they are fundamentally about hope.  Students hoping to shape their futures; faculty hoping to guide students to new places; staff enabling us all to aspire in the first place.  College as a place of hope – even, for the time being, virtually.

I add to these my hope here that you are all finding your own ways to remain healthy during these times.  And I implore you to reach out, to rely on community, in need and in celebration as the occasion dictates.

All my very best,