September 3, 2021

Chancellor Remarks at Newport Beach Chamber

Good morning, everyone.  I’m delighted to be here with you today.  I had the pleasure of speaking here in 2015, shortly after I became chancellor, and it’s great to know that I did well enough that you invited me back.

I thought I’d start with a brief overview of UCI, then talk about UCI’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and our role in Orange County’s health, and then say a few words about how we are going forward, with a special emphasis on health initiatives that should be of interest to the Newport Beach community.

Let’s start with the basics:  UCI is our county’s only major research university, with a mission to discover and teach and heal and serve.  We are a community of about 55,000 students, faculty and staff (bigger than we were when I last spoke to you), which makes us a bit larger than the city of Aliso Viejo.  UCI’s annual budget is currently around $3.8 billion.  In other words, it’s a big place with a lot going on.  Keeps me busy. 

As you can imagine, we are involved in many different types of activities, not just research and teaching but health care, housing, dining, power generation, law, human resources, investment and cash management, business development … there’s probably not a business activity you can consider that doesn’t also occur within our large and diverse community.  This makes us more like a city than a company, which I guess makes me more like a mayor than a CEO, especially because people in my community remind me all the time that I work for them rather than the other way around (and they’re right!).

Let me take just a second to brag a little bit.  We receive a lot of accolades every year.  For example:

UCI is consistently ranked among the top 10 of all public research universities in the nation.  And we are generally ranked in the top 100 of all universities in the world.  There are perhaps 10,000 institutions of higher learning in the world, so being in the top 100 is a considerable achievement. 

We are especially proud of how we combine excellence on traditional academic metrics with true access for young people of all backgrounds.  More than half of our students are the first in their families to go to a four-year college and over 40 percent come from low-income families.  (Fun fact: we have more students from low-income families on our campus than does the entire Ivy League combined.) 

It’s because of their successes that the New York Times has twice declared that UCI is the No.1 top college or university in the U.S “doing the most for the American dream,” given the unique role we play in creating genuine social mobility.  And Money magazine has named UCI its No. 1 Best College for the great value we deliver at a low cost.  That’s, No.1 in America for Best College for our combination of excellence and access.  Not bad, really.

Of course, what makes a university great is the quality of its faculty, and UCI’s faculty are among the very best in the world in their fields. Their contributions are often recognized with the highest honors – Nobel prizes, National Academies membership, the usual.  As just one recent example:  Adriana Briscoe received a Guggenheim Fellowship this year to examine how butterflies are adapting to a warming planet, with research that weaves together biophysics, genetics, physiology, and the evolution of butterflies’ visual and thermal systems.

More generally, because they are national leaders, UCI faculty attract almost $600 million of research funding into our community, mostly from federal sources investing in people doing the most important and impactful research.  That’s an additional huge benefit to our region.

Because of our amazing faculty we are able to attract an extraordinary student body.

We’re especially proud that, for the past three years, we are at or near the top of the UC campuses most desired by California high schoolers, in terms of the number of applications each campus receives from college-bound high schoolers.  We have also been No. 1 among all UC campuses in receiving applications from students who will be the first in their families to attend a four-year college. 

Last year more than 133,000 prospective students applied for our Fall 2021 class, which is the fourth highest number of applications of any college or university in the United States.  If there was ever a time when UCI was considered a hidden gem or a well-kept secret, well, no longer; the word is out. And we have attracted all this attention even without a football team.  (Then again, we do have the best mascot in all of higher education – zot zot zot!)

Of particular interest to you as business leaders is UCI’s role as an anchoring institution in Orange County to drive growth and innovation.  We are Orange County’s second-largest employer and we have a $7 billion impact on the local economy.  But we do much more.

We also create ideas, develop new products, advance new technologies, and supply the educated workforce that regional and national economies demand to keep moving forward.  Through campus units such as UCI Beall Applied Innovation, we make UCI’s intellectual property available for commercial exploitation and we nurture nascent outside businesses from concept all the way through the final round of venture financing.  If you have not had the opportunity to visit Beall Applied Innovation, let us know, we would love to have to learn more about it.

Day in and day out, throughout our history, we have answered the call to serve our community and our world.  At no point in UCI’s history have we ever felt the responsibility to serve our community more than we have in the past 18 months.  Tireless does not begin to describe the work of our faculty, staff and students.  We were created 56 years ago precisely so that we would really make a difference under these kinds of circumstances. 

