As Spring term starts, and we prepare to recognize the achievements of our students graduating later this month, we have also begun to prepare for Fall 2020. We are hearing from many students, including the leadership of SMUSA, of the many positive experiences students had in the last weeks of the Winter term. This was due to the extraordinary efforts of you, the full and part-time faculty, along with the many staff so critical to supporting the academic mission of Saint Mary’s University. Thank you.
Now we need to harness the confidence bolstered by these positive messages from students. We have seen it already in the rapid transition of spring and summer terms to a virtual environment. Enrolments for these terms are strong and, we hope, will be sustained. We will all be watching the progression of both terms closely and learning from them.
We also look forward to the resumption of other aspects of academic life, most directly the scholarship and research activities of the university. Many of you have found creative ways to continue this work from home, finding ways to provide meaningful experiences for our undergraduate and graduate students. But we also know that many other aspects of work have been paused, be it laboratory-based research, field work, and the human connections that can’t be fully replicated through technology yet are so important for community-engaged research, particularly when the communities themselves may have limited resources.
Fall 2020 Academic Program Planning
The academic leadership team has been meeting and planning for Fall 2020. We are addressing the question not only of how we will deliver courses, but how we will create a sense of community and student engagement that will make students want to join us in September and feel part of Saint Mary’s University. We have reached out to Departments and Programs to better understand the opportunities and challenges associated with delivering courses during an academic term where public health restrictions may block or limit the use of the physical campus. The questions are many and include which courses can be offered in different circumstances, and what technological and pedagogical supports will be required for success. The Academic Senate also stands ready, should we need to consider any adjustments in academic or program regulations in order to make the Fall 2020 academic term a successful one.
We have begun discussions with the Deans, Associate Deans, and Student Affairs and Services, along with: the Academic Advisors; Enrolment Management and the Registrar’s Office, and; the Studio for Teaching and Learning, as to how we can connect with our returning students to give them confidence that they will be able to continue and complete their studies successfully. We will be launching new initiatives in the coming weeks to support this, with more to follow over the course of the summer.
New students have been interacting already with many members of the Saint Mary’s University community through webinars and chats. Recruitment adapted quickly to the new realities and restrictions we faced in March, and began offering prospective students virtual consultations and webinars, and introduced the chat function you now see on the university homepage. In consultation with SMUSA, we will be launching aspects of Welcome Weeks much earlier in the summer so that new students can build a connection to the university and their Faculties as soon as their high school term finishes. Further, many Departments and Programs have added first-year courses and additional sections of preparatory courses to the Summer term. These courses will be advertised and available to high school students who may be concerned about their preparation for university.
As noted in the President’s most recent communication to the university community, decisions related to the Fall term will be made as soon as possible, but no later than July 1, 2020. We will continue to keep you updated and informed.
Scholarship and Research
Several faculty members have already been discussing with the AVP Research issues related to restarting field work. It is a challenging question, as it is not only concerns the circumstances of our campus – but also the circumstances in the regions and communities where field researchers would work.
We are also learning how to support laboratory/facility-based research, looking forward to the time when public health restrictions allow a limited return. Some COVID-19 related laboratory work is taking place on campus now under government funded high-priority initiatives. The research teams had to develop protocols for work that can be templates for expanded activities. The AVP Research is also in touch with colleagues at other universities, both locally and nationally, and there is a collaborative effort to develop good protocols for a staged/phased return to research.
All return to research activities on campus, in the field, or involving face-to-face interactions with research participants, will proceed through a request-review-approval protocol throughout the period of government-mandated restrictions due to COVID-19. Our Saint Mary’s protocol will be a transparent process, governed by a set of principles and priorities – with a primary focus on resuming time-sensitive activities, minimizing impact on graduate students and early career researchers, and directing support to other disproportionally affected researchers in accordance with equity, diversity, and inclusion principles. As we are able to embark on a limited return to research activities, we must maintain our highest priority – protecting the physical, mental and emotional health and safety of our students, staff, faculty, research participants and collaborators.
We recognize the challenges remote operation presents for the research and scholarly activity of many faculty and students. The flexible and pragmatic responses faculty members have employed to help keep their graduate students progressing, and undergraduate summer research students engaged, have been wonderful to see. As graduate student supervisors think through alternate research plans B (and C) for their students, our federal funding agencies NSERC and SSHRC have announced some extensions and extra funding to assist (details of how these will be implemented are still to come). We are also looking at ways Saint Mary’s can respond to the needs of research graduate students including possible extension of their program length.
Academic Life on Campus
We have already seen the impact of COVID-19 on academic conferences, speaker series, cultural events, travel, and related activities. These impacts will remain as long as we are operating under the government mandated restrictions. We are not only impacted by what Nova Scotia does, but by decisions made by governments elsewhere in Canada and around the world. Even a loosening of travel restrictions may still require 14-day self-isolation on arrival, rendering travel impractical for most purposes. Inviting guest lecturers and speakers to class in-person may also not be practical under these circumstances – but new familiarity with technology affords the possibility of virtual visits. This can sometimes be easier also for the visitor, as they do not have to block off as much time to connect with your class or research group.
Right now, we still face more questions than answers – but we are trying to plan around every reasonable possibility with the goal of ensuring the longer-term strength and health of Saint Mary’s University.
In June, I would like to arrange for a large virtual meeting for full and part-time faculty and my thought is that we might share some examples of what’s working, perhaps in the area of alternative course delivery, or how research efforts may be adapted. When we search for excellent examples of how universities and educators are responding the challenges posed by the current circumstances, we should remember to look into our own backyard. I look forward to hearing your stories firsthand of your challenges and successes.
With warm regards and wishes for your safety and good health,
Dr. Malcolm Butler
Vice-President, Academic & Research