The COVID-19 pandemic has posed significant and unprecedented challenges for faculty, academic librarians, staff, and students at Ontario’s universities. We carry on as best we can, while keenly feeling the loss of community and face-to-face interaction. This pandemic has made clear the importance of in-person learning and exposed and exacerbated many of the inequities that have longed plagued our institutions of postsecondary education.
The challenges facing faculty and students
The sudden shift to emergency remote teaching has not been easy for anyone. The additional effort required to deliver education remotely from home, coupled with this prolonged period of instability, has put a strain on the physical and mental well-being of faculty members and students. With child care facilities and schools closed, many academic staff and students are facing additional responsibilities and pressures.
Despite their active and generous contributions during this period of crisis, precariously employed contract faculty, who teach over 50 per cent of undergraduate courses and the bulk of whom are women, will be most adversely affected by the long-term financial constraints of this pandemic.
Other faculty members find themselves in age groups identified as most vulnerable to COVID-19 and have had to take additional steps to keep themselves safe. More than most, they are anxious about what the eventual return to campus will look like.
Faculty are working hard to delivery the best education possible in these challenging times. Despite limited resources and additional responsibilities, they are doing impressive work preparing online courses for the summer and fall. Faculty are multiplying their efforts to ensure their students are supported both emotionally and academically so that they feel confident continuing their studies. And through all of this, faculty continue to support each other and make contributions to the well-being of the broader university community.
The role of universities and importance of collegial governance
This pandemic has fundamentally reshaped Ontario on both a social and economic level and universities will play many important roles helping the province recover:
- Universities are centres of medical knowledge, where faculty are hard at work improving our understanding of COVID-19 and developing lifesaving treatments for the virus.
- Universities are institutions of education, providing opportunities for learners of all ages to develop new skills and expertise.
- Universities are institutions of research, well-placed to develop solutions to many of the challenges we will fact post-pandemic.
- Universities are major economic hubs that are able to provide good jobs and support families and communities across the province.
However, faculty are concerned that, in responding to this pandemic, many university administrations have circumvented vital democratic, transparent, and accountable collegial governance practices. Alarmingly, many academic decisions are being made without the involvement of senates, academic councils, or proper consultation with faculty.
Respecting these foundational decision-making structures is not just an exercise in democratic accountability, but the most effective way for universities to position themselves to successfully address the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic and to maintain the quality of education and research at our institutions. This exclusion cannot continue. University administrations must re-embrace the democratic, transparent, and accountable collegial governance structures that have long guided their operations.
Investing in a sustainable future for Ontario’s universities
The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the importance of ensuring public services are adequately funded, and provides a visceral reminder that public services are at the heart of our society and central to the health and well-being of our communities. Now is not the time for half-measures, it is the time for invest in the health and stability of our universities so that they are able to adequately support their students, staff, and faculty – especially the many contract faculty who lack job security and whose livelihoods are at risk.
Our postsecondary institutions have a vital role to play in helping the province navigate this pandemic, but it is only by supporting each other and working together that we can effectively guide our institutions towards a future where the vibrant energy of students and faculty returns to our campuses.