97.1 F

Davis, California

Wednesday, June 5, 2024

The Editorial Board meets with Chancellor May, UC Davis administrators — Spring 2024

May and administrators discuss UAW 4811 strike, AI usage, pro-Palestine encampment and their advice to graduates 


The California Aggie’s Editorial Board met with Chancellor Gary May and administrators via Zoom to ask questions about the quarter. Attendees also included Faculty Advisor to the Chancellor and Provost Ari Kelman, Chief Marketing and Communications Officer Dana Topousis, Associate Chancellor and Chief of Staff Karl Engelbach, Associate Vice Chancellor for Student Life, Campus Community and Retention Services Sheri Atkinson and Vice Chancellor for Finance, Operations and Administration Clare Shinnerl.

The Editorial Board meets with administrators every quarter and shares the full transcript online afterward — if you have a question you would like us to ask for the fall 2024 quarter, you can submit it to editor@theaggie.org. 

Below is a transcript of the meeting that has been edited for length and clarity.

Editorial Board: This quarter’s ASUCD elections saw a 23.7% voter turnout — a fairly significant increase from prior quarters, and one that enabled The Green Initiative Fund (TGIF) to pass. What do you think contributed to this? How can the administration continue this momentum and further increase student involvement in elections?

May: I think obviously we are all very supportive of the increased turnout in this election and hopefully others to come. It’s an encouraging sign that students voted and enough voted for TGIF to finally pass, I think after the fourth or fifth time [of TGIF being on the ballot]. I would give most of the credit to the students and student leadership in ASUCD for increasing turnout, but I know that the administration has also been very supportive of those efforts. There was additional signage promoting QR codes to encourage the voting; the voters were incentivized with $10 CoHo gift cards; the voting period was extended from three days to five days [and there was] lots of social media promotion, a raffle [and] prizes. Then we promoted it on “Checking in with Chancellor May,” “Thursday Thoughts,” the UC Davis Life newsletter, social media, student housing communications and support from IET staff on the Schedule Builder navigation menu with a vote button. We’re always eager to do whatever we can to support the voting on campus.

Atkinson: As Chancellor May has said, the students in ASUCD were very organized this year and did a lot of promotion and had a lot of these different ideas. Their idea of having a [raffle] drawing [for] coffee with the chancellor was one of their ideas to increase voter turnout. The students were really motivated, and then we supported their efforts as Chancellor May mentioned. 

Editorial Board: What has your reaction been to the ongoing PULP encampment for Palestine in the MU Quad? What is the state of negotiations and what has this process looked like? 

Topousis: I’m just going to jump in here, if the chancellor doesn’t mind. I know that [the Editorial Board] has submitted at least three questions, maybe four questions, about [the encampment]. We’ve made a public statement on May 15 and that’s going to remain our public comment on the situation. I hope you understand we’re just preferring to not undermine the ongoing engagement process and the communication that we’re having with the students. We’d rather just leave our public comment to what it was on May 15 for all.

Editorial Board: So just for clarification, you guys will be making no comment on those questions for today?

Topousis: We’re making the comment that this is our statement, we don’t want to undermine the engagement process with the students, so we are going to keep to the message that we put out on May 15 as our most recent statement.

The Editorial Board reviewed all the prepared questions regarding the encampment to give the campus leadership an opportunity to provide additional information on any of them. These are the questions that the Editorial Board asked: 

The group has five demands, one of which is for you to step down from the executive board of Leidos or resign as chancellor. Have you considered this demand and communicated your stance with the protesters?

If the protests continue to go on, does the university have a plan on how to address them outside of the negotiations? Will/has the university considered police enforcement? If not, is there a line when the university will consider authorizing the use of police? 

How has the UC system as a whole been reacting to the effects of encampments at campuses across the system? Are administrators collaborating with each other to address violence that has occurred at campuses such as UCLA and UCSD?

If the UC did divest in part or in full as requested by protesters, what would the most likely impact be in terms of decreased scholarship availability, changes to campus operations funding, etc.? What moves could UC Davis make to minimize any negative impacts?

After going through these questions, Topousis responded as follows. 

Topousis: I think the ones about their demands, their requests and what the universities are doing in the process are the same [in that] we don’t want to undermine the discussions we’re having with the students, and we don’t want to say anything that might undermine that process.

I would say the UC has made a statement about their reaction to the system. On April 30, UC President [Michael] Drake did issue a statement about freedom of expression. We can certainly point to that, but that’s probably the most we can say there. I will turn to the chancellor related to the president’s comments [and] if there’s anything further we should say about the UC system.

