One year later, we look back as we plan for Concordia’s post-pandemic future
I write to you today as we mark a sombre milestone. It was on Wednesday, March 11, 2020 that the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic.
The Government of Quebec has asked that we observe a minute of silence today at 1 p.m. to honour the pandemic’s victims. If you are teaching a class at that time, I ask that you please lead your students in a moment of reflection. Likewise, if you are participating in a meeting, as I will be, I hope that you and your colleagues will observe a meaningful pause.
The purpose of this message is to reflect on what we’ve experienced and learned as a community during the past 12 months. But it’s also to look forward as we prepare to transition through what we all hope is the last phase of the pandemic, and plan for fall and the future beyond.
What we’ve been through together
I’m sure the first anxious hours and days after the health emergency was declared remain vivid in your memory, as they do in mine. It was truly the beginning of something frightening and unknown. I doubt that very many of us understood then that we were being plunged into a crisis of unprecedented scale, which would evolve, intensify and persist for a year — a year and counting, to be more accurate.
The entire pandemic experience has been shockingly disruptive, disorienting and sobering for us all. Things we took for granted were abruptly taken away. Many members of our community suffered and for some, difficult situations have only become more acute over time. As is the case with society as a whole, the burdens of the health crisis fell very unequally among our community. Women, single parents, caregivers and individuals from marginalized communities were disproportionately affected. The understandable anxiety over the public health situation, combined with prolonged isolation and lack of social contact, has been extremely hard for everyone, close to unbearable for some.
Despite our best efforts — and here I want to reiterate just how magnificent the work of so many faculty and staff has been — our students have had an especially tough go of it. Many lost jobs and income. Others struggled to secure quality internet access or adequate computer technology. Many international students had to make agonizing decisions about whether to stay in Montreal or return home. All our students, new or returning, have been deprived of campus experiences that are such a formative part of university life. Nearly every aspect of teaching and service has had to be reinvented.
Members of the research community — faculty, grad students and postdocs — lost entire projects, delayed sabbaticals, fell behind on anticipated times to completion. Even with labs and libraries re-opened it’s been a challenge to return to full speed.
Staff, faculty, students and administrators found themselves working from homes that are not offices. The line between work and domestic life was blurred and the pace of work seemed to accelerate exponentially in the digital environment. Figuratively and literally, we struggled to find the bandwidth to handle everything.
Summer brought some respite, but was still a strange time, without much chance for a real vacation and with the pandemic still around us. Inevitably, the repercussions of ‘the summer that wasn’t’ surfaced in fall. The public health crisis deepened, the days grew shorter and colder. By late October the accumulated pressure and fatigue in the community was palpable. However resilient we had been, there came a point when few of us wanted to hear that word anymore.
As we’d learned in the frantic weeks of March and April, we were reminded in the fall that flexibility, accommodation and compassion were important virtues; that if we could take some small steps to lower the pressure on each other, we could meaningfully enhance our community’s prospects for success. Giving students the option to take a pass/fail grade in one course was probably the most tangible example of this. Relaxing some internal deadlines for faculty, extending the holiday break and adding a second day off in reading week also made a difference for many.
Admittedly, what we experienced also happened at other universities. That truism doesn’t make our situation more comforting. But as I reflect on what our community has accomplished and take stock of some key indicators of student and institutional success, I believe that we — perhaps more than others — have every reason to feel encouraged by what we’ve achieved.
Across North America many universities have seen steep declines in first-year student enrolment and significant dropout rates. This has not been our experience at Concordia. Instead, we had:
- our largest ever graduating class in June
- our largest ever summer enrolment
- a 2% increase in registration compared to the previous year
- by far the lowest ever DNE rate we’ve ever seen in January
All things considered, our outlook for summer and fall 2021 is promising. Because many students are taking fewer courses to cope with the online workload, we anticipate that summer registration will be robust. We had record attendance for our virtual open houses in fall and February. Our application numbers for 2021-22 are up in all faculties and across all cycles.
Despite COVID’s obstacles, Concordia researchers have secured some massive research and training grants, had stellar publications, undertaken innovative projects and made dramatic breakthroughs, one of which was named a Top Ten discovery of 2020 by Québec Science. At a moment when we need the arts and culture more than ever, Concordia continues to be a beacon of creativity with our full- and part-time faculty, students and alumni pushing the boundaries of creativity.
It also bears repeating that, pandemic notwithstanding, in the past six months we launched our Sustainability Action Plan, opened the Applied Science Hub at Loyola, unveiled our Next-Gen Cities Institute, and committed to advance the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals by starting to plan a Voluntary University Review.
Following lengthy consultations with health researchers and much discussion among the academic leadership of the university, we’ve also brought forward an ambitious, potentially transformative proposal for the university to create a School of Health.
Equally transformative, albeit in different ways, is the work being undertaken to advance our Indigenous Directions Action Plan, as well as that of the Task Force on Anti-Black Racism. Together with the creation of our new Equity Office, these actions signal how important equity, diversity, inclusivity and accessibility are to Concordia’s future.
