California Higher Education Leaders Talk Post-Pandemic Challenges, AI, and Free Speech

The Public Policy Institute of California hosted a conversation with leaders from California's three public higher education systems to talk about the current state of higher education.
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Published on December 4, 2023
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  • The event featured Michael V. Drake, president of the University of California; Mildred García, chancellor of California State University; and Aisha Lowe, executive vice chancellor at California Community Colleges.
  • The leaders from California's three public higher education systems spoke about their goals for a post-pandemic future, including increasing transfer and dual enrollment and expanding diversity.
  • They also touched on hot-button issues including free speech on campus, affirmative action, and the role of artificial intelligence in higher education.

Leaders from California's three public higher education systems gathered virtually to discuss the challenges the institutions faced post-pandemic and how they are working toward student success in the upcoming years.

The event featured the President of the University of California (UC) Michael V. Drake and the Chancellor of California State University (CSU) Mildred García. Aisha Lowe, executive vice chancellor for the Equitable Student Learning, Experience, and Impact Office, represented California Community Colleges, filling in for Chancellor Sonya Christian.

The conversation was moderated by Tani Cantil-Sakauye, president and CEO of the Public Policy Institute of California, a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank.

The hour-long conversation covered the most pressing issues facing higher education, including the rising cost of attending college, dual enrollment opportunities and transfer pathways, and artificial intelligence.

They also touched on current events, including the recent Supreme Court decision to ban affirmative action and the role campuses play in protecting freedom of speech in the wake of events in the Middle East.

Here are the highlights of the conversation.

Top Issues Facing Higher Education

All three speakers spoke of the reality of higher education after the COVID-19 pandemic, troubled by declining enrollment, delayed learning, and increased cost of living.

Lowe spoke about the importance of community colleges in a student's journey through higher education, emphasizing that traditional students are not the only populations the system needs to reach out to.

"The most challenging issue facing higher education today is that it's not a part of the lives of millions of Californians who stand to benefit the most from a college education," she said. "... We need to understand that the traditional pathways to degrees of the past will have to be innovated and redesigned for this post-traditional student that is often composed of working adults and working parents."

Both Drake and García highlighted how much it costs to get a college degree, including expenses beyond tuition.

"We're all constrained by a challenging cost environment [and] a challenging housing environment in California. All of those things are issues that we have to work with every day to try to make sure that we can continue to advance access, affordability, and excellence," Drake said.

Current Events

College campuses across the country are grappling with student protests over the Israel-Hamas war, the U.S. government's role in it, and their individual institution's responses.

All three speakers echoed each other, defending the right to free speech and expression while balancing the safety of community members.

"We have to find that balance," García said. "That's what a university is all about, to be able to have civil conversations in order for students to learn how to live and debate in a democracy … [it is important] that our institutions are preparing leaders to be living in a democratic nation."

Drake, who recently had a lawsuit filed against the University of California, Berkeley alleging that the campus has become a hotbed of anti-Jewish hostility and harassment, said that the issue of free speech on campus is "complicated" and that the university has an obligation to protect citizens' First Amendment rights.

"In the scheme of things we, as the public university, have the role almost of the government in matters of free speech. What the First Amendment says is that we shall not limit the free speech of our citizens, we must in fact protect it," he said. "...The First Amendment … includes the right to be distasteful and to say things with which people disagree and that can be uncomfortable."

Drake did emphasize that the university does not tolerate hate speech and is working toward finding ways that those with "incompatible viewpoints" can continue to work together.

"It is extraordinarily important to be respectful of each other and extraordinarily important to eliminate hateful speech and attitudes," he said. "These last several weeks have shown that we have people who have incompatible opposing views. And the challenge of supporting people working together who have incompatible opposing views is an ongoing everyday challenge for us … "

Another hot topic was race-based admissions, which has not been used by California's public college systems since 1996 when voters approved Proposition 209, an affirmative action ban at public universities in the state.

Both García and Drake committed to a thorough review of every applicant to CSU and UC campuses and explained that just because they don't take race into account does not mean they don't look for diversity in their student body.

"The way we've gone about that is by using a comprehensive, holistic pattern or method of reviewing applications," Drake said. "We look at the whole person — that's who you are, your life experiences, your opportunities, the challenges you've met, how you've overcome those challenges, how you dealt with the world that you have faced."

García added that it was important for universities to understand their students and where they come from to ensure they reach their full potential.

"Understanding the cultures that we represent and understanding how [students] learn is important. Understanding that families are important, going into communities and speaking in their language and in their space in order for them to see that our campuses are places for them," she said.

Dual Enrollment and Transfer Pathways

Dual enrollment and transfer opportunities are two ways community colleges in California attract students and set them up for success at four-year institutions and beyond.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom and the state Legislature have supported efforts that expand dual enrollment and transfer opportunities, including a dual enrollment program between CSU and California Community Colleges and a new transfer program between UC and California Community Colleges.

Lowe emphasizes how dual enrollment increases the chances students will be admitted to college.

"We see so much potential and possibility here and think that as we invest in dual enrollment in the years to come, we will see we will reap those dividends and have more students in general and more students of color continuing their educational journey after high school, not just with our colleges, but with our four-year partners as well," she said.

On transfer opportunities, Lowe said it was about working to make the process as simple and streamlined as possible so that all students can go from community college to a four-year university.

"For students that are working adults … time is their greatest enemy," she said. "They don't have time to waste [and] confusion about the process can derail their trajectory because they are managing real life and the complexities of life. We're excited to continue these partnerships and envision a future transfer process that is so clear that it almost naturally funnels students from our community colleges to our four-year partners."

García added that transfer pathways are the "lifeblood of [the CSU] system" and that dual enrollment and transfer opportunities give low-income and first-generation students opportunities to pursue higher education that they would not otherwise have had.

"Taking classes at a community college or at a high school with a faculty member from a CSU campus, it opens up possibilities and gives you confidence that, yes, that may be a place where you belong," she said.

Artificial Intelligence

All three speakers embraced using artificial intelligence (AI) in educational settings while cautioning that the new technology should have limits.

García said the CSU is ready to embrace the rise of AI and has created a systemwide committee to look at the scholarship of the technology, the security and data privacy concerns, and procedures and policies that should be put into place for its use.

"When the internet came, we were afraid of the internet, weren't we? We were all scared of what was going to happen. And then we finally started to work that through, [it's] the same thing with AI, embracing innovation, showing it can help the future, how it's going to help jobs, how it's gonna change our lives," she said.

Lowe brought up how AI will open new career opportunities. She said the California community college system is ready to train students for new jobs that emerge.

"We have not yet seen what artificial intelligence is going to mean for the workforce, what it's going to mean for the future of jobs, but we want to get ahead of that and make sure that we are designing the sort of pathways that will prepare students to be ready to fulfill those jobs," she said.

Drake listed all the ways AI can be used within the UC system, including healthcare recordkeeping, educational support, and research. However, he was concerned about the ethics of AI, including ChatGPT, and students getting too much assistance from the technology.

"I think this is going to be a net good, but we have to make sure to keep our eyes and ears open," he said. "I believe it's going to be an incredibly important part of the future."