Town Hall offers update on academics, work life and York’s positive contributions through COVID-19

Vari Hall new image
Vari Hall new image

During a Virtual Town hall event held on Oct. 21, York’s senior leadership team shared details on the University’s direction as it continues to evolve to meet pandemic safety guidelines.

The event offered York community members an opportunity to ask questions – in pre-submitted and live formats – and learn more about the University’s plans and initiatives. In attendance were President and Vice-Chancellor Rhonda Lenton, Provost & Vice-President Academic Lisa Philipps, Vice-President Finance & Administration Carol McAulay, Vice-President Advancement Jeff O’Hagan, Vice-President Research & Innovation Amir Asif, and University Registrar Darran Fernandez.

Rhonda L. Lenton
Rhonda L. Lenton

Lenton opened with a land acknowledgement, and a reminder that some of the University’s facilities – indoor gyms and indoor seated spaces for dining – have been temporarily shuttered to meet updated COVID-19 public health measures announced by the province two weeks ago.

Looking forward to winter term, Lenton said the University will continue to operate with the same plan as fall with the majority of courses offered remotely. Senior leadership, she said, is now in the beginning stages of planning for the 2021-2022 academic year.

“We expect that for fall of 2021 we will be able to move largely back to in-person instruction; however, it’s a volatile situation and there is still some level of uncertainty,” she said, adding that the decision rests largely on guidance from Toronto Public Health as well as the development of, and access to, a vaccine for COVID-19.

Reflecting on the last six months, Lenton noted the University’s highlights including the conclusion of the University’s 10-year plan, the completion of the University Academic Plan (UAP) 2015-2020 and the work on a new five-year UAP that will take the University to 2025. She encouraged the community to read the annual President’s Report, which recognizes institutional accomplishments and positive change led by the University over the 2019-2020 academic year.

The floor opened to questions from the community and kicked off with a query on how students studying from abroad will continue to participate in the winter semester. Lenton offered assurance that winter would continue in the same manner as fall. The 150 courses requiring an in-person component will reflect that requirement in the course notes.

It was also noted that while York is now permitted to welcome international students to campus, domestic students will have to wait for travel abroad for educational opportunities. However, Fernandez pointed out there are opportunities with an international focus available through York’s Globally Networked Learning programs.

Lisa Philipps

Students also voiced concern with lectures being posted too late, lectures running past the allotted time frame, and the lack of focused group work. Philipps said while the University acknowledges the impressive efforts by faculty to pivot to online instruction, she recognizes there is still room for improvement and would ensure these concerns are forwarded to the deans.

While the learning experience may not be the same, Lenton said “our colleagues are ensuring students still have the same student learning outcomes” and that “there’s a continual improvement as we go along.” Lenton further noted the senior leadership team aims to soon host a virtual town hall specifically for students.

One student asked about the development of scholarship fund supporting Black students. O’Hagan said there have been new donations specifically earmarked to support Black students, and Lenton said work has begun on developing an action plan.

Staff inquired about what work-from-home policies York may consider in a post-pandemic scenario. Lenton acknowledged the need to consider flexible work arrangements and said the University plans to continue discussions with management and unions on how to move forward. Other staff were curious to know if staff, like faculty, would be offered early retirement incentives. McAulay said there have been discussions on developing a program, and conversations would continue.

Concerns about potential staff layoffs were addressed as well. Lenton said the University’s approach has been to talk with unions and managers, and to try to get input from colleagues about challenges they face and to try to be responsive to those issues.

Many questions were specifically related to the pandemic and outlined concerns with ventilation on campus and with individuals not complying with the University’s mask and face covering protocol. McAulay said the University has implemented measures to improve ventilation on campus, including overriding settings to bring in more fresh air, filtration material being upgraded to a higher quality filter and air filters changes with increased frequency. (For more details on initiatives undertaken to ensure clean air in buildings at York, visit As for the face coverings, Lenton said she would take concerns to the University’s Emergency Operations Committee and look to them for guidance on how to follow up on complaints of non-compliance.

One community member asked senior leadership to describe what role York University has played in helping the community during the pandemic. Philipps pointed to the five faculty members recognized with provincial awards for their COVID-19 research.

Asif described several of the research projects undertaken by York’s researchers, including statistical modelling that is now used by the province to predict emerging trends, and also recounted York’s contributions of PPE, chemicals and other equipment to the province.

“York University has also awarded $300,000 in research grants to advance 20 new research projects ranging from the impact of COVID-19 on child protection investigations, to how textiles and non-woven materials could be modified to boost protection offered by cloth-based personal protective equipment (PPE), virus through microdroplets and potential implications for ventilation system design, as well as the role that variations in the genomic sequences of the virus play in infection and disease,” Asif added.

Commenting on the University’s new brand, one individual asked how the York community shows compelling evidence that York is a community of changemakers and produces graduates who are changemakers.

Lenton highlighted the recent Times Higher Education (THE) rankings, that placed York University 33rd out of 767 competing Universities when measured against the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The new, upcoming interactive UAP website, said Philipps, will also catalogue stories of positive change led by York, similar to the YU Better Together website developed to highlight York’s positive contributions during the pandemic. O’Hagan pointed to the Alumni and Friends page, where there are stories that showcase alumni contributions to creating positive change.

In closing, Lenton thanked community members for their questions, and noted that senior leadership would aim to answer any questions not addressed during the town hall.

To watch the recorded version of this Virtual Town Hall, visit