And speaking of the future, our ‘Campaign for Concordia’ continues to gather momentum. In 2020 we attracted gifts from more donors than in any previous year and very soon we will announce a major milestone in the campaign.
Meanwhile, our global reputation for excellence remains strong. QS continues to rank Concordia the top university in North America under 50 years old. In Canada, where the U15 dominate rankings, we stand 17th, ahead of three universities with medicine faculties.
Looking toward fall
Obviously, it’s great news that a majority of Canadian adults are projected to be vaccinated by September. With that in mind, our goal is to safely open our campuses this fall to as many in-person courses and activities for students as possible.
That said, the return to campus will be complex from an organizational standpoint. We will have to conform to changing public health guidelines and adapt them to the realities of our infrastructure. Some teaching, learning and service activities will no doubt remain online. In short, we anticipate that fall 2021 will be dramatically different from fall 2020 but not identical to what we were used to in 2019.
We know that a major preoccupation for our community is the safety of returning to campus. I share that preoccupation, as does the entire university leadership team. As we plan the return to campus, we realize that we may need to make case-by-case accommodations for members of our community – students, staff and faculty – who are immune-compromised or act as caregivers for vulnerable individuals.
Co-led by Anne Whitelaw, interim provost and vice-president, academic, and Michael Di Grappa, vice-president, services and sustainability, an Operations Continuity Group, which has membership drawn from across the university, has already been developing scenarios and plans for our collective return to campus.
Last week we began a new phase in this process by providing students with more opportunities for in-person activities for the remainder of the winter semester. By opening up spaces for small groups to meet, network and collaborate, to conduct activities such as thesis defences or student club projects, we hope to breathe more life back into our campuses and help break down the isolation that many students feel.
This summer we will continue to deliver courses mostly online while expanding the range of on-campus activities for students and piloting some in-person exams. We also plan to welcome some professional staff back to campus this summer, particularly those who work directly with students.
Detailed academic planning for fall is well underway and will continue intensively for the next six weeks. The provost and faculty deans have developed principles to guide departments in their prioritization of in-person vs. online course delivery. Once we know those priorities, the next step will be to design a course schedule that aligns them with our physical infrastructure and anticipated public health guidelines. Our goal is to be able to tell students definitively in May which fall courses will be delivered in person, online, when and where.
The scale of the scheduling task ahead is significant. To illustrate the point: in a normal fall semester, we offer approximately 3,300 course sections plus 1,500 activities such as labs. In terms of student numbers, the majority of our teaching happens in the Hall and Molson buildings downtown, and the Science Pavilion at Loyola. If some public health requirements on social distancing remain in force come fall, there will be an additional challenge to manage traffic flow in those buildings.
Thinking about the future
Finally, as a world-class young university in a highly competitive global market, we also need to look beyond the months ahead and, like other top universities, reflect on what we’ve learned from the past year to ask ourselves what we can do differently and better.
How can we advance Concordia’s standing as a next-generation university while retaining many of the practices and attributes that have been so essential to our past success? This reflection is especially timely in a context where the chief scientist of Quebec has just led a major consultation on ‘The University of the Future.’
To undertake this important process, I’ve asked Anne Whitelaw and Michael Di Grappa to lead university-wide consultations that will lead to recommendations on how Concordia can become a model university of the future.
Borrowing from the successful experience we used to develop Concordia’s Sustainability Action Plan, the consultations will be mobilized through working groups made up of faculty, staff, students, administrators and, in some cases, alumni and individuals external to the Concordia community.
At this point, we envision six working groups charged with consulting and making recommendations on the future of:
- Teaching and Learning
- Student Services
- Research and Impact
- Work, the Workplace and Workforce
- Campus Spaces
- Concordia’s relations to the communities and world around us
Subject to further reflection, we envision the working groups will be guided by the following principles:
- Alignment with and renewal of Concordia’s Next-Gen strategic directions
- A student-centred approach
- Support for the different needs of our faculty, students and staff
- A commitment to sustainability, including financial sustainability
- Decisions that support equity, inclusivity, accessibility and decolonization
- An emphasis on agility, flexibility and responsiveness
- Creativity, a healthy tolerance for risk-taking and willingness to challenge our status quo
As was the case with the Sustainability Action Plan, the success of this initiative will depend on contributions from the whole community. We will not rush this process. Our goal is to gradually begin year-long consultations with the community in summer/fall 2021 with a view to developing recommendations to share with the community in fall 2022.
Just as actions on sustainability have urgency, the time is arriving to focus our attention on how we want to design Concordia for an even better future, particularly as we approach our 50th anniversary in 2024. Based on what we’ve accomplished this past year, I look forward to working together with you on this longer-term project.
For now, however, our priority is to deliver the balance of this semester, organize for summer and plan for fall.
Thank you once more for all you do to make Concordia such a great university. And please take care.
President and Vice-Chancellor