UC Berkeley administrators reflect on leading during COVID-19 pandemic

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Despite COVID-19 pushing the UC Berkeley community into a virtual setting last spring, campus leaders continue to work to stay ahead of the curve.

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Despite the COVID-19 pandemic throwing the UC Berkeley community into a virtual setting last spring, campus administrators continue to work to stay ahead of an unpredictable curve.

Throughout the past year, campus leaders have had to balance student, faculty and staff needs. Working remotely has changed the dynamics of their workplaces, as well as their perspectives on virtual learning.

Rosemarie Rae, vice chancellor of finance and chief financial officer, noted the need to change the way she communicates with her colleagues through Zoom.

“There’s no natural places that we run into each other, so we’ve all become very conscious of being deliberate about how we communicate,” Rae said. “As a team, we’ve made a pact with each other that we’re gonna just check in and make sure, is everything okay?”

The pandemic has also necessitated leaders to be more understanding with students.

Bob Jacobsen, dean of the undergraduate division at the College of Letters and Science, said it has been difficult to help students because the individuals who need help the most may not have the time to reach out.

To assist students with hardware and financial aid, the student technology fund and student emergency fund have been utilized for the past year, according to Jenn Stringer, associate vice chancellor for IT and chief information officer.

Multiple leaders, including Douglas Clark, dean of the College of Chemistry, noted the importance of scenario-planning.

“In the last year, like everyone, we have had to plan for multiple scenarios in every aspect of the college,” Clark said. “This has all been one of the biggest challenges I have faced during my time as dean.”

Additionally, due to the current budget deficit, campus has implemented certain cost-saving measures.

According to Rae, there have been added expenses and lost revenue related to the pandemic. While the federal government provided grants to the campus, administration still needed to enact a hiring and salary freeze to mitigate costs.

“Our original projection is that the impacts would be around $340 million,” Rae said. “As of the end of December, the total impacts are about $300 million.”

With pandemic conditions improving, the campus has been implementing in-person programs. Ann Harrison, Bank of America dean of Haas School of Business, said in an email that her college has done “limited, on-campus instructional activities” since February.

Lynn Huntsinger, associate dean of instruction and student affairs of Rausser College of Natural Resources, led a pilot program last semester where professors could do fieldwork with students outside.

However, many campus leaders miss the energy that the campus used to have.

“I miss freshmen,” Stringer said. “When you’re trying to figure out where they’re going for classes, and they’re wandering around. I do miss that part, but I really do feel like we’ve had a connection to students in a very different way.”

Despite virtual learning having its challenges, campus leaders are eager to bring some aspects of it to the future. Sunny Lee, assistant vice chancellor and dean of students, said technology now allows for faculty to have more flexible office hours for students.

Catherine Koshland, vice chancellor for undergraduate education, also noted that students and faculty want some of the online tools to carry over to the future.

As campus prepares for in-person instruction in the fall, Steve Sutton, vice chancellor of student affairs division, noted that leaders are particularly looking for ways for first-year students to find the sense of community that was taken away from them due to the pandemic.

“I expect that the fall semester is going to be largely face-to-face,” said Chancellor Carol Christ. “We’re still uncertain about large gatherings … But we expect all instruction of 100 students or fewer, would be face-to-face instruction.”

Contact Karen Vo at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @karenvo_DC.