May: Only that there’s been an investigation opened at UCLA to find out a little bit more detail about what exactly happened and why. We’re waiting to see how that investigation unfolds. [The Editorial Board] asked if we are collaborating, and the chancellors have a regular monthly meeting where we do talk about various issues happening on our campuses. This is certainly an important one that we have been discussing. I don’t know if I would call it collaboration, but we’re certainly sharing information.

Topousis: I’ll just also clarify our not wanting to undermine the process. The statement that we released on May 15 [was reviewed by] students that we’re talking to […] before we released it. We’re really trying to respect each other and respect their role in this as well. That’s why we don’t want to say anything without them being part of the table.

Editorial Board: With violence continuing overseas and tensions rising at college campuses across the country, what is the university’s plan to make Jewish, Muslim and Arab students feel safe and protected from discrimination? Is the university’s current approach to addressing these types of issues different from in the past? 

May: I’ll just start by saying the events in Gaza and Israel have been heartbreaking and have created a really challenging environment for our campuses, both in the UC and across the nation. I believe that Student Affairs here at UC Davis has done a tremendous job of working with our students on all sides of the issue and the student organizations that represent them to provide the necessary resources and support. 

I want to make it clear that whenever the university receives any sort of complaint about antisemitism, islamophobia or any type of intolerant or offensive behavior, we immediately reach out to the affected parties to provide support and resources using HDAPP [Harassment and Discrimination Assistance and Prevention Program] and other resources of similar type. We review each allegation and compare it to the university’s anti-discrimination policy and then take action appropriately.

We’re always looking for ways to improve. If there are ways that the campus climate can be improved to ensure that every student is not restricted in their participation in our programs and activities and most importantly, their classes, we want to make sure we take those suggestions for improvement and develop an environment where every student, faculty member and staff member can feel welcome and thrive.

Atkinson: We take any kind of report very seriously in Student Affairs. We will work with individual students to review their case, help them navigate any challenges they might be facing and help them find the resources that they need. We have done this with various groups of students to hear their concerns and talk about them. It’s definitely something that we’re very concerned about, and we want to support our students in having a positive campus climate.

Shinnerl: I can just add that we have teams of professionals here to help with safety on campus. I think one of the areas we’ve been pretty busy with is vandalism and removing offensive language quickly when it’s reported so that it does not damage property, but also does not hurt people. 

Editorial Board: UAW 4811 has just authorized a strike in response to the UC’s “unprecedented acts of intimidation and retaliation directed at [their] rights as academic employees to free speech, protest and collective action.” UAW has listed various concerns to negotiate and discuss with university leaders, such as the right to free speech, divestment, disclosure regarding university funding sources and investments and amnesty for students and faculty who were arrested or faced disciplinary action due to protests. How does UC Davis plan to address the strike and demands of strikers, as well as the potential interruption to education posed by the event? 

May: The strike [in 2022] was a difficult situation for the entire campus community, and we always hope that any strike activity does not meaningfully disrupt teaching or learning or campus operations. It’s the position of the University of California system that this strike is illegal and violates the collective bargaining agreement that was reached in 2022. There is a contract that has been in place since that collective bargaining was concluded, and it specifically says in that contract that the UAW will not strike during the period the contract is in place.

The university has asked the Public Employment Relations Board [PERB], per an injunction, to stop the UAW from striking and we await that outcome. I will say that many of the same issues that are raised by the UAW and their strike authorization vote were raised by the encampment students and others, and we do think that that’s a constructive conversation to have. We just don’t think the strike is the appropriate way to have the conversation.

Kelman: I was disappointed to see this is a so-called “stand-up” strike — which is to say that the strike happens at different places at different times, and our campus has been constructively engaged with the leadership of the encampment on the quad. I was surprised to see a stand-up strike on our campus based on its reasons for striking. I would say further that the strike is creating additional stress for students, for faculty and staff. We recognize that we’re in the process of considering ways that we can try and mitigate some of those issues. We’re going to, as we did during the previous strike, find ways to [provide] additional support for faculty who might need help because they’re facing significant additional work around grading, leading sections [and] otherwise maintaining the integrity of the curriculum.

We had some unfortunate activity the other day [where] some classes were disrupted. The Student Affairs team has reached out to students who were very uncomfortable because of some of the ways in which those events transpired. More broadly, students who are facing impacts because of the strike can reach out to case managers and others in Student Affairs for a variety of different kinds of support.

