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Beijing Forum 2017 Interview: Gene D. BLOCK, Chancellor, University of California, Los Angeles

Interviewed by: KIM Yong-hak, President, Yonsei University
Date: 3 November 2017
Place: Beijing, China


Yong-hak Kim: It's my great pleasure to interview Chancellor Gene Block.

You served as vice president and provost at the University of Virginia for five years and people say that you achieved a lot there. How do you want to be remembered by people of the University of Virginia and what were the things you achieved there?

Gene Block: In Virginia, as provost I was the chief academic officer. So unlike being a chancellor or president responsible for everything including sports, fund raising, etc., as provost I focused on academic issues. I think one area where I succeeded was encouraging multidisciplinary research and scholarship that involved diverse academic areas.

Kim: Any particular area of interdisciplinary research?

Block: One area in particular was the digital humanities. It's a very exciting field that involves everything from analyzing how famous authors changed their writing styles over time, to developing visual representations of  ancient cities, to digital representations of Civil War battlefields.

Kim: Fascinating, I'd like to have a chance to study about it.
UCLA is internationally known for the value it places on diversity. What do you think is the strength of diversity and why do you value diversity - in what area, in what field?

Block: With regard to diversity, we define it very broadly. We seek students from a wide range of socio-economic backgrounds, as well as students from different ethnic and racial backgrounds. We're also looking for students with different abilities, such as artists and musicians, as well as those from more traditional scholarly areas. We also focus on international diversity. Although we attract U.S. students from families whose origins are world-wide, we believe there is no substitute for enrolling international students who bring perspectives that are oftentimes different from our U.S. students. I believe that our students will be better prepared for working in a global environment through the international experiences they receive at UCLA.

Kim: But ethnic diversity needs some tolerance. How do you promote tolerance among students and faculty members?

Block: It is always a work in progress. When you have a diverse group of students, there is a tendency to have strong differences in viewpoints. We try to develop a sense of respect and tolerance for one another’s viewpoints. We try to reinforce the notion that you can agree or disagree, but this should be accomplished in a respectful manner.  Our Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion has created a number of programs that help students “speak across differences.”  As I mentioned, this is challenging and will always remain a work in progress.  


Kim: You've mentioned that these questions are very thoughtful and in fact I've realized that they were written by a graduate of UCLA. A question she raised is a comparison of Korean and American educational system. In Korea it's very competitive and focuses a lot on broad memorization. I'm not sure if you are familiar with the Korean system but could you compare the two systems?

Block: Much of what I hear about the Korean education system is second-hand, so I have to be careful since I may be off-base. My sense is that many Korean high school students excel in sciences and that they have a strong quantitative background. It is also my sense that Korean students may be better prepared than American students for careers in engineering and the sciences. I should emphasize that there are many exceptional U.S. high schools but, overall, there is a view that many American students don’t receive as strong a background in quantitative areas as do many Asian and European students.

However, in other ways, there may be some advantages to U.S. secondary schools.  I have heard complaints that some Asian secondary schools focus too much on memorization and students find it difficult to express creativity or challenge the views of a teacher. U.S. students may be somewhat more willing to challenge convention, challenge teachers and develop a more personalized approach to learning. 

Again, I fear these views are overly simplistic and I recognize that Korean and U.S. schools are constantly evolving.  My guess it that U.S. and Korean high schools are slowly converging in their approaches to education – at least that is my hunch.

Kim: Would you agree with the view that the American system tries to improve the talent of the extreme outliers who are more qualified while Korean education system is only concerned with the average students and not those on the far extremes?

Block: Perhaps there is a different cultural outlook on individualism. There is certainly a focus in the U.S. on individualism. Today, many envy people who start new companies. But a strong focus on individualism can also have negative consequences. I sense that people in Asia oftentimes view themselves as part of the larger cultural family with an attendant sense of societal responsibility. I think America has lost some of that sense of being part of one large family and I'm not certain this has been healthy for our society. Again, this is just my impression and perhaps it is wrong. But I do think that, in terms of entrepreneurial spirit, you're right and there is a focus in the U.S. on extraordinary performance.

Kim: Collectivism vs. individualism, that's a good summary.

You said something to your community on campus against President Trump 's policy on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Could you elaborate why you did that?

Block: Yes, we have a reasonable number of students at UCLA who we call "Dreamers," - students whose parents came to the United States illegally but the students did not break the law – they were just unlucky to be placed in this awkward situation. A segment of these undocumented students are qualified for the Deferred Action program that allows them to work and have driver’s licenses, which makes their lives easier. These are all wonderful young people who are smart, hard-working, and they've gotten into UCLA, but their lives have been very difficult because their parents are not citizens.

