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Institutions Matter

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By UCLA Chancellor Gene Block

Published Jan 1, 2017 8:00 AM


In this time of polarization, UCLA proudly brings people together to work for the common good.


Photo by Amanda Friedman.

We have just witnessed one of the most tumultuous elections in our history. And it has left us highly polarized. This is very troubling, but it is not entirely new, at least to those of us with gray hair. I have certainly seen bitter elections and deep divisions before.

One particularly unsettling development was that during this election, our institutions — the media, government, constitutional principles and the very legitimacy of the democratic process — often seemed under attack.

Some have gone so far as to suggest that we are now in a “post-fact society,” where evidence, rational discourse and common frames of reference are irrelevant in the face of opinion, spin and partisan echo chambers. Without a doubt, new forms of communication, such as social media, have created a tsunami of unsubstantiated and oftentimes anonymous gibberish.

We must resist the notion that this is the new normal. We must stand up for the value of institutions. We must stand up, especially, for the institution of higher education. We have to stand for the value of higher education as a critical training ground for civic participation and democracy, as a vital pathway to prosperity, as an essential means of extending opportunity and overcoming inequality. But, even more urgently, we must stand for the value of higher education as an institution committed to careful research, respectful engagement, evidence-based conclusions, insight and ideas. We have to stand up for the conviction that bringing our best minds together to solve our hardest problems matters.

That’s what UCLA does every day. We are doing it through 109 academic departments in the arts, humanities and the sciences, with faculty and students from throughout California, our nation and abroad. Our mission of research, teaching and public service is anchored in the conviction that these endeavors will create a better world.

You can see that conviction in the range of work by faculty, students and staff connecting campus to the broader community.

You can see that conviction in UCLA’s scientific and medical breakthroughs, breakthroughs that until now have been the stuff of science fiction: technologies to help the paralyzed move, procedures to stimulate the brain to function normally after a coma and the hope for better treatments for cancer, diabetes, depression and more.

That conviction supports our outreach to youth through the Early Academic Outreach Program, which provides more than 15,000 disadvantaged middle school and high school students with academic enrichment to put them on the path to college.

Our commitment extends to our work with veterans, including our investment in the UCLA Veterans Benefits Legal Clinic, the UCLA–VA Family Resource and Well-Being Center, the Mental Health and Addictions Center for Excellence and a fellowship and training program for homeless veterans.

You can see our commitment in our willingness to take up the tough issues: The Luskin Public Affairs program’s Los Angeles County Quality of Life Index provides scholars and policy-makers with insight into how ethnicity and economic insecurity impact life in our city. UCLA’s Institute on Inequality and Democracy melds analysis and practice to combat inequality worldwide. Our Watts Center for Nonprofit Management provides mentorship and training to develop the leadership, fundraising, policy and communication expertise of nonprofit agencies in Watts. UCLA has a myriad of other significant programs, from our Anderson Business School to our International Institute, preparing students to become leaders tackling global issues of water shortages, disease and migration.

This work is about more than “feeling good.” It is about doing good.

Yes, facts matter. Ideas matter. Our commitments to each other matter. Yes, institutions that encourage research, reflection, and collaborative problem-solving matter. Yes, institutions that help instill the resilience and cooperation essential to civic society matter. In a time of great uncertainty, you can be certain that UCLA’s commitment to providing opportunity, to being an engine of social change and equality, to bringing people together across lines of difference to work for the common good does — and will — still matter.

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