Fall 2020

University Convocation Fall 2020

August 20, 2020

Thank you, Provost Alvarado, and good morning, everyone. As you heard from our new provost, 54 new faculty are joining us today. Normally, I would acknowledge all 54 of you by asking you to stand. Then our community would welcome you with a resounding round of applause. This year, it’s just me here. I was intrigued to see that Major League Baseball is piping applause and cheers into ballparks; we decided against that. I’ll simply say “welcome,” and just know you hit a home run with your decision to join our faculty; one of the finest in the nation. I know that you’ll contribute in exciting and transformative ways to the vibrancy of our scholarship and teaching, and I’m looking forward to meeting each of you in person. Let me also welcome all of you who are watching today: our students, faculty, and staff; our alumni; our emeriti faculty; and our many friends. A special welcome and congratulations to Talia Bettcher, our new chair of the Academic Senate. Welcome and deep thanks to ASI President Diana Chavez, and all of our student representatives. Your leadership will make a difference, and help to assure the success of our 25,000 students as we navigate this unusual year. 

We start this new academic year keenly aware that it is unlike any other in the history of Cal State LA. We see, hear, and feel the differences at every turn. The very fact that you are watching this address from your homes, rather than from a seat in the Luckman Theatre, is one sign that this is a very different Convocation, these are very different times. The last five months have not been easy—not for our students, our faculty, our staff, or our nation. The pandemic contorted our world. The killing of George Floyd broke our hearts and shined a light on the undeniable and painful truth about police brutality and the injustices suffered by the Black community and communities of color. The outrage accelerated a movement across our nation and the globe. We gather today experiencing together a dramatic recalibration of our everyday circumstances, practices, and challenges, attuned like never before to the inequities and abuses of power that have been brought before our eyes. Even so, I am confident that we will rededicate ourselves to our ambitious mission in this new academic year, to transform lives and foster thriving communities across greater Los Angeles and to cultivate and amplify our students’ unique talents and intellect to support their overall success, well-being, and the public good. We will emerge with new practices, tools, and approaches for educating our students and serving our community. And I am hopeful that our nation will emerge from this chapter with a renewed sense of our responsibility to each other. 

For now, the pandemic is still with us. But we have an advantage that we did not have in March. Five months from the day we ended all events on campus last semester, we know more about our capacity for meeting change than we knew before. Provost Alvarado noted that our faculty met the challenge of the pandemic by spending much of this summer preparing to teach in ways that will challenge, prepare, and engage our students in a virtual space. What we’ve accomplished is nothing less than stunning. To all of the faculty who participated in the Alt-Instruction Summer Institute: Thank you. And to the deans, associate deans, department chairs, and to Cat Haras and the staff of our nationally renowned Center for Effective Teaching and Learning, thank you. 

Across the University, our staff have also prepared for this new and unprecedented semester. In the spring we passed out laptops and hotspots to students who needed them. In preparation for this academic year, ITS purchased thousands more laptops and hotspots, anticipating the need. The Division of Student Life has devised a way to distribute technology through a contact-free process. We know that our students need this help. The pandemic has left families struggling—some without work, others on the brink of eviction. In the spring, we disbursed nearly $18 million in CARES ACT funding to almost 20,000 students. There’s still some funding in reserve that will help our neediest students this semester. Before we received CARES ACT funding, we used university funds to assist students with emergency grants that totaled $286,000. Some of our students were not eligible for CARES ACT funding, so we provided nearly a million dollars to ensure that all of our students, regardless of their status, received the help they needed. Our colossal food distribution event, held with the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank this summer, provided more than 3,000 families with 80 pounds of food each. We opened a COVID-19 testing site here on campus so that those in nearby communities, or those who want to come to a familiar place to be tested, can do so. 

Because of our demonstrated commitment to public service, Governor Gavin Newsom awarded Cal State LA an inaugural Civic Action Fellowship grant. With this grant, we will deploy Cal State LA students to nonprofits that are working with community partners in Southeast Los Angeles County to address environmental, economic development, and health and education issues. Our students are serving in these communities at a time when their service is crucial. Groundbreaking research by the Pat Brown Institute, which was featured in the Los Angeles Times, found that communities in Southeast Los Angeles County are among the hardest hit by the coronavirus. These communities are also home to many of our students. Because we care, we are poised to help. Recently we held a food distribution event with the Southeast-Rio Vista YMCA in Maywood, and we worked with the YMCA to offer a virtual STEAM academy for youth from four of the Y’s most under-resourced and underserved communities: the Crenshaw Family YMCA, the Weingart YMCA Wellness and Aquatic Center in South Los Angeles, the Weingart East Los Angeles YMCA, and the Southeast-Rio Vista YMCA. Through this collaboration, we provided engaging learning experiences to students who otherwise would not have had the opportunity. 

For our own students, we have utilized technology not only to provide instruction, but to enhance vital services. We are now using our new cloud-based call center for financial aid, records, and admissions. This allows staff to respond to calls from students remotely. Through our Remote 24/7 ITS Help Desk, support is available via email, phone, and an online ticketing system to students, faculty, and staff. Comparing March through June of last year, with March through June of this year, there has been a 39 percent increase in the number of calls to the ITS Help Desk. During that same period this year, the ITS Help Desk experienced a 104 percent increase in the number of tickets it handled in comparison to last year.

Our Student Health Center uses Zoom to provide services securely and remotely. You won’t be surprised to learn that our Zoom usage has shot up from 7,000 Zoom meeting participants in February to more than 460,000 in April. This summer our Golden Eagle Orientation for new students moved online, and Orientation staff exhibited great creativity and caring to keep students engaged and informed. Following Golden Eagle Orientation, new students participated in our Summer Launch program. Created by New Student and Family Programs and the Center for Student Involvement, this is a new opportunity for students to meet and to begin building community. Many thanks to staff across the university for your part in making a difficult time better. 

