UC Berkeley to launch new plan for responding to death in campus community

By Gretchen Kell, Public Affairs

BERKELEY--To help enhance a sense of community on campus, the University of California, Berkeley, will launch this fall a broad-based plan for responding to faculty, staff and student deaths.

The newly-developed program, requested by Chancellor Robert M. Berdahl, includes a proposal to expand catastrophic leave-sharing to include bereavement; guidance on condolence letters, flag lowering and emergency loans for travel; and an e-mail notification system when deaths occur.

UC Berkeley was among five employers identified today (Wednesday, July 14) at a press conference in Washington, D.C., as leaders in providing employees with end-of-life programs. The event was held by the Workplace Task Force of a coalition called Last Acts, which includes more than 370 organizations dedicated to improving end-of-life care.

According to the task force, only six percent of the nation's employers offer in-depth, comprehensive programs for workers facing terminal illness or coping with caregiving and bereavement.

"We want our campus to be a caring, human place," said Berdahl, UC Berkeley's chancellor. "That means we not only celebrate each other's accomplishments, but that we are also compassionate and supportive in difficult times."

"How we handle death in our community reflects how we value the people in our community," added Carol Hoffman, manager of campus work/life program development at UC Berkeley's University Health Services.

The cornerstone of UC Berkeley's new plan will be a brochure and World Wide Web site giving departments and units step-by-step guidance in handling every aspect of a campus member's death.

At a university familiar with responding to natural disasters, including the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and the 1991 Oakland Hills fire, Carol Hoffman said she'd hoped for years that UC Berkeley would create plans to handle a more common tragedy - deaths of individuals.

When Berdahl was appointed chancellor in 1997 and proposed such a project, "it was the opportunity we needed to move forward," said Hoffman.

A campus "deaths workgroup," co-chaired by Hoffman and John Cummins, UC Berkeley assistant chancellor, was organized last year to identify issues that arise when a student or a faculty or staff member dies. The 24-member group represents areas such as health services, the police department, human resources and benefits, and media relations.

In addition, committee members held meetings with more than 35 people with expertise in topics such as religion, financial aid, risk management, and design, construction and planning.

The deaths workgroup also looked at existing protocol and procedures on death at UC Berkeley.

"We discovered that supervisors and managers here at UC Berkeley were unprepared for handling such an event," said Hoffman, "and that there were great inconsistencies in campus response to deaths, depending on who was involved in responding and how the death occurred.

"This often caused increased pain to the survivors and would affect productivity and commitment to the workplace over the long run. One of the goals of pulling this all together is to prevent unnecessary pain."

Complicating matters further is the complexity of the university system, where one death can involve up to 30 different departments or units including the library, payroll, parking and transportation, the retirement center and the benefits office.

"It's not that things were going badly, or not happening at all," said Hoffman, "but the various players didn't always understand the roles of the other players in providing a seamless, compassionate response. Now, the roles are clear to the whole community."

The new process won't result in the same response for each death, she said, since "each person is unique. But it should lend some guidance on the handling of the response to achieve a more consistent approach."

UC Berkeley's new response to a death in the community joins other campus services including an employee assistance program with an elder care component, flexible work arrangements, and its "A Guide for Balancing Work and Family."

It arrives at a time when baby boomers are "beginning to open the closet door on death," said Guy Micco, M.D., clinical professor of UC Berkeley's Health & Medical Sciences Program and a member of the deaths workgroup.

"This is the kind of thing that a large institution can bury or put off onto small departments without any kind of over-arching campus plan," he added. "The downside is that dealing with death becomes hit-or-miss and depends on the effectiveness of a department leader, or on how much money or time a department has to give.

"When you have a unified way of dealing with death, it feels better for the community, knowing that we take care of our own in a way that's important."

UC Berkeley's new response to death includes:

o An e-mail notification system when a death occurs so that information is conveyed in a timely way to the dozens of departments and units required to respond.

o A chancellor's memo alerting the campus to the new guidelines and supporting use of university time and money, as permitted by law and contracts, to provide a compassionate response to survivors.

o A web site with separate instructions on how to respond to the death of an undergraduate student, graduate student, visiting scholar or postdoctoral appointee, staff member and person in an academic position.

o A plaque, installed on the campus flagpole, bearing a certificate in honor of the deceased. The flag would be flown at half-mast. After that day, the certificate is given to the family.


Note: For more information about UC Berkeley's new campus response to death, contact Carol Hoffman at (510) 642-7883.

For a copy of Last Acts' press release on its employer survey or for more information about the coalition, contact Mollie Katz, (301) 652-1558, or Shawn Zelman, (703) 827-8771. Its press release also can be found at

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