Memorial University of Newfoundland (MUN) president Vianne Timmons held an employee town hall on March 9th, 2021 with Provost and Vice-President (Academic) Mark Abrahams, Vice-President (Research) Neil Bose, and Vice-President (Administration and Finance) Kent Decker. Timmons stated that Vice-President (Grenfell Campus) Jeff Keshen and Vice-President (Marine Institute) Glenn Blackwood have already held town halls on their respected campuses, so they were not selected to be on the panel for this one but that they were still present if needed.
“What have I accomplished since I have been here?”Vianne Timmons
Timmons stated that hundreds of employees have been tested and self-isolating over the past month and many have family and friends who tested positive. Timmons questioned her time as president thus far and stated “what have I accomplished since I have been here? I have not met people in person, I have not walked the campus and chatted with you.” Timmons said that many employees are having a challenge in working at home because there are no limits on the time when they start and when they finish work each day and that the blurring between home and work has been a real challenge for them.
Timmons then reminded participants that Jeff Keshen accepted a position as president of the University of Regina. Timmons stated that she had nothing to do with that and that it was not a swap. Timmons congratulated Keshen. She said she met with the Grenfell campus and that they have given her input in terms of a way forward.
The first poll question conducted during the event revealed that in attendance were mostly staff and some faculty members. The results of the second poll revealed that 191 people were okay, 60 people were struggling, and 124 were good.
Allison McNeil asked the first question, “for many employees working from home during the pandemic has proven that a permanent work-from-home arrangement can be just as productive and rewarding as working on campus but more personally accommodating in many aspects of work and home life, what is the status of the work-from-home program and when can employees expect to have a policy to guide a work-from-home proposal?”
Decker stated that work-from-home is an important part of the future of MUN and that we will see a lot more people working from home in the future. Decker said that they started several work-from-home pilots and they set up groups of people who had requested to work from home and worked with their director to establish a pilot program. He said that it was not a simple process in some ways as there are legal implications of permanent work-from-home and that they had to do ergonomic assessments and IT assessments and they also had to ensure proper security was set up. Decker said that they established a group that will monitor and evaluate the work-from-home pilots. He said that the problem was just as they set it up everybody went back home due to the lockdown. He said to do a proper work-from-home pilot it was intended that they would be able to compare the differences between working-from-home and working on-campus where people were in both situations. He said they expect the pilots to be back on track upon the return to campus. He said the initial intent was to do a 12-month evaluation and once the process has worked itself through, they expect to be able to move on to other groups and individuals where it would make sense for the organization and for the employee to work from home.
Abrahams spoke about the Spring, Summer, and Fall classes. He said that for the most part, the Spring semester is going to be a primarily remote exercise. However, some faculties will be returning to on-campus instruction like the Human Kinetics and Recreational faculty. Abrahams said that the Spring semester makes for a good transition semester because they can bring students back onto campus without really increasing their densities. With regards to the fall semester, Abrahams said he established a small committee to work on the details but that their expectation is the fall term will be a primarily face-to-face academic term. However, he said it is not going to be like other fall semesters and that they will figure out what exceptions they need to deal with to accommodate the health situation.
Mark Picco asked a question regarding the expectation around leniency, “we have been instructed to be lenient with students because the situation is new to everyone, students and instructors alike. However, is there a worry that we might be becoming too lenient and that our standards might be lowered as a result? I personally have become very flexible with assessments and deadlines but in some cases, it is clear that I am doing so for students who have not accessed my course in several weeks. I cannot help but feel this is unfair to students who are working hard to meet deadlines and review course material. Can we get some guidance on this issue?”
“Is there a worry that we might be becoming too lenient and that our standards might be lowered as a result?”Mark Picco
Abrahams stated that this was a topic that was being considered by CITL (Centre for Innovation in Teaching and Learning) and that there is a report that CITL put together on the stresses associated with teaching. He stated that one of the challenges that they had in the fall term is that they were encouraging faculty to stay away from using final exams that required an online invigilation process as there were several issues associated with that. They encouraged more ongoing assessment. They found out that the main challenge in the fall term was the amount of work that was being assigned to students was starting to become a large amount so CITL had put together a document. Abrahams expressed the importance of not overloading students because while the professor may be doing ongoing assessment, the students were likely seeing a similar thing from all their other courses. Abrahams highlighted the need to be sensitive to the circumstances of students because with being primarily remote not all students are necessarily in St. John’s or even in the same time zone. Abrahams said that when assignments are due that professors need to understand how that impacts some of their students with an emphasis on those who are not living in the province and working in a different time zone.
Abrahams’s advice is for professors to get to know their students to understand the challenges that they are dealing with and to accommodate those main challenges but at the same time not to lower standards.
Jonathan Anderson commented, “I feel like I am at or over my limit, we are rightly asked to be flexible accommodating, and kind for students, but I do not feel a lot of extra understanding, flexibility, kindness, or appreciation from students. I’m not sure how to fix this.”
Timmons said the message is both to students and faculty and that students need to understand that while they are struggling so are many of their faculty, course instructors, and staff. She said while they are asking faculty to be lenient and understanding of students that they are also expecting students to be lenient and understanding of faculty.
