On March 12th, 2021 Memorial University of Newfoundland (MUN) President Vianne Timmons held a student town hall with other senior administrators. There were many topics like online/remote learning, the pass/fail option, mental health, the motivation behind the town hall, academic misconduct, graduate research, international student issues, course evaluation, tuition, and the return to campus.
In attendance with Dr. Timmons was Provost and Vice-President Academic Mark Abrahams, Associate Vice-President Academic (Students) Donna Hardy-Cox, Director of International Office Sonja Knutson and the Dean of Graduate Studies and Associate Vice-President Academic Aimée Surprenant. They also had representatives from the Marine Institute Grenfell campus and people from different areas throughout the university.
“Timmons is among the elite of society with a higher salary than the Prime Minister of Canada as she makes $484,000 a year.”Matt Barter
Dr. Timmons stated that one of her favourite things to do, especially when she feels low and needs a boost, is to walk around campus and talk to students. This is a very different approach compared to that of the former president, Gary Kachanoski, who for the most part seemed to live in an ivory tower. Timmons is at least trying to have the perception that she connects with students. Timmons said that until the return to campus a town hall is the best that she can do. Timmons stated that they put the event together because they know that this is a tough time, and many students are finding it difficult. However, she quickly turned the attention back on herself and stated that she was finding it difficult. Timmons informed that they can not promise to fix anything but that they can promise to listen and take the concerns of students seriously but then she stated, “we are all in this together and together we will come out of it.” This is not a fair comparison as students are among some of the most vulnerable and Timmons is among the elite of society with a higher salary than the Prime Minister of Canada as she makes $484,000 a year.
The questions asked to the administrators were a mixture of questions submitted by students through email, or in the WebEx chat which is the platform they used to host the event. They conducted a poll to see who was participating in the town hall and 34 of the participants were Canadian or Newfoundland undergraduate students, five were Newfoundland or Canadian graduate students, 11 international undergraduate students, one international graduate student, 10 faculty members, 9 staff members, and 41 participants who choose not to answer. There were 111 participants in total. They then conducted a second poll question to check-in to see how the participants were doing. 16 participants chose to say that they were doing good, 38 people said that they are okay, 23 said that they are struggling, and 37 did not answer.
The first student-submitted question was, “a large portion of first-year students were forced to study their entire freshman year online and all of us have made hardly any connections with our classmates or the university as a community I am sure I speak for every single one of us when I say that we are extremely eager to travel and relocate to St. John’s knowing full well that it is perhaps too early to ask this is it possible to shine some light on the preliminary thinking surrounding the delivery of the Fall 2021 semester any information no matter its nature would go a long way in calming the nerves of us students and our families and help us plan for a better the future.”
Provost Mark Abrahams stated that they are planning on returning to primarily face-to-face instruction for the fall term and that this is based upon the information that they are receiving from public health officials. He pointed to the assumption made by many that a significant vaccine rollout will occur with most of the population vaccinated by the time to return in September. Abrahams stated that students who are planning to come to MUN for the fall semester should expect to be on campus. However, he stated that it is not going to be a regular fall term because there are still going to be consequences associated with the pandemic such as public health regulations that they need to follow. Abrahams said that he has a small working group to prepare for the fall semester but did not indicate if the committee has student representatives. Abrahams recognized that the year is going to be more complicated for international students.
Sonja provided an update with the advocacy work being done by the Internationalization Office like ensuring that students can obtain their study permits through Canadian embassies abroad. She said that they are on constant calls with national associations. She said that for the students who already have their study permits and are registered that they can travel at any point and so international students are welcome to sign up at https://www.mun.ca/international/ under the arrivals 2020 -2021 section.
