Anniversaries are normally a time to reflect, to take stock, and to celebrate. Well, here we are, one year since it became real, since COVID-19 arrived officially at Clover Hill, and remained.
Since last March, I have written and spoken at length in alumni updates, board reports and national university roundtables about both the practical steps and the heroic deeds undertaken by this community; our staff, students, faculty (and alumni and trustees) rose together to face the challenges of this pandemic. We should be very proud of the efforts of each and every member of our community, and when the time comes for us to be together again, we will have much to celebrate.
But though there is light ahead, and I am particularly hopeful these days, there remains much to do. I am especially aware of the inequities this pandemic has exposed, that some members of our community continue to struggle with the myriad impacts of COVID-19 in ways that may not be visible to us. Today, I am thinking about them, and while we prepare for life after the pandemic, we should also be attentive to the quiet voices in our community that look to us not for bold actions, new policies, or press releases, but for understanding and loving support. These are not problems to be fixed, but the relationships that bind this community together and make St. Mike’s different.
So, while you’ve heard me speak frequently and enthusiastically in the last year about St. Mike’s resolve, resilience, and good fortune, my thoughts today are more inclined to what really holds this community together and the blessings we enjoy that never quite find their way into a president’s annual report.
Sometimes, it’s just best to leave it to the poets.
You can have the other words—chance, luck, coincidence, serendipity.
I’ll take grace.
I don’t know what it is exactly, but I’ll take it.
June 8, 2020
Dear members of the St. Michael’s community,
I trust this message finds you in good health and holding up in these uncertain times. The 2019/2020 academic year has ended like no other, and I have watched our community respond with grace, courage and resilience to the challenges created by the COVID-19 pandemic. Once again, St. Michael’s is showing that even in very difficult times, our strength and generosity marks us as an anchor of hope in our community.
Social media use of #allinthistogether has gathered traction as the world responds to COVID-19, but I am particularly struck by how, at St. Mike’s, we really are in this together. Together, our students, faculty, alumni, and staff have worked to respond to these unique times, enabling classes to continue while ensuring the safety and security of campus, and the community. Students have been particularly resilient, and they have shown great understanding and patience in the face of a dramatically upended school year. As I look forward not only to the coming academic year but also to the future of St. Mike’s, I am confident that the lessons learned in these challenging days will help strengthen this incredible place, a place with compassion and community at its very heart.
When it became clear in mid-March that we needed a drastic response to the looming health crisis, creative problem-solving swung into action across the University. Within days, faculty and staff began offering classes and advising remotely, and students rose to the challenge. Residence students were able to pack up and head home early. The library remained open online, even offering a town hall on research. With a dedicated skeleton staff on campus to ensure that our students who could not leave were safe and supported, colleagues began working remotely, and virtual meetings became the norm. For the first time in history even Collegium and Senate meetings moved online.
This period will forever be remembered as a time when the world faced challenges above and beyond the norm, and we offer our support to those who are suffering. For St. Mike’s, the pandemic has forced us to sacrifice some much-loved traditions. We had to cancel spring reunion on campus and move to online anniversary activities, and the Class of 2020 missed out on an in-person, on-site convocation. As always, however, our community has responded with energy and hope. Whether it’s our Student Life team working on a virtual orientation for the incoming class, staff in the Registrar’s office taking additional time and care to respond to new and returning students’ concerns, or one of our students arranging to donate thousands of masks to protect those still on campus, this community is motivated by a concern for others, and it has been deeply moving and inspiring to witness.
We were in the midst of our St. Mike’s 180 planning when the pandemic hit. The pause in this project has allowed us time to reflect on our efforts to date and has affirmed what we already knew, that it is the strength of this community that is helping us weather this difficult storm and gives us hope for the future. We remain focused on our plans for renewal and I look forward to restarting conversations with you all about who we want to be as an institution and how we plan to achieve that. Obviously, we are stepping into a very different world, but St. Mike’s is prepared and must take up the mantle of leadership and think of new ways to build hope for our university and society, through our academic and student life programs and through our alumni and community partnerships.
Looking ahead to the 2020-2021 academic year, much remains unknown and difficult decisions must be made in the face of ongoing uncertainty. The health and safety of our community continues to come first, as well as the ability to reopen and resume operations when we are able to do so safely. The university is also facing challenges with regard to reduced revenues, and must also ensure that it remains fiscally sustainable. In early April, we implemented a hiring freeze, along with temporary redeployments. More recently, faced with prolonged shutdowns of parts of our campus and operations the University has worked with the United Steelworkers so that employees in our Facilities and Services Department and Physical Plant Departments can self-identify if they are willing to take a temporary leave. Staff who are affected by this decision have already heard from us directly.
Despite the challenges we are facing as the result of the pandemic, we remain committed to our community and charting a path forward. We are doing everything we can to sustain our workforce and adapt as we move through this crisis. We have established an advisory group, focused on plans for the fall, and we will continue to follow advice from public health and government guidelines. The University of Toronto has recently announced a plan to support employees in working from home where possible until at least September. St. Michael’s is part of this collaborative effort to achieve a gradual and safe reopening of the city’s workplaces.
Fortunately, in addition to calling on the expertise of our in-house resources, we can also tap into the knowledge and best practices of organizations such as Universities Canada to help us continue to do what we do best as a centre of learning and faith committed to building the common good.
Our Collegium remains a strong sounding board and a source of advice, responding wisely and compassionately to the unique concerns raised by the pandemic. Last week, the USMC Senate discussed the impact of COVID-19 on our academic community. We head into the coming year in especially capable hands, with former St. Michael’s Principal Dr. Mark McGowan returning as Interim Principal, as Prof. Randy Boyagoda becomes Vice-Dean, Undergraduate in the Faculty of Arts & Science at U of T. As well, Dr. John McLaughlin will again serve as Interim Dean of the Faculty of Theology as Dean James Ginther returns to the classroom following a leave. We are also very fortunate to have continued great student leadership, and I have already begun to work with Cianna Choo and the newly-elected executive of SMCSU.
While there is still so much we do not know about the course of this pandemic, rest assured that we will continue to communicate via email, social media and our website, stmikes.utoronto.ca, with important information about the 2020-2021 academic year and how and when the campus will reopen. Yes, we are in extraordinarily challenging times, but we are truly all in this together, and with your help St. Michael’s serves as an anchor of hope, an engaged and compassionate community dedicated to serving the greater good.
I am proud to be a member of this remarkable community.
David Sylvester, PhD
President and Vice-Chancellor
University of St. Michael’s College