The pandemic has delivered lessons that we will spend years absorbing. Some of those lessons are harsh. And some of them tender, including the great need we have for each other. Our students need our support and they need each other. That’s why the long list of co-curricular activities available online at CalStateLA.edu/calendar is so important. Our Center for Student Involvement (CSI) and our Cross Cultural Centers (CCC) have kept students together—talking, moving, creating, and enjoying each other’s company. This summer there were workshops on craft making, dance contests, boxing classes; and our virtual Greek Life groups held leadership seminars. CSI partnered with our Career Development Center to offer summer career development workshops, and students involved in clubs and orgs participated in a virtual Officer Development Course. The CCC celebrated PRIDE month and created much needed spaces for students to discuss pressing topics, including anti-blackness. Working with CAPS, the CCC hosted “Let’s Talk” sessions to support students. 

ASI continued to work on behalf of students. In its first fully virtual election, students selected their leadership and the participation was high. ASI provided $150,000 in emergency grants to students impacted by the pandemic. ASI was also a partner in our food distribution, providing snacks and water to volunteers. At virtual town halls hosted by ASI, students raised questions and expressed their concerns, and ASI collaborated with university administrators for information and solutions. We look forward to continuing such collaboration throughout this year.

Our fall semester will include a robust program of events and activities for students, starting with our virtual Welcome Week next week. Campus departments will showcase their services during open houses. Plans are underway for a virtual wellness week hosted by the Student Health Center that will provide COVID-19 information and health guidelines. 

This summer we watched as initiatives from the highest office in the land placed the futures of our students in jeopardy. A Supreme Court ruling against the Trump administration’s effort to end DACA allowed us to breathe a collective sigh of relief. We rejoiced for a bit, only to learn that efforts to end DACA have not stopped. We must remain vigilant and prepared. Our international students faced the terrible threat of being forced to leave the country under new ICE guidance. I was proud to see the way our community pulled together to search for solutions. Cal State LA joined the state in a federal lawsuit, and I signed onto an amicus brief brought by Harvard and MIT. Cal State LA’s work ultimately helped push ICE to settle the lawsuit and retract the guidance.

Long before the killing of George Floyd and the movement it propelled, Black student enrollment was a subject of discussion on our campus. For that reason, we launched an effort in the fall of 2019 to address the declining enrollment of Black students. This was a collaborative approach that involved many university offices including Admissions, Recruitment, and Orientation staff. That work is now producing the kinds of results that we hoped to see: Our admission of Black students was much, much higher than ever before. Our ECDs, or Enrollment Confirmation Deposits, saw a comparably sharp increase. And we now stand poised to welcome what may be the largest class of Black students that we’ve had in many years. This good news comes in spite of the pandemic and its impact. And we will continue to build on this progress by working together in a coordinated way to ensure student success. We know that our work does not stop with admitting and enrolling students: Supporting their progress toward earning a degree is our highest priority. We do this by sustaining and enriching a welcoming campus climate, one in which our students feel a sense of belonging. We continue to develop support programs to accomplish this goal: Remote Summer Bridge, a Black Student Fall Welcome, and the RISE Peer Mentoring Program. RISE stands for Retention through Interpersonal Student Engagement. The program pairs continuing students with new students to help them successfully settle into life as a Golden Eagle. The Men of Color Success Network continues to encourage and support young men on their educational journeys at Cal State LA. This fall you’ll see more new programming, including a four-part series that will explore the core elements of anti-Blackness and ways to work together to combat it.

Like so many of you, I look forward to the day when we can return to face-to-face teaching, learning, and work. And when you all return, our campus will have a few additions. We will have new dormitory-style residence halls for students. We will have a renovated physical sciences building dedicated to student services. And this semester is the inaugural semester of our new College of Ethnic Studies. Establishing a new and distinctive College is never without difficulties. Challenges are inevitable. Ours is the first College of Ethnic Studies created in 50 years. Our commitment is not only to open its doors, but to set it on a path for success.

Some of you will recognize a change to what had been known as the Mind Matters initiative. Our initiative has evolved—as many do—and we have given it a new name: WellBeingU. WellBeingU remains committed to the health and well-being of our university community. Over the years, we have been expanding our psychological staff and access to well-being programs and services to ensure that we are responding to student needs. As our students re-orient their lives to current changes and challenges, we expect the need for psychological counseling and basic needs assistance to grow, and we will be ready.   

This summer we mourned the loss of a giant of the Civil Rights Movement, Congressman John Lewis. Our loss is great. We trusted Congressman Lewis to act from a place of moral clarity; to demonstrate courage in the face of injustice; to speak truth to power; and to get into good trouble. Many of you will remember that Congressman Lewis came to Cal State LA in 2016 to inspire and encourage our community. You may not know that his wife was an alumna of Cal State LA. One of Congressman Lewis’ great insights resonates with me every day: He said, “We all live in the same house.” Speaking to a group of graduates during a 2016 Commencement he said: 

“I say to you, the wind may blow, the thunder may roll, and the lightning may flash, and the rain may beat down on our old house, but you have an obligation, you have a mission, you have a mandate to stay with the house and hold on to your principles. Hold on to your beliefs. ... Call it an American house. Call it a world house. We all live in the same house. Let’s stay together. And never give up. Never give in. Keep the faith. And walk with the spirit of this institution, and you’ll be all right.”

Let’s make the most of this historic semester. Be safe. Be well. And let’s take care of everyone in our house.