Editorial Board: Governor Gavin Newsom’s new budget proposal will decrease the amount of financial aid students receive – around 300,000 students receive the Middle Class Scholarship every year, which is losing funding. In addition, this new budget will potentially harm many low-income students. Is there any plan to ensure that students will have enough opportunities for financial support throughout their education? 

May: The UC firmly supports the Middle Class Scholarship program’s goal of making the entire UC education, as well as CSU education, debt-free. To that end, we’ll continue to support President Drake’s debt-free program for our lowest income students. We were always going to rely on the Middle Class Scholarship program to make the rest of our students debt-free. Unfortunately, the proposed cuts would mean a delay in reaching that goal and likely an increase in borrowing by students. The Learning-Aligned Employment Program was also a key program for our debt-free goals, which provides high quality employment opportunities for UC students, so that’s another area of disappointment. 

I would just add that the UC has done its part to achieve the debt-free goal by setting aside 45% of new tuition revenue under the Tuition Stability Plan that was passed a few years ago. That money is already needed to fund UC’s debt-free program [and] we were unable to make up for the loss and potential middle class scholarships from that source, so the budget is not final. The legislature and the governor will still be negotiating the budget for the next two or three weeks. We hope that there’s some possibility that the Middle Class Scholarship will get placed back in the budget, or at least some portion of it, but that’s all we can say at this point.

Editorial Board: As you know, the Arboretum is undergoing restoration. What has been the administration’s role in facilitating this process and can you tell us a little more about the set timeline or when it will be fully restored?

May: We’re supportive of the project. We’ve contributed $2.5 million in deferred maintenance funds as a match to a grant that we received from the California Natural Resources Agency for the project — that grant was $5.4 million. The Arboretum and Public Garden staff have really worked closely with partners in Finance, Operations [and] Administration, which was led by Clare [Shinnerl]. This includes collaborating with campus planning, environmental stewardship, design and construction management [and] utilities, as well as various academic contributors across UC Davis to implement the project.

As far as the timeline goes, construction occurs over 2024 and 2025, and mainly from April to November of each of those years, and we expect to be complete by winter of 2026. The construction will begin at Lake Spafford and extend this year. It’s always somewhat frustrating to have disruptions in any kind of campus construction project, so we appreciate everyone’s patience as we try to make things better for the Arboretum.

Shinnerl: I don’t have much to add other than that this Arboretum, you know, it’s a lake, right? It doesn’t have a source and it doesn’t have an outlet, so algae was really building up there. It’s disruptive, but we absolutely had to make these repairs to keep our campus looking great and healthy for the Arboretum to be healthy. I do have a fabulous video [which] tells a really great story that this work will be well worth it.

The video can be found on the UC Davis Arboretum and Public Garden Youtube channel. 

Editorial Board: UC Davis SHIP rates are increasing next year — what went into this change, and how will it affect students? Are there any plans to subsidize this rate increase for students who need it?

May: So UC SHIP is a self-funded plan, which means that the annual premium is based on the members’ overall utilization of the plan. During the last half of last year, 2022 to 2023, UC SHIP had experienced significant increases in planned use when members came back after the pandemic and began using services, and the pandemic wound down. The use was so high that the UC SHIP program had to pull about $75 million from its reserves to cover the claims above what the actuarial team had forecasted for last year. By the time these claims were submitted and processed, the premium for this year had already been set. It was too late to adjust the premium for this year. 

Over the past several years, SHIP insurance premium increases have stayed pretty much in line with state and national insurance plan costs. The increases that students will be expecting next year are not unique to UC SHIP. Plans across the country have seen dramatic increases in demand similar to what I described in the last half of 2022 to 2023, and we expect that might continue.

Some adjustments were made to the planned benefits for next year to help mitigate the increase in premiums: The emergency room copay, the annual out-of-pocket maximum and the copay for special medications were all standardized across campuses that participate in the program. These changes in discontinuing services brought down the premium increase by about 5%, so there was some relief there.

In terms of subsidizing, Student Health allows students to waive the UC Student Health insurance program cost if they have approved health insurance coverage, such as from their parents or from some other source. Annually, approximately 40% of the undergraduate population here at UC Davis opts out of SHIP. We also offer gift aid to cover the full cost of SHIP for our neediest students, [and] of those students, about 50% of those were enrolled in SHIP — that’s 6,443 students as of fall 2023. That financial assistance that was provided totals about $20 million.

Lastly, I’ll just note that a 17% increase in the number of undergrads who qualified for SHIP coverage for fall occurred compared to 2022. There’s a couple of things happening: the increase in the number of students that we have to serve, as well as those premium increases. 