Kim: There are such students at UCLA?

Block: Yes, there are many, hundreds. They are undocumented and soon may be subject to deportation. We're very concerned because we think that every one of these students deserves a chance at U.S. citizenship. As mentioned, they did nothing wrong and their hard work and commitment strengthens our whole community. I would add that in my discussions in Washington with both republicans and the democrats, I find general sympathy with the plight of these young people.

Kim: What was the response you received from the political community?

Block: Really not much. We're typically free as institutional leaders to express our opinions.

Kim: Was it well received by the members of the community on campus?

Block: Yes, many. I had some letters that were very negative about undocumented students but the community in California is mostly supportive of our Dreamers.

Kim: The next question is about mental health of students. At Yonsei University, some students attack professors due to mental health problems. Some women students claim that professors are chasing after them and after investigation, they turn out to be false accusations. The number of cases is increasing every year and is becoming a big problem right now. Is there a similar case at UCLA?

Block: In the U.S., we are also deeply concerned about what is now commonly referred to as “brain health” and, certainly, U.S. colleges have seen their share of suicides. We are aware that many serious mental health problems show up in early adulthood and we've decided that we must use our expertise to help deal with brain health issues.

Kim: At hospitals?

Block: Certainly hospitals are involved but our effort involves more than our UCLA hospitals. This current year we are initiating a program that provides our incoming students with free online depression screenings. It consists of a short questionnaire that helps determine whether our students are struggling with mood disorder issues. We not only diagnose problems, but we're also helping to treat students who have been identified as requiring assistance. At its core, this is a research project that will help us develop efficient approaches to identifying and assisting with mental health issues.  Once we learn best practices we will share them broadly.

Kim: Do you have the man power and budget to do so?

Block: We believe that we do as many of our interventions use online approaches or peer counselors. If there are more serious issues, we will engage the appropriate professional staff. We're still determining what is required as we scale up our program and we may find that we need additional resources, but we made the commitment to develop approaches that will be helpful to all of our students.

Kim: Can you share the system with us?

Block: We will, and I believe many schools will be following us and will adopt the same kind of approach.

Kim: Maybe you can share it worldwide for the welfare of the students across the world.

Block: Yes, we want to disseminate what we learn as quickly as possible.

Kim: The next question is about technological change - technologies changing the environment of higher education such as MOOC, distance learning, etc. What other innovations are you trying to implement or have you implemented?

Block: We're a little conservative in this area. Our students generally express concerns about fully online courses. We hear criticism that online courses cannot replace the value of human interactions in the classroom.  Thus, it is more likely that we will rely primarily on hybrid classes and so-called flipped classrooms.  I suspect that most students would prefer to listen to a chemistry lecture at their leisure rather than in a 400-seat lecture hall. But, at the same time, most would then want to participate in break-out discussion sections in person with an instructor.

So I see a melding of electronic and classical teaching methodologies – not one or the other. I am actually worried about completely online universities. I believe this may allow students to miss many parts of the educational experience that I think are very important – for example, experiential learning within research laboratories. I think it would be difficult to decide whether you want to become a chemist if you've not worked in a lab as an undergraduate. Another advantage of residential universities are the opportunities provided outside the classroom. We have 1,400 student groups and each one of these groups has a leader; all of these students get a chance to learn leadership skills. Very often, what we hear from our alumni is that one of the most important experiences they had at UCLA was not in the classroom but outside the classroom.

Kim: Can you give me an example?

Block: It seems like there are student groups for nearly everything! Many of these organizations play important roles in helping students deal with their identities within our diverse university. For example, some of these groups bring together students with similar ethnic backgrounds, such as the Vietnamese Student Union or the Pacific Islands’ Student Association. These groups are well organized and have laudable goals.  There are also a lot of volunteer organizations that help instill a sense of responsibility for public service. I believe these experiences are impossible to duplicate in a fully online environment.

While I recognize that there is no real substitute for a residential educational experience, I also understand the role it can play in graduate and professional training.  It is also true that, for many populations, a residential undergraduate education may not be possible. For example, rural families in developing countries may not have the resources or access to a four-year residential education.  Thus we must recognize there is an appropriate place for fully online education and work to optimize the quality of this 21st century delivery model.

Another approach to keeping residential education costs down is spending the first two years of undergraduate education at a community college. At UCLA, we strongly support community colleges as an entry point to baccalaureate education. I think community colleges, which are typically quite inexpensive, are a good solution for students who don't have the resources for all four years at a place like UCLA. I'm not sure if you have community colleges in Korea but in America, particularly in California, we have many. Several thousand community college students join UCLA each year as third-year students.

