Dean’s Message

Well. That happened.

The year 2020 is etched in our memories forever. And we will be living with the consequences for a long time to come. For years, UCLA has built a brand around optimism, and there is no question that we needed some these last few months.

As things improve in 2021 — as I hope and expect they will — we will have a lot of people to thank. Some are visionaries, some are people of action, some do what they have always done but with more urgency and at greater risk, and some do what has never been done before.

Experiences, no matter how bitter, can be instructive. And this one is no exception. I have learned a great deal these last few months …

  1. Science is not the answer to every question. But the rejection of science, opposition to reason and evidence, is deadly.
  2. Pandemics are social scientific problems. Yes, they are public health and medical problems, and (laboratory) scientific problems, but genuine solutions require understanding why people think what they think and why people do what they do.
  3. The American people are, on average, undereducated in science and in civics. Every high school graduate should have a working knowledge of American government and a basic understanding of the scientific method. Without both, the ability to distinguish fact from fiction is severely undermined.
  4. Accurate information is essential to democracy and to prosperity. Misinformation intentionally flooded into the conversation is devastating and deadly. The crises of 2020 were fueled by media actors making statements they knew were false as they said them. Yelling “fire!” in a crowded theater is not free speech.
  5. Citizens of a democracy should hold strong commitment to core principles: belief in fundamental equality of all citizens; equality of justice under the law; freedom to speak one’s mind without threat of violence; commitment to the common good; the sanctity and universality of the right to vote, and an embrace of fully fair elections that includes a willingness to recognize the winner as legitimate. Unfortunately, these principles are far from universal.
  6. American political institutions are flawed and can be profoundly weak, but they have survived in part because of adherence to norms. Failing such adherence, our institutions may not be up to the task. We have seen entire clauses of the Constitution be made unenforceable and the “co-equal” nature of the elected branches swept away through judicial fiat. The power of the presidency has grown wildly beyond the intended constraints of the anti-monarchical framers.

So, yes, all that happened. But this happened too:

  1. There is still room for American exceptionalism. An astounding 154 million Americans cast votes in an election whose administration required unprecedented adaptation and courage. The 2020 election proceeded without violence or serious organizational breakdown.
  2. UCLA is an institution of startling capacity. Amid the pandemic, this institution has made critical contributions in health care and public health, crisis management and the relief of human misery, all while the entire campus was re-platformed to ensure continued delivery of a world-class education.
  3. These last 10 months included breathtaking acts of courage and kindness in all corners of society. The dedication to common good and genuine community that permeates our society remains, I believe, the best characteristic of our national character.
  4. The people of UCLA Luskin continue to pursue that common good. We have provided comfort to those in need of support, helped manage public agency responses, litigated to protect the right to vote, studied exhaustively the economic and human crises in the post-pandemic environment, and pushed for equitable treatment during this time of tremendous social stress. Luskin advocates passionately — based on good science — for positive change.

In recent months, our worst and best impulses have been evident simultaneously. At UCLA Luskin, we remain committed to minimizing the former, nurturing the latter, and making progress on the challenges that remain.

To a better year ahead.

Gary

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