Students watched their phones intensely the week before fall-quarter finals, looking to a stream of sporadic BruinAlerts to gauge the safety of the campus amid the raging Skirball fire.
Last quarter, the Academic Affairs Commission published a letter to the Academic Senate demanding UCLA cancel classes on Dec. 6 and Dec. 7, forgive attendance for students who could not make it to their Dec. 6 classes and use online testing for the remainder of the week until the emergency stabilized. We have yet to receive a response from the Academic Senate about how they have enforced academic policies in times of emergency.
As representatives of the undergraduate student body, AAC is appalled by campus administrators’ decisions following the outbreak of the Skirball fire. There should never have been such a degree of chaos and confusion in the wake of a foreseeable emergency, such as a fire in drought-stricken southern California.
AAC demands UCLA convene the Campus Safety Task Force, which was created after the June 1, 2016 shooting to make recommendations to improve campus safety, create an ad hoc committee on emergency preparedness. This committee should be charged with focusing specifically on natural disaster preparedness and creating an academic contingency plan.
One of the biggest issues in UCLA’s handling of the Skirball fire was in its communication chains between administrators, faculty, students and the media. With inconsistent information being distributed on the UCLA channels, faculty and students were unsure about what was happening while a fire was so close to campus. For example, UCLA said it would make a decision about Dec. 7 classes by 4 p.m. on Dec. 6. Administrators sent a message at 5 p.m. that classes would take place as scheduled, only to backtrack at midnight and cancel class, far past the deadline they had set for themselves.
The administration’s communication deployment was also inconsistent: UCLA told students there would be no class Dec. 7, but did not specifically email professors telling them not to hold classes or exams. And parents who weren’t subscribed to BruinAlert message blasts were left in the dark about what was happening on campus unless students informed them.
Moreover, the midnight alert did not provide adequate prior notice to students who were dealing with both an emergency situation as well as the stress of studying for finals. Text messages and emails – which are the administration’s main means of communicating with students – are also not always accessible to differently abled students.
In addition, the university’s BruinAlerts did not provide resources or even quick tips on how students could prepare if they had to evacuate. Bruin Safe Online, UCLA’s campus safety website, is an adequate resource, but it is hard to imagine students would sift through the fire safety links on BruinAlerts in a time of emergency.
The Skirball fire also exposed UCLA’s lack of an academic contingency plan for when disasters occur. As students of the nation’s top public university, we hold our academic standing in the highest regard. The administration’s decision to continue classes during the fire put many students, especially those with pre-existing health conditions, at severe risk. The decision to cancel afternoon and evening classes on Dec. 6 was wise, but the fact that the administration did not inform all the academic departments to forgive class absences because of the 405 Freeway shutdown or ashy air shows the university has not thought out how to handle academic activities in emergency situations.
Even though classes were canceled on Dec. 7, UCLA informed faculty to remain on campus to provide office hours or review sessions to students who could to attend. This practice, however, disadvantages those who could not make it to campus and implied a clear disregard for academic equity and accessibility at a critical point in the quarter. It is understandable the administration wanted to make faculty accessible to students who were present or near campus, but there are online platforms, such as Zoom on CCLE, which are more accessible than physically coming to campus, that the university could have leveraged.
Staff and employees had it even worse than students. While the administration decided to eventually cancel classes, staff members were still told to come to campus or use sick days if they could not attend work. All personnel need to be given the same rights as students to protect their own health and wellbeing without sacrificing their job security.
The university needs to create an emergency preparedness ad hoc team and protocols that reflect the needs of the student body and staff. That means developing a comprehensive plan for modifying academic operations in emergencies so that students’ grades are not jeopardized based on campus safety concerns beyond their control. No member of our community should be put at risk due to questionable environmental conditions, and UCLA must use its institutional clout to ensure academic equity even in emergency situations – especially when we have the tools to do so. That also means creating a centralized communication system between students, faculty and staff that is accessible to parents and those with disabilities, such as including an audible alert.
Students should never have to choose between their health and a grade. And employees should never have to choose between their safety and job security.
Sharma is the 2017-2018 Undergraduate Students Association Council’s Academic Affairs commissioner. He served as USAC Transfer Student Representative during the 2016-2017 school year.