Shinnerl: I can add that this is now a national trend for all health premiums. We, as employees, had gigantic increases this year. You’re seeing rising healthcare costs everywhere for a lot of reasons.

Editorial Board: With commencement coming up soon, can you tell us what the process of choosing commencement speakers is like? Why were this year’s speakers chosen? 

May: We start by advertising the opportunity to apply to be a student speaker for the undergraduate commencements, and that’s advertised throughout the general UC Davis community. We get typically 25 to 35 applications to be student speakers each year. The selection committee that [selects student speakers] is about 12 to 14 people, [and] that includes faculty, staff and students. 

To apply, the students submit a draft copy of the speech and a one minute video that demonstrates their presentation style. There’s a scoring rubric which is used to move the applicants through the various rounds of the selection up to the live auditions, which are conducted in mid-May. Once the five speakers have been selected, Student Affairs, Marketing and Communications works directly with the students to help them prepare to give the speech. All the speakers get to rehearse the speech at the Golden One Center a few days before the commencement ceremony.

Engelbach: I’ll speak to our faculty speakers. We actually reach out to college leadership and ask for nominations about the most outstanding faculty among their peers within a respective college, and we make selections of one faculty speaker for each of the five separate ceremonies. We added faculty speakers for the first time last year, and we received feedback from both students as well as parents that they appreciated hearing faculty voices as part of the commencement ceremony. 

Finally, we have an advisory committee for our undergraduate commencement ceremonies, including student faculty, staff and administrators. That advisory committee made recommendations about external speakers that we might consider inviting to serve as speakers at the upcoming undergraduate ceremonies. This year, our undergraduate student representatives suggested Sacramento Kings Head Coach, Mike Brown. We reached out to him, and he provided remarks [via video] that will be shown at all five of the ceremonies. [We are] happy to answer any other questions [students] might have about speakers at commencement ceremonies, whether student, faculty or external.

Editorial Board: There seems to be a construction site being set up near Young Hall. What can you tell us about this project and its timeline?

May: So that would be my statue that’s going up. No, I’m kidding. We’ve started the construction at Young Hall. It’s going to be one of six existing buildings on campus that get funds for mandatory seismic improvements that we do as needed. UC has policy requirements that drive those improvements and will provide some increased seismic capability and accessibility for students, employees and the public. This project will deliver those seismic improvements [in] Young Hall for the roof, floor, column reinforcement, lab renovation, some interior lighting upgrades, restroom upgrades and some enhanced safety requirements. Access to the building is going to be limited during construction, so detailed plans for temporary relocations for affected faculty, staff and students have been developed. The target for completion is summer of 2026.

Editorial Board: There were some changes to the questions asked in this year’s Undergraduate Experience Survey — what are you hoping to learn from the questions related to artificial intelligence, and how will you apply this knowledge?

May: There are many emerging technologies that are reshaping education, research and everything we do at the university — AI is certainly a big part of that. We want to understand how this tool is being used today. The new questions related to AI were understanding how often students use the generative AI tools that are available, how they use those tools, how often they go beyond what instructors have allowed in using those tools and understanding how faculty in their courses explain the use of AI. We think that understanding how students use the generative AI tools will also help faculty provide better guidance on academic honesty, citations and their own scholarship to protect students. One of the goals of doing this is to reduce the AI referral rates for academic dishonesty claims.

I will also add that we’ve just kicked off a campus-wide AI council that just met this week, [which is] going to not only include some of the things I just talked about, but also research anything you can imagine where AI might impinge upon what we do at the university. There are two students on the council: a graduate student and an undergraduate student.

Atkinson: I think there’s a lot of exciting potential with AI and a lot of discussion about how we can make sure we’re using that in ethical ways. I think the survey questions will be an important piece of the student voice in informing how we move forward with AI and what that looks like on our campus here at UC Davis.

Editorial Board: Just to clarify, did you specify when the experience survey results would be released?

Atkinson: It’s maybe late fall or winter quarter of the following year. There needs [to be] time for analysis, so that’s my best guess.

Editorial Board: The one-year anniversary of the stabbings in Davis was a few weeks ago. Do you have any reflections as this time marker passes, in regards to mental health resources on campus, lighting/student safety and resources for unhoused residents? 

