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Q&A with Vice Chancellor Gary Matthews on Plans for a Safe Campus and Flexible Workforce

ice Chancellor Gary Matthews

UC San Diego is making plans for a safe and gradual return to full campus operations this fall. To ensure the ongoing safety and well-being of everyone in our campus community, decisions will continue to be guided by the science, data and modeling that made the Return to Learn program a success.

This phased return also provides an opportunity to reimagine how we could work going forward. In the spirit of continuous improvement, vice chancellors are thoughtfully considering how to best support the university’s mission, building upon what was learned over the past year and with valuable input from staff, faculty and students. In particular, each area of the university will look at new ways to deliver services while exploring opportunities to create a more flexible and equitable environment.

In this Q&A, part of an ongoing series, Vice Chancellor of Resource Management & Planning Gary Matthews shares how his team supports a safe campus environment and his thoughts on challenging our typical thinking about how we work.

Q. How has your team created a safer campus environment for people returning to campus?

A. UC San Diego’s research and public service mission influenced how my team managed campus spaces during the pandemic. We led with science, and used our campus as a living laboratory, collaborating with experts to find solutions and put best practices in place.

Here’s one example. With the understanding of how the virus is spread through aerosols, we monitor the air quality in our buildings, assessing air volume and adjusting the airflow. This is something we have done in our labs for years, but this is technology that we took out of the labs and applied to general buildings. We also updated HVAC system filters to mirror what is used in a hospital, and now use outside fresh air to flush the buildings around the clock.

Similarly, our campus has monitored sewage outflow for years for things like pH levels and chemicals, but through Return to Learn, we collaborated with researchers and have enhanced sewage monitoring to search for the virus. We use sewage samplers installed by Facilities Management with support for parts provided by our Campus Research Machine Shop. A large research university like ours can bring many skills to the table.

Some additional efforts that are underway to create a safe campus environment:

  • Touchless entry systems have been installed at 80% of academic and laboratory building entrances, and touchless restroom faucets and light sensors were installed throughout campus.
  • Environment, Health & Safety, the Police Department and Facilities Management have partnered to inspect spaces and offices that have been closed for long periods, checking for pests, security issues, water quality, water intrusion, HVAC functionality and more. Faculty and staff are encouraged to contact Facilities Management with any questions or concerns.
  • Start-up sanitation kits will be provided to faculty, staff and students returning to labs, faculty offices and classrooms.

Q. What changes made as part of the campus response to the pandemic are likely to remain permanent?

A. There are so many innovations that started with the pandemic response but will ultimately enhance the experience on campus for the long term. For example:

  • Enhanced WiFi: During the pandemic, we found that campus WiFi was robust, but we needed more bandwidth to broadcast classes. This resulted in enhanced WiFi throughout our campus, coordinated by IT Services.
  • Convenient Services: During the pandemic, the campus community was provided with convenient, 24/7 testing via the COVID-19 test vending machines. This led to thinking about how to create additional service-oriented models. The campus curbside pickup at Osler Parking structure is one example of this thinking and allows for easy, centralized pickup of a selection of some materials—something that didn’t exist before. The campus is continuing this work around reimagining operations, and recently built centrally-located contactless smart lockers where students will be able to pick up packages 24/7.
  • Improved Experience: Our campus has a variety of sensors throughout campus that help us understand the physical capacity of different areas. This was helpful during the pandemic, but long term, it can help people identify the best time to study at the library, check if the dining hall is full, see if there are parking spaces available and find out how crowded the swimming pool is at any given moment. This system was developed by an engineering department alumnus working in concert with Resource Management and Planning to install and improve their initial products. Lab to market in real time!
  • Flexible Spaces: The campus has adjusted its design parameters to reflect lessons learned. Rather than build a 400-seat raised floor lecture hall, we revised our approach to include four 100-seat rooms that provide more flexible spaces with multi-purpose, divisible rooms.
  • Upgraded Outdoor Spaces: During the pandemic, our campus created outdoor classrooms, and we’re also creating several new places where people can meet and interact outdoors year-round. The most ambitious of these is the area around the Pepper Canyon Amphitheater and UC San Diego Blue Line trolley stop.

Q. What do you think about UC San Diego’s reexamination of the workplace and the potential benefits for staff?

A. This is an opportunity to challenge our typical thinking about how we work. Using fresh eyes to think about how to best meet the needs of faculty, students and staff, while remaining flexible and considering the lessons learned during the pandemic.

The university successfully tested our ability to work remote during the pandemic—it was no longer a concept, but a reality. Going forward, I can imagine where some staff would borrow from different approaches to their work, whether it is a different schedule or working remote at times. Striking the right amount of connection, regardless of the model. It will look different for everyone, and it may take time to implement some changes.

For example, many members of the Resource Management and Planning team wouldn’t be able to serve their customers while remote, but we could consider providing a more flexible schedule, such as working 10 hours a day, four days a week, if it meets the campus needs while enhancing their work/life balance.

Taking a hybrid or flexible approach could also have a deep impact on how we use our limited space. As we move forward, I could see where we could create less of a need for parking, and more of an ability to get people closer to where they want to park when they are on campus. This has included more flexible parking fee models where you only pay for what you need.

As the workplace changes, faculty, staff and students may also want to re-evaluate how they get to campus. We worked very closely with MTS, North County Transit and SANDAG to improve local and regional bus routes, connect the campus to regional bike paths and to bring the UC San Diego Blue Line to the campus. Currently, approximately 60% of the university’s faculty, staff and students use alternative transportation for their daily commute, and that is expected to increase with the opportunities presented by the two new trolley stations on campus, which will open before the end of the year.

Most importantly, we learn more from staff every day. We need to be open to change and finding the best practices available today while keeping in mind that what we do today is probably different from what we will do tomorrow. The best way to move forward is to continually look for best practices and embrace continuous quality improvement.

Our campus has accomplished remarkable things over the past year. I encourage everyone to continue to participate in our success—whether that is following health guidelines or actively sharing their ideas with their teams.