Regarding the question on the struggle to make connections with classmates, Associate Vice-President Academic (Students), Donna Hardy-Cox stated that the teams in her portfolio have been working hard to find ways to make connections and that there are several ways that students can currently engage like the study buddies option on the Navigate app which allows students to connect with other individuals in their classes and to sign up to meet people who are studying the same course and same topics. However, she failed to mention that Navigate is a for-profit company that is accused of having a business model that sells data to third parties. Hardy-Cox stated that she was impressed by all the work that the student clubs and societies have done and that it is amazing how creative the clubs can be in terms of creating activities to engage in.
The next question was concerning academic matters, a student stated “I’m curious if the university would be considering a pass/fail option this term, I know myself and many other students have been struggling like we never have before. Mental health has taken a hit across the board and we are fighting to stay afloat, every day is nothing short of a struggle with no human interaction and your only company being a laptop for anywhere from 6 to 12 hours.”
Abrahams stated that the capacity to award students a pass/fail option is done at the instructor’s discretion and so they can award a letter grade, or they can award a pass/fail grade. He said that if the instructor chooses to do so then is important that they advise their department head or the dean that this is what they are doing. Abrahams also stated that it is also important that in courses that have multiple sections that if there is one section that is opting to go with a pass/fail option that the same opportunity must be made available to students in all sections of that course.
With regards to mental health, Hardy-Cox stated that many resources are available to students who are seeking assistance at this time and all their physicians and counseling staff are providing services remotely and that there is a roster of online resources including on campus and in the community.
The next poll question was on social isolation and how students are managing with it in addition to their studies. Six students responded that they are dealing with eldercare, two students with school-age children, one person with preschool children, 17 people living alone living, and 26 experiencing social isolation. Timmons stated that it is challenging and that they do not have any solutions on how to manage these things like children at home.
The next student question was regarding the motivation of holding the town hall, “let us be real this is the first town hall, and it is likely not going to be the last, very little has been done to make actual change and these such events have proven to have a political motivation at its core. Online learning was a temporary adoption that was never taken seriously. How about we get to business and we talk about the real issues instead of stuff like study buddies?” Timmons responded that she agrees that at first, they thought it was going to be a short-term issue and that it turned out to be a whole year for everyone. She said that the professors have done great work pivoting to online learning and that for many of them it was a new course development and some professors had two or three courses they had to transfer to online and learn the new technology to teach. Timmons stated that she thinks her administration has done a lot for students because they put all their student resources online and added student resources and fundraised for a student emergency fund. Timmons stated that she does not think that it is political that they want to talk and listen to their students. She said that it is more than that and that none of them take jobs up at universities if we do not care about students. Timmons stated, “we have done a number of things over the years to support students and we are continuing to learn how to maneuver and manage this and we hope that you know we will be better at our teaching after the pandemic’s over because so many of our professors have learned entirely new pedagogies so I will say I am sorry you feel that way but I will challenge what you’ve said I do not believe that is any of our motivation.”
“Very little has been done to make actual change and these such events have proven to have a political motivation at its core.“Student
Regarding the pass/fail option, a student asked, “why is it left to the individual discretion of instructors I know that I for one have multiple professors that struggle with online teaching which has significantly impacted my ability to learn course material this term and I doubt that they will implement pass/fail if left to make the choice on their own.”
Abrahams responded that they implemented the pass/fail option for the winter term last year because they were forced to quickly move everything online that required all their faculty and courses to change to an online mode of delivery. He stated that the levels of stress caused by this were incredible. Abrahams points out that what they did last year that they did it in literally just a few days to transition everything online. He said that consequently there were challenges for the university and that is why they moved to a pass/fail option for that term. Since then, they are providing the pass/fail option at the discretion of the instructors. He stated the pass/fail option can be “a very blunt tool and there are consequences associated with that so many students do actually need to get a grade associated with their courses they need that opportunity for admission to various programs. Abrahams said that because they do not know exactly what is going on within every classroom, they feel the decisions are best made within the classroom.