Even before various lockdowns started occurring in March 2020, UCI experts were partnering with the Orange County Health Care Agency.  And throughout the crisis we were also hosting local and regional government officials and first responders in forums and town halls to share the latest information and trends.  Mayor Will O’Neill and Council Member Joy Brenner of Newport Beach attended one of our first COVID public affairs briefing back in February of 2020, as we were preparing for our more systematic response.  Our dean of public health and other campus experts participated in nearly 40 virtual COVID town halls hosted by federal, state, and local elected officials…many that represent Newport Beach.

In early March 2020, I made the difficult but necessary decision to shut down our in-person world and pivot to an all-remote environment.  At the same time, we mobilized the campus’s considerable research infrastructure to address a range of challenges presented by COVID-19.  For example:

  • Engineering professors developed new antibody tests, a critical step in safely re-opening the economy
  • UCI Health physicians designed a prototype ‘bridge’ ventilator to address shortages of the devices
  • An engineering team of researchers developed rapid new paper-strip tests – less painful and speedier results than current swab tests
  • Researchers developed a smartphone application for contact tracing – anonymously informing users of potential exposure 

And at our medical center in Orange Dr. Alpesh N. Amin and Dr. Lanny Hsieh led clinical trials of remdesivir, a medication originally developed to treat Ebola.  It remains one of the few treatment options for COVID-19.

We also applied precision health, big data analytics, and the latest in artificial intelligence to diagnose the trajectory of COVID patients, and this technology was part of the reason why UCI Health achieved the best combined mortality rate and length of stay in hospital of any academic medical center in California.

In additional, the federal COVID-19 response team tapped UCI Health as the model for delivering monoclonal antibody therapy, which has shown tremendous results so far in keeping patients out of the hospital. 

Our own Professor Philip Felgner, director of the UCI Vaccine Research and Development Center in our School of Medicine, has devoted his career to developing coronavirus vaccines, and this past year Dr. Felgner was one of seven scholars worldwide to win Spain’s prestigious Princess of Asturias Award for Technical and Scientific Research in recognition of the importance of their research for the creation of our COVID-19 vaccines.  Just incredible. 

And looking forward, a research team at the UCI Gavin Herbert Eye Institute team is at work on developing a preemptive vaccine for all coronaviruses to thwart future outbreaks.

In the community, our dean of public health, Bernadette Boden-Albala, has led efforts to understand the prevalence of COVID-19 in our communities, helping to identify disparities between communities in the region.

You might have also seen that, in December 2020, facing what health officials were calling “a dire situation,” UCI Medical Center in Orange became the first Orange County hospital to stand-up a field hospital.  We cleared the site, erected the tent, and stocked it with medical supplies in less than a week-and-a-half.  The 40 extra patient beds it provided played a critical role in our ability to treat the most vulnerable patients.  

Just days later, UCI received the first doses of the Pfizer vaccines to arrive in the county and within hours were vaccinating our front line workers.  To date, more than 120,000 doses of vaccine have been administered, including up to 5,000 doses per day at our spring vaccine drive at the Bren Center on campus.

The campus’s work went beyond just the public health and medical responses.  For example, UCI’s School of Education created an online learning research center to help parents of K-12 students better cope with their new learning environment.

We have also contributed to the resilience of local businesses, such as Pacific Symphony, Monarch Beach Resort, The Irvine Company, and many others looking to safely resume the important work and service they bring to our local economy, by offering best practices advice such as mitigating risk exposure and providing testing and contact tracing guidance.

I am incredibly proud of and humbled by the many individuals who continue to serve tirelessly as the pandemic again surges.  We don’t know what the future holds, but as always UCI will be there for you and for our region.

It is clear that the world is not returning as it was before the pandemic.  We have all adopted new ways of conducting business, of living our lives.  What we are doing at UCI is taking the best of the old in-person environment and the best of the remote environment we have been experiencing since March of 2020, and developing a new normal that combines them. 

In about three weeks we will welcome our 38,000 students back to campus.  We are making extensive arrangements to safely accommodate a rich student experience and hybrid work environment: requiring vaccinations; expanding testing protocols and contact tracing capacity; providing opportunities for remote work; updating and expanding HVAC systems; addressing return-to-work anxiety for our 20,000 employees; and so on.  It’s been a tall order, I assure you.

Most of our instruction will be in person, but some courses will have a remote component.  We have learned what works and what doesn’t, and we will continue to use what works.  In fact, students will benefit tremendously from all the innovation that occurred last year.

Let me close by sharing with you some of our plans for the future that will directly affect the Newport Beach area.  These past months have proved that UCI Health, the largest and (in my humble opinion) most important health care provider in Orange County, has a special role in the life of our county, especially with our unique ability to marshal all the resources of a comprehensive research university in support of delivering the best and most up-to-date care. 

