“Our top priority, which guides each decision we make, is the health and safety of the entire UCR community”; Chancellor Wilcox discusses COVID-19 and campus closure

UCR along with universities throughout the country have transformed into completely remote institutions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In an exclusive email interview with The Highlander, Chancellor Kim A. Wilcox discussed UCR’s handling of the campus closure. 

Wilcox stated that over the past weeks, UCR has collectively transformed the university into a primarily remote working and learning environment. In addition to the resources that ITS and Undergraduate Education have assembled, Wilcox stated that he finds faculty members across campus leaning on each other and sharing information to master online instruction. “This change has been nothing short of remarkable; and while there will be some bumps along the way, our campus community’s resiliency has helped make this unprecedented change possible,” stated Wilcox. 

In response to what steps UCR has taken to meet the needs of students during this unprecedented time, Wilcox stated that UCR is a student-centered institution and that each of the steps it has taken to respond to a global crisis is meant to support students.

He stated, “Our top priority, which guides each decision we make, is the health and safety of the entire UCR community. We have worked closely with California and Riverside County public health officials to close campus to mitigate health risk for students, faculty, staff and other members of our community.” 

As part of their commitment to students, Wilcox stated that UCR has continued to provide housing and meals for those who cannot safely return home. UCR is also continuing to provide services in a modified manner to protect health and safety. Student Health Services, Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), R’Pantry and other functions remain available for all students even through the physical closure. 

“In spite of the challenges, we are continuing to pursue our educational mission. Our faculty has put forth tremendous effort in recent weeks to move courses online and establish new ways to connect with students during spring quarter,” stated Wilcox. He added that UCR’s ITS department has worked to expand capacity with existing and new technology solutions. 

Wilcox stated that UCR also recognizes that the shift to remote learning is more burdensome to some students than others due to the inability to access campus resources, including laptop kiosks and student computer labs. He stated that the Loan2Learn Program was launched in response to UCR’s transition to remote instruction for the entire spring quarter and summer session, in accordance with the revised Riverside County Public Health order. 

The campus closure has also caused many students to demand a refund of tuition and fees. In a campuswide email sent on March 25 and addressed from Wilcox and Interim Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor Thomas M. Smith, Wilcox and Smith wrote that consistent with a letter issued by the UC Office of the President (UCOP), all tuition and fees remain unchanged for students enrolled during spring quarter. 

Wilcox elaborated on this decision stating that course material fees will be adjusted for courses that, in this new learning environment, do not require the equipment or other educational resources traditionally covered by the fee. Wilcox added that of the approximately 280 course material fees typically assessed, 272 will be adjusted and only eight courses will retain these fees because the educational resources will still be provided to support the student-learning experience. Adjustments will be made the week of April 5, according to Wilcox. The Office of the Registrar’s website will be updated to reflect which course material fees remain in effect for spring. Wilcox noted that UCR has also waived a number of late payment fees. UCR will continue to look at other fees for adjustment. 

Commencement has also been a concern for many graduating UCR students. Wilcox stated that On April 1, Riverside County extended the school closure order through at least June 19.Wilcox stated that unfortunately, this will preclude any of UCR’s commencement exercises from taking place as currently scheduled and configured.  

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Wilcox stated to The Highlander, “We understand how important the commencement ceremony is to our students. Last year I appointed a working group to look at commencement. That team will submit recommendations by April 15. Though we are facing a series of challenges, we are certainly working to find solutions that best celebrate our graduating students. We welcome ideas and feedback through our online survey.” 

Wilcox also discussed the impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on faculty and student employees. He stated, “A terrible sadness of the pandemic is the devastation it has wrought on so much of the world economy. Businesses that were viable only three weeks ago – jobs that we considered stable – have been swept away. Many campus employees are among those who have been affected by COVID-19, and with the campus closure, unfortunately student workers are among them.” Wilcox stated that UCR has also extended their leave policies to student employees, granting paid administrative leave if they cannot perform their job remotely. 

UCR is committed to doing their best to keep people earning a paycheck, stated Wilcox. He noted that, “On April 2, I signed a letter along with UCOP President Janet Napolitano and the chancellors of the other UC schools announcing that there will be no COVID-19 related layoffs for all career employees through the fiscal year ending on June 30, 2020.” On Monday March 16, Napolitano also issued an executive order that allows all employees to receive a one-time allotment of up to 128 hours of paid administrative leave. 

In response to student concerns that their courses do not translate well into online courses, Wilcox stated that UCR is applying the best practices of peer universities in real time and on an ongoing basis. Wilcox highlighted the experience and expertise UCR has on its campus. For instance, stated Wilcox, the Exploration Center for Innovative Teaching & Engagement (XCITE), was formed in November to assist faculty with course development and technology integration. XCITE has been instrumental in helping UCR transition to remote instruction and are continuing to work on virtual lab solutions, claimed Wilcox. 

“As with any form of innovation, we know there will be situations we haven’t anticipated or new challenges that emerge over the course of the semester. Several task forces across campus will continue to find answers to new questions as they arise,” stated Wilcox. 

Wilcox noted that UCR is not an online institution. “We are conducting remote instruction this quarter and during the summer session in response to a global pandemic. Our world-class faculty members will continue to drive instruction whether face-to-face or remote,” he stated. 

In response to what advice he has for students and faculty trying to maintain a sense of normalcy at UCR while in the midst of a global pandemic, Wilcox stated that during this time of uncertainty, “we are reminded of the importance of family or other close connections. While physical distancing is our reality, it is important to stay close to our family and friends through social media or other means.” 

He added that CAPS is available to students by phone or secure video conferencing. Wilcox stated, “remember that all of us in the campus community are experiencing uncertainty and fear, as well; we’re in this together. Reach out to your instructors and teaching assistants. And make connections with your classmates; one of the benefits of the videoconferencing technology we are utilizing is that it’s possible to connect with your classmates; I think you’ll find they have the same need to talk about this experience.” 

Elaborating on the curtailment of on-campus research activities to those that cannot be postponed or restarted, Wilcox stated that UCR is not curtailing all research, however, UCR, like all colleges and universities in California and most throughout the United States, is operating under stay-at-home orders which limit what can be done on campus. 

He stated that many research operations are critical campus functions, and those deemed critical are continuing while following important social distancing and hygiene measures. Wilcox noted that it is also worth noting that research is more than work done in the lab or field. Intellectual work, data analysis, grant applications and manuscript development are some of the research activities that will continue. In this way, UCR is still making progress as a research institution, stated Wilcox. 

Wilcox went on to state that, “Since we are in the middle of a global pandemic, I expect that all research institutions will feel some impacts. However, the coronavirus crisis is also underscoring the need for new solutions in biomedical engineering, medicine, technology and other sectors. When we emerge on the other side of this, there will be new learning and new research opportunities to pursue.” 

With uncertainty surrounding when this pandemic social distancing guidelines will end, Wilcox stated that UCR’s instructional programming will evolve with time as they understand the challenges. “We know that maintaining our research operations will become difficult if the pandemic worsens. Additionally, we will face progressively greater financial problems if we lose revenues from state finances, auxiliary fees and federal research support,” stated Wilcox, adding that this is uncharted territory. He concluded stating, “In many ways, we must address this crisis each day as it unfolds. But at the same time, I’m grateful to be supported with problem-solvers across campus as we navigate this unprecedented challenge.”

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