Abrahams then spoke to the academic implications for students who are seeking a pass/fail option and how it may affect their transcripts when applying to a master’s program or a medical school. Abrahams stated that he does not have the university calendar in front of him but that the challenge is students need to have a grade and a certain number of courses and when they receive a pass/fail they simply get a credit, or they do not get a credit and that it does not contribute to a GPA and that there might also be implications for applications to professional schools and to retain scholarship standing.”
Dr. Ken Fowler of the Wellness and Counselling Centre stated that he has been at the wellness center since August 1st and that it was a great way to start a career with the wellness center, but they have been incredibly busy and since the closure of campus last winter they have been deemed an essential service. They switched to virtual support for students and since the fall they have seen 1250 students ask for help from mental health counseling. He said that among their physician group, they have experienced approximately 4,000 visits. To ensure that students had quick and efficient access, they developed a portal and advised that if anyone needs any help to go to their website which can be found by doing a Google search for SWCC MUN. On the website, there is a request counseling services form.
A student then asked why there is a limit on the number of sessions students can avail of with a counselor. Fowler stated that the reason for this is because they “want to provide support to as many students as possible and so what we try to do is we try to arrange a transition of students if they are with us for a while, we try to not just end the care immediately we try to work with students to empower them and also engage them into to seeking out further supports.”
The next question asked by a student was “what has been done to aid instructors in presenting remote classes? Some of my professors have been competently teaching remotely since we switched to this while others still a year into working like this cannot figure out how to do basic things remotely meanwhile another professor, I have had for three courses in the last year presents material as easily and as naturally online as they did in person. Is anything being done to help the professors that clearly struggle with online teaching?”
Colleen Collett from the Centre for Innovation in Teaching and Learning (CITI) responded that even though they have done a lot of work, the transition for everyone to remote teaching and learning was still a challenge for both students and instructors. She stated, “CITL has developed a number of programs and supports for both instructors and students that have been widely used we have also surveyed all of our students and instructors to see where work was needed and where we needed to do some things and we used that info to really help guide some of the changes and additions that we have made to our programming.”
The next question was about academic misconduct, a student stated “there has been a lot of talk surrounding academic misconduct in the last few months and I feel the responsibility of that has fallen strictly on students I can only speak from my experiences in the engineering faculty but there are numerous occasions that I can speak to where professors are using the same lecture notes assignments and midterms from year to year and often have the responsibility for conducting tutorials and correcting all but the exams. We have been warned by several of our professors as well as the head of our discipline of the serious consequences of academic misconduct but why is this not reflected by the actions of our professors? In conjunction with this, some professors are using unrealistic measures to prevent academic misconduct such as the way the Brightspace quiz tool that is being used to make only a single question available at a time as well as some observed proctoring methods. For most of the students that I have had a chance to speak with the strong contrast and approaches and apparent view of academic misconduct is very frustrating, the person did go on to say that the head of the discipline is doing a great job at reaching out to students and taking concerns seriously.” A petition to end the use of ProctorU at Memorial University has received 3,221 signatures.
“There has been a lot of talk surrounding academic misconduct in the last few months.”Student
Abrahams responded that “faculty are obligated to maintain a professional duty to develop and maintain their scholarly competence and effectiveness as teachers that is in their contract so if what you are describing is true and this is taking place over multiple years then this is something you really need to take up with up with the administrative head of the academic unit.” He then stated stress as a factor and that it is not just students that are stressed, faculty and staff are stressed as well, and some may be unwell under the current circumstances. Abrahams advised that if students are noticing deficiencies by their professors, then they should reach out to them and find out how they are doing. He said that just as students are struggling some of their faculty are struggling and what students might be seeing may have many underlying causes.
A student commented that they “do agree that professors have done well in adapting to the new environment of learning, the main issue I have seen in the two semesters so far is a lack of centralization or unity between classes when looking up course offerings the terms of remote/distance learning are no longer informative and having the classification of asynchronous or synchronous lectures will be more beneficial and allow more unified plan for courses of the same category.”
