Cynthia Larive
Cynthia Larive stepped in as UCSC chancellor on the verge of a historically challenging year.
(Carolyn Lagattuta / UC Santa Cruz)
Higher Ed

Talking times of tumult and triumph with UCSC Chancellor Cynthia Larive

The UC Santa Cruz chancellor took time to talk COVID life, budgetary challenges, student safety, a potential shift to the semester system and her pandemic-acquired hobbies (nature watching and jigsaw puzzles).

In her first full year as UC Santa Cruz chancellor, Cynthia Larive has dealt with a career’s worth of crises.

Larive took the reins in July 2019, moving from the Riverside campus where she’d worked as provost. Less than a year later, the first wave of the pandemic forced UCSC to close its campus in March. It’s still mostly closed.

For UCSC, the trials of 2020 extend beyond COVID-19. Student unrest and weeks of demonstrations roiled through the campus last winter. Then, in August, the CZU fire forced even the small number still living and working there to flee under evacuation orders.

The brief period has also been marked by several noteworthy successes. UCSC fulfilled a longtime ambition at the end of 2019, joining a prestigious club of research powerhouses — the Association of American Universities.

It welcomed a Nobel laureate to its faculty for the first time this fall. And some in the campus community have risen to take leading roles in the response to the pandemic in Santa Cruz County and beyond

Larive, 63, was raised in South Dakota’s Black Hills. She earned her Ph.D. in chemistry at UC Riverside in 1992 and returned to join the faculty at her alma mater 2005, eventually working her way into the administration as interim provost.

Interviewed recently via Zoom, she reflected on the time of tumult — and triumphs — as well as hard choices looming ahead. The conversation has been edited for clarity and concision.

What has it been like dropping into a time like this as a new chancellor?

The chancellor doesn’t do things alone. It’s really the whole team at the university that has managed our way through these issues — nowhere was that more apparent than in our evacuation and then repopulation of the campus due to the fire.

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And you see it in the way the campus has really risen to the COVID needs for testing, for quarantine and isolation of infected students, or students who might have been exposed, and in the way that the faculty and instructors really leapt in two weeks time to be able to put the whole curriculum into remote instruction. So I feel really grateful to the whole UC Santa Cruz community and proud to lead such an organization.

I was reflecting this morning that I’m getting pretty close to the point where I will have passed the 50% mark, in terms of time that I got to be on campus and time that I’ve been working remote. Because I started July of 2019, and then in March, we shifted to remote work — I’m working remotely every day. So that’s kind of just mind boggling, right?

What’s your assessment of how UCSC has managed student testing?

We require that students who are living on campus receive an asymptomatic test twice a week. We also make testing available for students who live in the community and employees who are coming to campus. By making this testing widely available I think it helps a lot for us to be able to control the spread of the disease, and also keeps it at the top of mind for students.

We have a pledge — we call it Slug Strong — it’s just six things that people can do to prevent the spread, and I think we haven’t seen the outbreaks that many other universities have seen through parties, mostly, and I give our students all the credit for that.

With vaccines on the horizon, where is the conversation around a wider campus reopening?

I would guess we’ll have conversations about it as a system. I’m hoping we’ll be in a different situation in the fall — I don’t yet know quite what that will look like.

Right now we’re not closed. We have those six in-person classes. I think there’ll be a few more in the winter. I hope there might be a few more in the spring. And so I tend to think that for us, it’s a good plan to think about things in a careful way. I’m almost certain that if the pandemic goes in the way we think it’s going to go, we’ll be in a position to be more open in the fall than we have been now. But there’s so many unknowns with this pandemic. We can think we want to do something, and then public health may dictate we do something different.

It’s all driven by our academic calendars, so in our calendars, students would typically register for their fall classes in May. So you have to back up from that, then you have to start making those decisions about what classes will be offered and who is going to be teaching them and, if they’re in person, where they will be located. Those conversations will probably start to happen in January and February on the campus.

How is UCSC dealing with its $130 million budget shortfall — is that leading to any staffing or program cuts?

Budget problems are never fun for any organization, but we’re really lucky at UC Santa Cruz that the campus has been fiscally conservative in the past. We entered the crisis brought on by COVID in a strong financial position. We also acted very quickly.

So in March, we instituted position management — which is a hiring freeze, which allows the chancellor or the EVC/provost to make selective possibilities for hiring in very small numbers. So the way in which we have slowed hiring, we’ve also slowed spending in many other ways. Part of that is due to COVID.

We can’t travel, and we don’t have events in the same way we did in the past. But we’ve deferred some construction and renovation projects and made other kinds of financial decisions toward the core part of the campus budget, which is instruction and research, the sort of basic infrastructure of the campus.

