I will admit to feeling a bit trepidatious as I begin writing this column.
These words are being penned in July, but they shall not be read until September, and we have learned throughout the course of the pandemic the value of a simple, precautionary principle: Expect the unexpected. Now, as the Delta variant takes hold, masks come back on, and the politicization of science persists, it is clear that after an extended period of dealing with unprecedented challenges, our transition back to a new normal will also be filled with unexpected developments; some welcome, some not.
Yet, as the campus continues with plans to resume in-person instruction in the fall, and as I consider our prospects for the future, I am not disheartened. Far from it. Over the course of the pandemic, we have witnessed and experienced a remarkable coming together of students, faculty, staff, and alumni in support of each other, our university, and our academic mission. Our community, and its every member, rose up as one to confront the pandemic’s challenges and disruptions; and adapted to the unprecedented with courage and innovation.
I see this year’s record-breaking number of applicants for admission as a powerful vote of confidence in the relevance of higher education in general, and what Berkeley has to offer in particular. I see the growing diversity of the students we are admitting as a reaffirmation of our public character and foundational values.
Our amazing faculty dedicated an extraordinary amount of time and effort to make the very best of distance learning. Along the way they developed new muscles, ideas, and approaches that are opening up new, exciting pedagogical possibilities. Regardless of what unfolds in the short term, this newfound prowess in remote instruction could allow us to increase our undergraduate capacity given the growing elasticity of place. For example, we are now looking at the possibility of new internships at distant locations and expanded study abroad as a possible win-win: new learning and engagement opportunities for our students, and the potential to relieve the pressure on curricular and infrastructure bottlenecks.
We have learned a great deal along the way and are now better prepared to face new challenges—and opportunities—in the future. I believe that we are emerging from this extraordinary year stronger than ever and uniquely equipped to meet the demands and opportunities of these times.
It wasn’t long after I graduated from college that the wonderful Canadian musician Joni Mitchell sang about how “you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.” Now, after many months when it was so difficult to gather and connect, to engage in and benefit from all that a university has to offer, we are more deeply understanding and appreciating the power and purpose of community in a collegiate setting. This, too, is a source of hope and excitement for the road ahead. Since my very first day as chancellor, I have prioritized efforts to establish, strengthen, and sustain a true sense of belonging and connection for every student, for every member of our faculty and staff. For it is a strong campus community that allows us to take intellectual risks, to continuously challenge the status quo, to learn from one another, to model and embody our societal values, to thrive amidst an amazing diversity of origins, identities, and beliefs.
While I am grateful for the extent to which we have been able to sustain a sense of community in the virtual world, there is simply nothing like the real thing. I see signs that the yearning for and appreciation of community have never been stronger. With that in mind, before us lies a thrilling opportunity and important challenge as we will begin this academic year with some half of our undergraduates having never lived or learned on campus. This quest for communal connection assumes even more importance given the current salience and rising urgency of issues related to social justice.
Competing for our concern and attention as the pandemic exposed and amplified societal inequities was mounting evidence that systemic racism is far from being a thing of the past in our country. In the context of our university’s belief in equity and justice, we have an opportunity to rethink and re-examine how we can best engage and activate our community to, in the finest Berkeley fashion, challenge the status quo and advance the greater good; to model the change we want to see.
I cannot end this piece without an expression of profound gratitude for our alumni. The moral, intellectual, and financial support you have provided since the pandemic struck has been record breaking and awe inspiring. Over at Cal Athletics, the Berkeley Art Museum, and Cal Performances, spirits have been buoyed by a resurgent demand for tickets, the urge to gather again, to partake of and contribute to all that flows from the ties that bind us together.