Abrahams then talked about why there are some asynchronous courses. He said when they first started down the path that they did last winter one of their concerns was with student bandwidth access and so they encouraged many of their faculty to go with asynchronous teaching when possible because that would increase the availability of the material especially to those who do not have good internet connections. He acknowledged that the challenge it created regarding the lack of opportunity for interaction with the person teaching the course with asynchronous lectures. Abrahams pointed out that faculty have struggled with this and as a result, many of their courses are a bit of both: “some asynchronous offerings are in combination with the opportunity for interaction with students through synchronous offerings.”
Next was a question regarding the future of online learning, “although remote learning has improved drastically since March 2020 many students still face a larger workload, increased stress, and increased strain on their mental and physical health. Does Memorial feel that remote learning is a long-term solution and is this affecting how quickly we return to campus?”
Abrahams responded that it is not the long-term solution and they have watched and seen how students miss the contact and the same for professors and staff so they will be coming back to campus. Abrahams said that he anticipates an increase in online course options and he thinks that we will see hybrid courses with more customized learning packages. Some of the courses will be online and some will be face-to-face. However, he said that he does not see the university going fully online but that he does see an increase in online and hybrid courses.
The next few questions were related to research activities on campus, Associate vice-president (Research) Ray Gosine said that they are largely limited by density limits which have been set by the risk office at the university but if students need to be on campus to undertake their research and the research can be done respecting the density limits of the various rooms involved through the request process than that should be able to be facilitated. He said that they have placed a priority on research involving undergraduate honors thesis students who are in the critical stage of their programs, thesis-based graduate students who are in the latter part of their programs, and post-doctoral fellows who are near completion.
The next question was “if students are unable to enter the school in a safe and responsible way to conduct their research and learn the technical skills that they came to learn how can we the students be expected to graduate feeling confident we can succeed in the workplace?
Associate Vice-President (Academic) and Dean of Graduate Studies Dr. Aimée Surprenant said that was a difficult question because some skills need to be learned in person. She said that her advice is for students to work with their professors to find alternative ways of gaining skills. She said that one of the advantages of the current situation is that students can attend seminars and conferences around the world that they were never able to attend before.
A student stated, “in the employee town hall on March 9th, there were discussions about reducing the requirements for an acceptable thesis on the surface it seems like a good idea but before reducing the quality of work needed to accomplish our degrees why are some other avenues not being explored such as allowing students to return to their studies in a safe and responsible manner.”
Abrahams said that he misspoke at the employee town hall and that he did not mean to state that they will reduce standards in any way. He said what they are doing is thinking creatively in ways in which a student can demonstrate scholarship and skills in a way that is not usual in the discipline the student is in.
“What is the plan for the current bridge watch students?” a student asks. Angie Clarke stated that the Marine Institute has two technical certificates and that those groups were mostly on campus starting this semester. However, the two programs, the bridge watch technical certificate, and the marine diesel mechanic technical certificate were suspended when the province moved to alert level five. At the time of the town hall, Clarke said that due to the alert level changing to level four the school of Maritime Studies was aggressively planning to have students back on campus.
A student then stated that a motion for pass/fail semester was incomplete without extending the academic prejudice drop date as this is how it was done last winter.” Abrahams responded that the circumstances between the winter term last year and winter were different and that there was no justification this winter for changing the add/drop date or the drop without academic prejudice date.
The next question was on the expense of mandatory hotel quarantines. Knutson said that they have done significant advocacy to the federal government to try to explain that the provinces were looking after international students in a robust managed way. Despite this effort, the federal government decided to treat everyone the same and decided that they were also going to impose this at the port of entry for any arrival. She explained that students traveling to St. John’s will arrive at the port of entry in Canada which is generally Toronto or Montreal to be tested and then they must wait for test results. She stated that students were reporting that the costs are far lower than they had anticipated and that it is dependent on which hotel that they decide to book. In the federal booking system, students can choose the cost and some of the prices are as low as around $150 a night and that it is often not the full three days that students must stay in Ontario or Quebec.