You’ll recall that, a year ago, the chamber hosted the ribbon-cutting ceremony of our new Newport Beach UCI Health Clinic – thanks again!

But there’s more!  As you may know, we are expanding our capabilities by building a new medical campus very near here, at the corner of Jamboree and Birch.

We are doing this in order to address increasing demand for our specialty services, improve patient access, leverage the proximity to the main campus to support the goal of integrating clinical care, research, and teaching, and bring our world-class physicians and care to your backyard.

This new complex will include a 144-bed hospital, with an emergency department, a comprehensive stroke center, and key service lines including cancer, digestive health, orthopedics, spine, and neuroscience; the Center for Advanced Care, which will include primary and multi-specialty care and a Children’s Health Center; and the Ambulatory Care Center, which will provide 10 outpatient operating rooms; a comprehensive cancer center with multi-disciplinary clinics, radiation oncology, and infusion; advanced imaging including nuclear medicine; and state-of-the-art telehealth and “hospital at home” options.

Moreover, a planned Health & Wellness Trail will connect healing gardens at the medical center to a one-mile bicycle and pedestrian trail following the edge of the San Joaquin Marsh Reserve to the San Diego Creek, where a proposed bridge will take pedestrians onto campus.  This naturescape will be open to the public and will be a wonderful resource for Newport Beach residents. 

We will break ground on the first building in just a few weeks and plan to have the hospital and other facilities in full operation in four to five years. 

I mentioned just a few moments ago that one of our reasons for building this new medical center is to leverage the proximity to the main campus to support our goal of integrating clinical care, research, and teaching. 

To that end, the Susan & Henry Samueli College of Health Sciences is undergoing a major expansion.  The college made up of our academic health programs – our schools of medicine, nursing, and pharmacy; our program in public health, which will also soon be a full school; and the Susan Samueli Integrative Health Institute.  We are constructing two major new buildings to hold administrative offices, classrooms, laboratories, clinical spaces, and so on.  This is where faculty across the health science disciplines will interact daily, where students will move out of their silos and learn about their counterparts, and where integrative health will come to life on the academic side.

None of this would be possible, none of this would even have been dreamt of, without the vision, enthusiasm, and extraordinary philanthropy of Susan and Henry Samueli, and all of us are grateful to them.  Their gift, and their faith in us, catalyzed UCI’s belief that human health and well-being requires a science-based approach that engages all disciplines in caring for the whole person and total community.  They have helped make UCI a beacon for the brightest faculty and students in all related disciplines – a place where they can do their best work and tackle grand challenges.

And tackling grand challenges is what America’s leading research universities do.

UCI has always been on the cutting edge of science.  In 1972 chemistry professor Sherwood Rowland and his postdoctoral student, Mario Molina, discovered that CFCs, a chemical compound then globally used in refrigerants and aerosol spray cans, were weakening the ozone layer in our atmosphere.  The ozone layer protects us from UV radiation and is essential to continuing life on earth.  Their work led to a ban on the use of CFCs and won them the Nobel Prize in chemistry a few years later.  The Nobel Prize citation said they may well have saved the world from catastrophe.

Some of the most important innovations in human health are being made possible by the convergence of research across the life sciences, physical sciences, engineering, information and computer science, and the social and behavioral sciences.  Work across these disciplines is also yielding critical advances in many other fields, such as energy, food, climate, and water.  And so we have constructed the Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Building to foster, facilitate, and promote translational, problem-oriented research that tackles big questions across disciplinary boundaries and has real-world applications – the largest such research building constructed west of the Mississippi in many decades.  It opened earlier this year, and we will all be amazed by the research and innovation that arises from it.

None of this growth would be possible without the tremendous outpouring of support from our friends in the community, people of goodwill who are making a transformational difference in the development of UCI because they recognize that ultimately they are making a real difference in the world.  They know that the people who will benefit most persistently from our work, beyond our students, will be the people of our region – our neighbors, our friends, our supporters, our advocates.  Whatever your views on what would contribute to a great quality of life in our community, and a more brilliant future for all of us – whether that’s healthcare and wellness promotion or the quality of schools or enhanced business development or environmental sustainability or a lively arts culture – UCI stands ready to be a partner. 

Gifts to UCI truly make a difference to the education of our students, to the wide impact of our research and public service, and to the advancement of this great region we are privileged to serve.  If life has been good to you, and you are looking for ways to make a difference, give us a call.

So that’s a snapshot of recent events, and of where we are today and where we are going.  If you have any questions, I’m happy to continue the conversation.