May: We continue to have deep sympathy for the victims of the stabbings, in particular our own Karim Abou Najm and his parents, who are, I’m sure, still grieving in terms of what we’re doing. Aggie Mental Health is ending its second year of that program. One of the significant updates this year was obtaining student feedback to revamp the Health  e-messaging system to make it easier for students to make their counseling appointments. We have a new Academics and Mental Health webpage designed to help those students struggling academically or mentally navigate the complex university system. We have the Aggie Mental Health ambassadors that continue to do outreach to students — they’re running a promotion in May for Mental Health Awareness Month for students who take a free suicide prevention training course called QPR. There’s a “Let’s Talk” mural at the CoHo that was installed in the winter to encourage and affirm students as they connect in that space. We also have Health 34 and other mechanisms available to assist students who are in crisis.

Shinnerl: I’ll say that with the chancellor’s approval, we have $20 million to spend over the next few years on infrastructure improvements, which includes lighting, cameras, call boxes and access cards. [Students will] see a lot of work over the next few years to improve the infrastructure on our campus.

I’ll [also] point out that some of you have gone on the lighting walk. We hold them usually once a year, but the last year we’ve held them twice, and 94% of the identified fixes have been repaired. I think that’s a really good success rate. At night, [community members] walk around, tell us which paths they go down and help us identify areas that are dark and where improvements are needed.

Atkinson: I can chime in on the housing piece. Aggie Compass has a lot of information, it’s outlined on their website, for resources available for unhoused students — I’ll highlight a few of those now. We have a rental assistance program which provides emergency financial assistance, rent, food and housing and security deposits. We have a college-focused rapid rehousing program which provides safe and stable housing for houseless students, as well as a meal plan and case management to help provide that holistic wraparound support as well. We [also] have some emergency and short-term housing options for folks that may be facing struggles.

Editorial Board: The fifth and sixth floors of the Hutchinson Parking structure, a popular place to watch the sunset for students, have been closed for a little over a week and marked with ‘No Trespassing signs.’ What can you tell us about the decision behind this closure, and what is the plan moving forward in terms of reopening?

May: It’s not only a popular place to watch the sunset, it seems to be a popular place for partying. What’s the thing to do with cars? The spinning thing and other things that are dangerous [drifting and donuts]. That’s really the motivation for the closure.

Shinnerl: It’s really a safety measure. We’ve had things thrown from the top that could hit people. I will also let you know that this is a permanent fix. So, the temporary fencing is there now, but we are going to be doing some permanent fencing that looks a lot nicer. We can open the top garage areas when there’s a big event or if a student group wants to reserve the top and has supervision, that’s really different. We’ve just had too many incidents.

Editorial Board: So there’s no plans to reopen it just for people to go up there? 

Shinnerl: No, we’re going to help all the students find an alternative place for their celebrations.

Topousis: It’s also true that I think it’s a lot of high schoolers and people from Sacramento who come up there, and it becomes a really dangerous place sometimes. It’s not necessarily our UC Davis students.

Editorial Board: What advice do you have for graduates, since many of us and many other students are graduating soon? 

May: I would say this is an exciting time in your life, and you’ve received a great education that’s prepared you to really do great and wonderful things in your careers. Follow your passions [and]  find something to do with your life that feels like you’re not working. There’s an old saying, “If you enjoy what you do, you never work a day in your life,” and that’s not completely true, but it’s somewhat true. I would say congratulations to the graduates.

Topousis: You’re starting a new chapter in your lives, but this time in your life should also be about just enjoying the freedom as much as you can. You have your whole lives to have all kinds of obligations and commitments. Do those things that you really want to do, if that’s pursuing a graduate degree or if that’s doing something else. Just don’t take everything too seriously, because life just gets really complicated the more you get into decades and decades. Enjoy the time that you can to do the things you want to do, without a lot of the obligations that might hold you back later.

Shinnerl: Don’t forget about UC Davis, we’re also a really big employer. A lot of people forget that we are the second largest employer in the entire region, second only to the State of California. [There are] a lot of jobs here [and] a lot of opportunities, but most of all, be super proud of your accomplishments here. I’ll also say lean on each other — I’m going to my reunion next week at UC San Diego [and] I’m still in close contact with a lot of them, and it’s a prized network.

Atkinson: Definitely take this moment to really pause and take in this achievement because you all have worked really hard. I know the hustle and bustle can sweep time by, but just take in the moment that you’re experiencing and know that the journey continues. [With] life after college, you’ll continue to grow and learn about yourself. 

Engelbach: You may discover you’re going down a path, and the path isn’t exactly the one that you thought it might be. It’s okay to say, “This isn’t working, and I’m going to do something different because now’s the time to make those decisions.” When you get to your mid[dle-aged] years, it’s not quite as easy to make those changes. Seize that opportunity to make the change for yourself because life is short and you need to be happy.

Written by: The Editorial Board


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here