“What systems are in place to regulate the faculties and by extension the professors? Everything seems to be in the hands of individual professors with very little oversight or consistency across board this has been a substantial source of problem. Additionally, is there a central location for regulation or guidelines that can be referenced in light of the remote learning platform that can be accessed to see what the university is doing for this?” asked a student.
“What systems are in place to regulate the faculties and by extension the professors?”Student
Timmons stated that faculty are required to submit an annual report associated with their activities in the past year dependence upon the academic program in which they teach and that there are academic unit program reviews that will review the overall programs. Timmons said that the administrative head of the academic unit is responsible for oversight of teaching within their unit and that is where the responsibility lies. She said that professors have autonomy, and they have academic freedom in their classrooms and therefore the university cannot provide oversight on their content in their classrooms as they are Ph.D. trained experts in their fields. Timmons said that as young adults it is going to be tough but that students must advocate for themselves regarding the past/fail option as they cannot do it across the board because some students do not want the pass/fail option and they need to be fair to everyone.
The next question is related to CEQ (Course Evaluation Questionnaires), a student stated “it has been bothering me that we cannot do CEQ this year. If we do not get to complete the CEQ how would the departments and you guys know how the profs are doing with their courses, I am currently taking a course and I do not even know what the professor looks like it is not an online course it is a remote one. However, I have never received any lectures from them all we do is read lecture slides if a course is not great why can’t we have a CEQ?”
Abrahams responded that right now they are in the process of revamping the CEQ and that there is a Senate committee working on revisions but at this point, they do not have a CEQ mechanism for students to provide their feedback. He stated that this is not meant to be a permanent arrangement and that they are simply trying to develop a better system than the previous one. He stated that most faculty should be doing some form of formative assessment.
“If fall 2021 will be primarily face-to-face learning will there be more options to learn online or remotely? And will the distance education and recreation fees still be waived for the semester?” asked a student.
Abrahams said there is a committee tasked with looking at the details of how they are planning on implementing the fall term but that their current expectation is for most courses to be face-to-face. However, Abrahams states that many faculty members have benefited from the experience of placing material online so there may be more blended learning courses meaning that some of the material will be live in a lecture theater or classroom and some of the material will be available by distance. He said it is not likely that the university will be offering a large proportion of courses remotely due to the return to distance education courses. He said as the university has done in the past, they will be adding to those, but it is not likely that it will be enough to do an entire program. This is a major disappointment as several students who have been away from school returned during the pandemic to complete the remaining courses that were required to complete their degrees.
“Are you able to touch on what residence life will look like for undergraduate students will the buildings be at 100 percent capacity?” a student asked.
Hardy-Cox responded that Burton’s Pond Apartments have been full ever since the pandemic began and they are at full capacity there. She said that it will depend upon public health standards whether all the buildings will be opened for the fall semester but that they anticipate that MacPherson will be fully open for the fall semester and it is dependent on public health circumstances if Paton College is as well.
“We have no plans at this moment to decrease tuition that I will say firmly to everyone.”MUN President Vianne Timmons
“I would like to ask about why tuition has remained the same with all of the changes in students not on campus?” a student asked. Timmons responded that MUN has the lowest tuition in the country and that they have kept tuition the same and have not increased it during the challenging times of the pandemic. She stated that it costs $23,000 to educate a student and that MUN’s tuition is much lower than that. Timmons said, “we have no plans at this moment to decrease tuition that I will say firmly to everyone.” The talking point by the administration that MUN’s tuition is the cheapest and cannot be decreased due to the need to align with the model of the rest of the country is getting old. Why is it that MUN cannot be the first university in the country to abolish tuition fees?
Matt Barter is a third-year student in the Humanities and Social Sciences Faculty at Memorial University of Newfoundland, majoring in Political Science with a minor in Sociology. He enjoys reading thought-provoking articles, walks in nature, and volunteering in the community.