Kim: But some universities say introducing new technology, in terms of virtual reality, is necessary. What do you think of this?

Block: We do have more deployment of this technology in research and medical areas; for example neurosurgeons are using this approach. But we're using it less in academic areas. However, this will clearly be a tool in our future toolbox!  Are you employing these techniques for teaching?

Kim: We're also using it in operation of bodies, etc.

Block: Yes, the same at UCLA. We're using it for virtual dissections, moving away from animal models. But it's not widely used in other disciplines.

Kim: You're a specialist in biological clocks and circadian rhythms. Can you explain what kind of things you've found in this area? Also, since you were emphasizing interdisciplinary research, how could this be incorporated into interdisciplinary research?


Block: As chancellor, I don't spend much time in the laboratory anymore. But the little time that I do spend is focused on how the brain changes as you age and how it affects sleep. We use mammalian models, such as the mouse, to study the brain. If you are a mouse living in a research laboratory, you spend your time on a running wheel at night and then sleep during the daytime. But you oftentimes fail to sleep during the day if you are an old mouse. We are beginning to understand the changes in the brain that lead to sleep loss, or at least poor quality sleep. For many people, as they age, the lack of quality sleep is their major medical complaint. We are able to record electrical signals produced by cells that are part of the biological clock. The signals from this clock are very robust when you're young and decrement as you age. One interesting aspect of this research is that as we understand exactly what the changes are in the biological clock as we age. We may be able to develop approaches that restore the strength of the biological clock in aged humans.   

Kim: What do you expect of the development in drugs in this area?

Block: Once you identify the types of changes that occur in the brain as we age – for example, we know that certain membrane pores known as potassium channels are changing during aging – we are in a position to use treatments including pharmacology (drugs) to help restore normal function.

Kim: The next question has to do with non-cognitive skills of students. James Heckman is a Nobel laureate in economics who followed a lifetime earnings profile. He followed that soft skills have more impact on income than cognitive skills so having a good relationship with other people, helping other people, moral consciousness - these non-cognitive skills will be more important in later life. You mentioned leadership programs at UCLA and that developing these non-cognitive skills can't be taught in class.

Block: That's right. I agree.

Kim: So, as a chancellor, what do you think the students can do?

Block: I think it is especially beneficial to participate in activities outside the classroom such as volunteer programs. For example, we have a very special program where every year, usually before classes begin, all of our first-year students are asked if they want to volunteer. We employ nearly 100 buses to send thousands of students throughout Los Angeles where they help serve meals, paint schools, clean beaches and assist our military veterans. We believe that this exposure to the Los Angeles community helps create a sense of empathy and the need to give back to our community. We believe these are some of the soft skills that are critical for student success.

Kim: Is the number of buses increasing or decreasing?

Block: The number of buses depends on when we hold what we call Volunteer Day. This year, because of scheduling, it was a little smaller with fewer buses, but I think 100 buses is typical. In all, about 7,000 volunteers are part of Volunteer Day.


Kim: This must be my last question. Do you have any comments for the audience of the Beijing Forum? And what is your impression of the Forum?


Block: I'm very impressed by the broad participation of this conference. Here you have academicians, business community and government leaders all participating. It is not often that these groups come together so I congratulate Beijing Forum leaders.

Kim: Back to diversity again.

Block: The Forum certainly hosts a diversity of ideas. Oftentimes academicians, industry leaders and government officials have difficulty communicating with one another. They approach issues with different experiences, needs and sensitivities. I think the willingness of everybody to come together at this Forum is a definite advantage over many other gatherings.

Kim: Maybe your alumna may have some questions to ask?

Ashley Park(Program Officer, Korea Foundation for Advanced Studies): Not a question but just one comment to add. Talking about out-of-classroom experiences you can get at UCLA, I was actually involved in Washington D.C. internship program called UCLA CAPPP in my last quarter at UCLA. It's a program that combines internship and academic research paper.

Kim: What did you do?

Ashley Park: I conducted research on the International Criminal Court while carrying out internship, and I had a chance to visit so many conferences and hearings going on in Washington, D.C. I also enjoyed so much networking. It was such a valuable time - one of my best quarters in college.
Block: Yes, the University of California has a facility in Washington, D.C., called UCDC, where students spend a quarter outside the campus. This is one of the programs where you could experience a lot more outside the classroom than inside.

Kim: That sounds like a great program. Thank you for your time today.

Block: Thank you.

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