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The auxiliary budget deficits are much larger, but we also expect that to rebound very quickly once we’re able to move past COVID and resume something that looks more like normal. So there, we’re using redeployment of staff whose work has been reduced or eliminated because of COVID changes.

For example, the dining hall: We now have about 900 students living on campus instead of 8,500 or 9,000, so we’re not having as many dining halls open. Rather than moving those staff into layoffs, we’re working hard to redeploy them in other areas of the campus where there is work that needs to be done.

Some big ideas are up for discussion, from an online degree program to switching to a semester system. What’s driving those?

Beginning in June I pulled the whole leadership team together and we started thinking about how we’ll manage the impacts of COVID budgetarily, how divisions will take a budget cut, but also looking at opportunities — are there opportunities for projects where we can be more efficient, more effective, save money, do things differently?

At the University of California we have shared governance, and our faculty senate are very important in that. And both of those areas, online courses and programs and the academic calendar, are really largely under the purview of the academic senate. So we want to have a conversation about, is this is a good idea? If so, how would we go about doing them? What would we think about? Those conversations are just starting. It is a point at which we can have a focused discussion thinking beyond COVID, thinking about how we think about the future of the university.

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I think the semester one is a good example, though, in that so many universities around the country, but also in California, are on the semester calendar. Most of the community colleges and Cal States are on the semester system. Would it make sense for us to be on the same kind of calendar as many of the institutions where we receive students, or our students might be engaged with? So that’s the basis behind those thoughts.

In July you said UCSC “must do more” to reform campus policing. One call from students has been to take lethal weapons out of the equation. Is that plausible?

I’m not sure I know what the future for that is. I think there’s a large conversation that’s happening as a system — while we have our campus police, there are certain systemwide regulations and things that happen that we have to also comply with. But we’re having a conversation on our campus. We’ve established a Campus Safety Community Advisory board, they’re having really robust discussions. I think that there are going to be a lot of conversations that can be had. One of them, I think, is under what conditions do you need a sworn officer to be responding? Should there be other types of responses and people who might have different kinds of training?

I think the whole thing is a little bit complicated. I do worry — I worry about all kinds of things happening at the university. I want our students to be safe. Right now we’re not having as many active shooter kinds of engagements as we have in the past — maybe COVID has calmed that down a little bit. The whole issue of safety can change very quickly. I think it’s an opportunity. This is an opportunity for us to talk about the future, to talk about campus safety, and the role of the police on our campus, and I’m really energized by the opportunity to have that conversation.

What’s your take on the role UCSC faculty have played during this pandemic?

I’m just so proud and grateful. I think it’s a really good demonstration of the value of having a research university in your community. Our testing lab, the contributions that we’re making to the community are really just remarkable.

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But it goes beyond that. Marm Kilpatrick and others on our campus have really used their expertise in epidemiology and testing, and in other ways, to help provide an educational basis for thinking about COVID or understanding how each of us can step in and help stop or slow the spread of the pandemic, and the kinds of things we need to worry about.

Then there’s the technical innovations. At a research university you’re at the forefront of discovery and new kinds of test or treatments or other kinds of devices that could not only help us with COVID but open up the door for other new opportunities for future diseases or pandemics. It just shows you, I think, the way that a university can be nimble and respond to an emergency but really keep our core values and our future in mind.

How are you looking at recovery in the year ahead, both for the campus and wider community?

I think the university is a big driver in that recovery, and we’ve been trying to think smart. So — how will we take the lessons from the pandemic that are positive ones? You see that in this introductory conversation about online courses or even online programs. It’s also remote work. I like being on campus, but there are many other employees who might benefit from coming to work much less frequently, or maybe completely working from home — especially individuals who might have a long commute or are trying to balance work and family needs.

I think that one of the lessons I’ve taken from COVID is that if universities can be a little bit more flexible in the way that we offer our programs and experiences to students — that everybody could win in that.

On a personal note, have you found any effective ways to unwind?

Every morning my husband and I take a walk, so I really enjoy those walks. On the weekends I like to drive through campus and notice the animals. If you go on an early morning drive through campus you see all kinds of animals. One morning we saw a coyote and he made the decision, probably not too wise, to run through a whole herd of deer — and the bucks chased him with their antlers down at the ground. It was just like something you would see on National Geographic.

And then I picked up an old hobby that I hadn’t used in a long time: I’m putting together jigsaw puzzles. Something I did much earlier in my life as a kid. It takes my mind off things. You focus on how to get those puzzles together. Some people turn to sourdough bread but Jim and I try to watch our carbs so that didn’t seem like a good option. So I went with jigsaw puzzles.

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