University leaders answer questions about fall courses, working remotely and returning to campus

Vari Hall
Vari Hall

Students, staff and faculty were given an opportunity to ask York University’s senior leadership team questions about plans for academic, research and professional work for the fall term during the second all-community Virtual Town Hall on June 1.

The event featured President and Vice-Chancellor Rhonda L. Lenton, Provost and Vice-President Academic Lisa Philipps, Vice-President Research & Innovation Amir Asif, Vice-President Equity, People and Culture Sheila Cote-Meek, Vice-President Finance and Administration Carol McAulay, Vice-President Advancement Jeff O’Hagan and Vice-Provost Students Lucy Fromowitz, answering questions received through Zoom and by email.

York University President and Vice-Chancellor Rhonda L. Lenton

After congratulating students for completing their spring courses and beginning the summer term, and thanking faculty and staff for making the transition to online learning as easy as possible, the president provided an update on the cyber-attack the University experienced in early May. Lenton said that University Information Technology (UIT) staff’s ability to immediately identify the attack enabled them to mitigate its scope and severity. She thanked UIT staff for working around the clock to bring the community back online and highlighted that no personal information was known to be compromised.

Lenton touted several York initiatives that are making a difference for the community during the COVID-19 pandemic, including Schulich School of Business’ ShopHERE project, the COVID-19 Student Relief Fund, remote work and learning resources from the Teaching Commons and the Libraries’ COVID-19 Research Guide.

Before answering questions submitted in advance as well as live via Zoom Q-and-A and email, the president explained what community members can expect to see during the fall semester. Courses will predominantly be held online, with limited in-person instruction in small groups when necessary and permitted by public health guidelines. A phased approach will allow a limited number of research labs to begin reopening in the coming weeks.

Several members of the York community asked about what health and safety measures would be put in place as people gradually return to campus. Lenton explained that work is underway along with the Council of Ontario Universities to develop a common set of campus safety guidelines, with physical distancing as a guiding principle and prescribed procedures for when distance cannot be maintained.

McAulay elaborated that leadership is looking at supplies of hand sanitizer, signage and floor decals for distancing and protective plexiglass in some areas where frontline staff work. McAulay said that all were measures that could be into place to protect staff, faculty and students.

Fromowitz had helpful information for incoming and existing students, noting that clubs, college and student governments, and student unions will all continue providing services remotely.

With residence offers going out to students this week, she outlined work being done to ensure students living on campus are safe, including reducing occupancy to 50 per cent, limiting rooms to one student and setting aside space for isolation in the event a student becomes ill.

Fromowitz also discussed some of the remote working and learning accommodations that may be incorporated to enhance future services, such as remote counselling and orientation, when the community returns to campus in greater numbers.

Staff and faculty were curious about what York’s agreement to continue to have all but required staff working from home meant, and who would be considered required to work on campus. Lenton clarified that the majority of employees will not be returning until at least September, and that the University will be working closely with those required to be on campus to ensure their safety as services expand.

An area of concern for many staff was the possibility of layoffs as the University grapples with a new financial reality. Lenton emphasized that the leadership team will contemplate any actions they can to avoid layoffs, and that in exploring future scenarios and identifying possible actions, they are beginning with arrangements that will have a minimal impact on the existing community, including deferring action when necessary and redeploying staff.

Cote-Meek outlined measures being implemented in the short term to mitigate the impacts of potential revenue shortfalls, such as a pause on non-essential hires and asking employees to use accrued vacation time. Philipps discussed a limited faculty retirement and sabbatical incentive program with a deadline of June 22 for expressions of interest.

In response to question about what measures executives would apply to themselves, Lenton insisted any potential impacts on wages in the future would begin with senior administration taking a position, voluntarily, on their own compensation.

Throughout the town hall, clarification was offered to those with questions about specific issues, ranging from Glendon College’s HVAC system (which will be disinfected, cleaned and tested before it is re-commissioned) to how childcare and family demands will be accommodated in the new working environment (Cote-Meek suggested staff and faculty have a conversation with their manager or academic supervisor, and/or exploring York’s guide for Accommodating Family).

Academic honesty, and the availability of exam proctoring services, were addressed with clarification that that online proctoring can be requested at an instructor’s determination, with preference being given to those exams with accreditation requirements.

For international students interested in the future of tuition fees for virtual courses, Philipps provided information on international student awards and bursaries, and assured that instructors are working to increase the ways students can be engaged and that the University’s remote courses will provide the quality experience York is known for.

A Glendon instructor asked about resources for students with no access to internet or computers at home, and whether physical study spaces could be made available. Lenton, appreciative for the creative suggestion, referenced York initiatives to equip students with loaned laptops and internet USB sticks. Students who indicate in residence applications that their home environments are not conducive to academic work will be given priority. The suggestion of creating dedicated study and computer space on campus will be taken away for more detailed consideration.

In response to a question about how York is advocating for support from the provincial government, Lenton listed the three main areas the Council of Ontario Universities is lobbying the government around: supporting students, investing in the transition to online learning and stabilizing funding for higher education.

Remarks and responses from York’s senior leadership about new ways of doing things spoke to the need for consistency during a time of uncertainty. Lenton emphasized that while the format of the fall semester is set, decisions about the future are being made one term at a time.

The town hall webcast, along with two previous online town halls from April, can be viewed on the YorkU Conversations website. Questions that were not addressed during the webcast will be answered by email.

Information on COVID-19 for members of the York University community can be found at coronavirus.info.yorku.ca.

By Aaron Manton, communications officer, YFile