Students, staff and faculty once again had an opportunity to ask York University’s senior leadership team questions about how plans for a gradual, phased return to campus will impact their academic, research and professional work during the third all-community Virtual Town Hall on June 24.
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.
Lenton began the session by providing an overview of how York’s approach to gradually returning to campus is intended to increase the University community’s access to resources, and reaffirmed that the Fall term will primarily be delivered online, with the exception of select experiential learning programs, such as labs that are required for graduation. The president noted that York has joined other universities and organizations in Toronto in having non-required staff continue to work remotely until at least September.
Information was provided for approved researchers who will be able to return to campus beginning next week supported by provincial guidelines, while Lenton noted that work is underway to restore library services and University Information Technology (UIT) support. The York University Libraries will implement a plan for curbside pickup next week and work to expand access to content currently not available online, and UIT is increasing hours and will be expanding classroom support in the fall.
In response to questions about safety measures for people visiting campuses, Philipps discussed the potential for self-screening protocols, different stances on mask requirements and work being done to address corridor travel challenges with signage and physical barriers. McAulay assured participants the University is working hard to procure any necessary personal protective equipment. Asif noted an online health and safety module researchers visiting campus will be required to complete.
Asif responded to a question from a faculty member regarding the University’s stance on travel for research, outlining how travel for University business, including research, has been cancelled until at least Aug. 31. He added that student exchange experiences have been cancelled for the upcoming term. He encouraged all members of the York community to follow the Government of Canada’s travel advisory to avoid all non-essential travel.
For more information on international travel, he urged graduate students to contact York International (at firstname.lastname@example.org) as well as their research supervisors. All research-related international travel for graduate students and travel related to academic program completion will be assessed on a case-by-case basis when government travel advisories begin to lift in the future.
In response to a question about whether some staff would be able to continue working from home as others return to campus and what cultural changes will be needed to support remote working in the long term, Lenton spoke about how the universities that will come out of the COVID-19 pandemic stronger are those that are learning, and how York will leverage investments and lessons from the current teaching and learning environment to improve the quality of the student experience in the future. The president said conversations are happening with Human Resources about flexibility around where and how staff work could look like.
Several participants had concerns about future flexibility for students, faculty and staff, ranging from the availability of resources for online teaching, access to childcare, balancing school and work and the potential creation of physical teaching and study spaces for those who lack conducive home environments or technology. In response, Lenton and colleagues assured the community that York is committed to being innovative with pedagogy and looking for ways to increase blended online learning opportunities beyond the pandemic, with supports available from the Teaching Commons and other resources to support student and faculty success. She explained that discussions are underway to develop physical spaces for those who require them to study or teach. Sheila Cote-Meek noted the University’s Accommodating Family policy is available to support those balancing family demands.
Philipps confirmed that students would not be able to opt for a pass/fail evaluation in the current or upcoming terms as they had in the winter, explaining that the situation in that term presented unique challenges for students and faculty who had to adjust overnight, compared to the summer term where the mode of delivery for courses has been consistent. Lenton elaborated that pass/fail grades can impact students’ future opportunities and emphasized that services will be available to support students experiencing challenges, noting that individual accommodations will be considered. The provost also clarified that whereas no final decisions have been made about the delivery of upcoming winter term courses, and that year-long courses beginning remotely in the fall will continue to be delivered remotely for the full term.
Responding to a live question about the potential for sharing resources between faculty at different universities, Lenton acknowledged that Francophone institutions have been working together to address the unique challenges presented by bringing French courses online, and encouraged individual faculty to engage their colleagues at other universities.
For those with questions about how the pandemic is impacting enrolment and whether that will lead to layoffs, the president provided assurances that while the University is moving cautiously to mitigate the financial impacts of COVID-19, continuity of employment will be a priority and plans with the least impact on employees will be pursued.
Lenton addressed questions about why tuition fees have been maintained as classes have gone remote by laying out the costs associated with delivering a high-quality learning experience online, noting that tuition fees support several aspects of the university experience that contribute to a rich environment. Fromowitz said that some ancillary service fees have been reduced. Students with concerns about the quality of their online learning environment were encouraged to have conversations with their instructors. International students were advised to explore international student awards and bursaries and made aware that course load requirements for federal work permits have been relaxed as a result of the pandemic.
A student asked about recommendations in Justice Thomas Cromwell’s review of York’s policies and procedures to shift security services to special constables, and how the University plans to proceed. Lenton stated that some recommendations, such as this one, called for further discussions and review, and McAulay emphasized the need for consultation and listening to all voices.
The president addressed questions about her recent announcement that the University is initiating dedicated searches to hire a minimum of six new Black faculty members over the next three years. She explained that the provost’s office has already sent a request to deans for Faculties to come up with position requests and appointments they would like to advertise by July 3.
At the conclusion of the town hall, Lenton said future town halls could be accommodated if there is interest in additional sessions.
Any unanswered questions submitted for the town hall will be forwarded to the appropriate department for a response. 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 the phased return to campus can be found at https://yubettertogether.info.yorku.ca/.
By Aaron Manton, communications officer, YFile