A tough but productive year draws to a close
If you’re like me, you probably can’t wait to bid adieu to 2020. It’s been, what’s the best word — a “remarkable” year? We’re all ready for — and we all deserve — the upcoming holiday break. I really hope you can and will use it to get some downtime, to recharge, but also to coax a bit of much-needed joy out of the weeks ahead.
It’s safe to say no one’s year unfolded as planned. The past nine months have been unsettling, disillusioning and challenging for everyone — students, staff, faculty, administrators. But we also learned a lot — about the strength of the Concordia community; about working, teaching and learning in a virtual environment; and about the vibrancy of campus life that we should never take for granted.
Across the university, people delivered. Staff adapted to the new reality and made sure the work of the university got done. Faculty transformed their approach to teaching and the research community continued to be productive. Many people went out of their way to be helpful, flexible and considerate in trying to support our students and each other. Our Board and alumni were magnificent in their unwavering support of the university, and Senators have carried out their duties with a real spirit of collegiality.
If we didn’t know it before, we realize now what incredible strengths we have in our professional and support staff, but also how resourceful, dedicated and creative so many of our full- and part-time faculty are. Few of us would ever have guessed that we would graduate a record number of students in the spring or that our enrolments this fall would surpass, in headcount, our registrations a year ago.
Admittedly, some things didn’t go quite the way we hoped. One of the lessons we learned from speaking with the community is that sometimes we need to communicate decisions better, making sure we deliver information in a timely and targeted fashion to those who need to know. The virtual town halls that Anne Whitelaw and I held at different points in the term were a great opportunity to hear back from the community. We should, and we will, do more of those in the future.
Inevitably, given the unprecedented circumstances, we were also frequently pushed to experiment on the fly as we all adapted both to the online environment and the constantly evolving state of public health. Some of the choices we made were successful, others less so — often because we didn’t have time to fully trouble-shoot everything or put in place all the proper supports needed to help faculty, staff and students. In an emergency context that was already generating its fair share of anxiety, those glitches and shortcomings were doubly frustrating for everyone.
But a consistent message back from all the groups we consulted for lessons learned — department chairs, union heads, directors of administration and managers, the academic leadership and the executive team — was that the past nine months also point to ways we can improve as an organization, as a university.
In practically every consultation and town hall, the conversation inevitably came around to the topic of a “return to campus.” It’s an absolutely critical issue, but perhaps instead of focusing on the word “return” we should be focused on how to “reimagine” our campuses. This is an important moment for all of us to reflect on adjustments we might make to how we can and should work, teach and learn in the future.
Here, we were also reminded of other important lessons: that we are a big place; that one of Concordia’s greatest strengths is its diversity. Therefore, as we think about what our own university of the future should look like, both the scenarios that we contemplate and the answers that we arrive at will inevitably differ from one unit or program to another. And that’s a good thing. It will be a source of inspiration provided we are not afraid to balance our desire to recover and retain the best of what we did before with a willingness to change and do some things differently, based on what we’ve learned. Yes, back to learning again.
Before turning our attention fully to the future, let’s also take stock of the great things the university has accomplished, despite the odds. Think back on it. In the past few months, we:
- Established our Equity Office
- Launched the President’s Task Force on Anti-Black Racism
- Raised more than $1M for the COVID-19 Emergency Student Relief Fund
- Allocated $2M in new funding to hire TAs and support faculty in their course delivery for winter 2021, in addition to $2.7M in TA funding and teaching remissions to support the fall transition online
- Conducted 91 CTL workshops, 36 department consultations, five faculty town halls and answered nearly 2,000 requests via email and Zoom to support the transition to online teaching
- Smashed our annual giving record to the Centraide Campaign
- Inaugurated our incredibly successful CU Cares and CU@Home programs
- Launched our Sustainability Action Plan
- Continued streamlining our Finance and HR information systems as we prepare for our May 2021 mission-critical launch of Project UNITY
- Saw our graduate students win more FRQ Étudiants-chercheur étoiles awards than ever before
- Placed nearly 200 more students in co-op internships in the summer of 2020 than we did in 2019
- Held our largest Open Houses ever, reaching students from 109 countries
- Launched our Next-Gen Cities Institute
- Received a combined $5.1M for genome engineering
- Received $1.8M from the FRQSC for our UNESCO Chair for the Prevention of Violent Radicalization and Extremism
- Received $1.65M from NSERC to create a novel training program for graduate students in digital sustainability
- Received $2.7M from IDRC to lead a consortium on Using Technology to Improve Literacy in the Global South
- Saw one of our researchers win the European Union’s prestigious Jean Monnet Chair for her work on the Romani community
- Built a tool to estimate COVID-19 airborne transmission risk in Montreal buildings
- Signed on to the University Global Coalition, binding us to the UN Sustainable Development Goals, which are entirely consistent with our mission and values
And finally, in the middle of everything, we opened our state-of-the art Applied Science Hub on the Loyola Campus. The Hub brings together transdisciplinary research and innovation in the sciences and in our new department of Chemical and Materials Engineering and creates wet lab spaces for District 3-mentored startups.
All these accomplishments, and more, much more, are also part of our “remarkable” year. And together they underscore how, despite huge challenges, our university has sustained and even accelerated the momentum we had before the pandemic struck. In short, Concordia is firmly positioned to do great things when the health crisis passes.
On this last point, it’s encouraging to know that vaccines are on the way, but we need to be mindful that the health emergency is still with us. We need to stay the course and not get ahead of ourselves. But with an extended holiday break, reading week with its extra day off for staff, the Easter break and longer hours of daylight to look forward to in the months ahead, we can strive for a more manageable pace than the pell-mell rush of fall.
Not that we should underestimate the new set of challenges the university will face as society gradually emerges from the pandemic. Across all aspects of Concordia’s activities, we will need to devise transition measures and undoubtedly pilot and experiment with more new initiatives as we design a new normal.
Although we are actively planning how we can make our campuses more accessible when the public health situation permits, particularly for small groups of students, the reality is that our situation remains far from normal. And then, of course, there is the matter of our budget. But that, too, we shall manage in a prudent, responsible manner.
As this unforgettable term draws to a close, let me say again how proud I am of what Concordia has achieved and how grateful I am for the incredible hard work, dedication, patience and perseverance we’ve seen from our faculty, librarians, staff, unions and students throughout this trying time.
Take good care. Here’s looking forward to 2021!
President and Vice-Chancellor