A question was then asked about graduate student funding, “in the summer of 2020 students who are slated to finish their graduate degrees were promised an extra semester of funding due to the several months where graduate students were unable to access campus. With another month of lockdown under our belt, will the same funding be offered to graduate students who are slated to finish in 2021 after two lockdowns where research activities had to be put on pause?”
Dean of Graduate Studies, Dr. Aimee Surprenant, said that they will be extending baseline funding for students going forward for one semester for those finishing or those who should have been finishing at the end of the semester and that she anticipates that they are going to end up doing that again for the students who are hoping to finish or should have finished at the end of the summer.
Joy Fraser asked a question about work-from-home, “are you still exploring the possibility of offering flexible/part-time remote work options post-pandemic for individual staff members who have found that they are both more productive and benefit from a better work-life balance working from home?”
Decker responded that they will be exploring that once they get through the initial set of projects and evaluation. Decker said that remote work has a lot of benefits for the university and individuals but that it is just a matter of them getting there.
Decker then gave a shout-out to the custodians who were watching the town hall in lecture theaters at the university. He said, “hello, I miss you guys walking around on my rounds.”
The next question asked was about work terms, “why does Memorial limit salaries of work terms for students? They restrict employers not to pay students more than a specific amount no matter what the student is doing in their job. This is disappointing.” Abrahams responded stating that he is not aware of this restriction on pay and that he did not have an answer to that question.
“Why does Memorial limit salaries of work terms for students?”
Rhea Rollmann asked a question regarding the return to campus, “the back-to-campus initiative in January was a bad idea. What assurance can you give that there will not be a repeat of the back-to-campus and that folks who have been working remotely will be able to continue working remotely until vaccination?”
Timmons responded by comparing the situation to the provincial election, she stated “it is kind of like when they called the election, we had very few cases and we could not predict the future.” The call the Premier made to have an election during the pandemic has been widely criticized across the province, country, and beyond. Timmons then states that with regards to January’s return-to-campus initiative that she does not think it was a bad idea and “I think it was the best idea and that it was the best decision we made with the information that we had at the time.”
Decker said that he knew a lot of people who wanted to be back on campus and who were looking forward to it. He said that the people he met and talked to on campus were generally happy to be there and because of that, he thinks that it was the right decision. However, Decker said that upon looking back on it that things changed that they were not aware of at the time, and neither was public health. He said they learned after the fact that one of the variants was spreading in the community.
Mark Berry asked a question regarding the workday and time expectations “many faculty and students feel that this is a long-standing issue, not just a pandemic issue that directly impacts EDI [equity, diversity, and inclusion] and mental health. What will be done to address this rather than just returning to normal?”
Timmons stated that they know from the statistics that young female faculty members with children at home have had a rough time in terms of getting their level of research and accomplishing what they would have accomplished without a pandemic.
Abrahams said that when it comes to promotion and tenure files that they are going to be keeping a close eye on this to find out if there are any EDI issues associated with success or failure for faculty going through the promotion and tenure process. He said the bigger issue is not for faculty’s application for tenure and that the process they have at MUN is proactive in terms of providing an opportunity for feedback and thus most faculty who apply for tenure are usually successful. Abrahams said the bigger issue is for faculty that are applying for promotion to full professor and that this is where the lag effect is and where success rates are lower. He said a plan must be put in place to ensure that the consequences associated with the pandemic do not have a long-lasting impact that is going to jeopardize someone’s career.
Gerald Singh asked a question about minority groups, “the stress including work-from-home affects visible minorities, women, and LGBTQ+ individuals more often because of issues such as gender norms and socioeconomic status, etc. How are these concerns considered in strategy hiring grants and accommodations?
Timmons responded by stating that she has been involved nationally in several groups that are looking at this issue. She said there is a group called The Prosperity Project that recently released a report that examines gender differences. Timmons also said that she is involved with the Canadian Chamber of Commerce on a group that is looking at this issue as well. Timmons stated that “it is really hard to do tangible things to support people in many ways so this is one where I say I would love to go and fix this, but my biggest job right now is to really listen and learn and try to figure out ways that we can support it.”
Abrahams responded, “our approaches and strategies to equity, diversity, and inclusion are still very much in their infancy, I mean we are taking some of the obvious steps such as unconscious bias training associated with hiring committees but still there is much more that we can do.” He said that they brought forward a motion to the Board of Regents to participate in the 50 – 30 challenge by the federal government that will look at the university’s advisory boards and all governance practices.
Abrahams said that the first tangible steps that they have taken concerning their indigenization strategy are the cluster hires which is a competition for five faculty positions at Memorial University and the process is still underway and that they are following the advice and the guidance of the president’s committee on president’s advisor on indigenous affairs and so that they are working with that group as well as the elders’ council to guide them through the process.
Bose commented on the grants and awards side of things and stated that they need to ensure that they have information about past performance. Bose said with knowledge of how they are doing that they can then put in measures to change practices in the future.
Charlene Walsh asked a question on the same topic, “will a similar hiring process regarding curriculum specialists to support indigenization of courses and programs be considered in the framework developed for EDI supports for faculties and schools regarding program development and review?” Abrahams responded that he did not have an answer to that question.
Toby Rowe commented about work hours, “I enjoyed the ability to work in the evening, we can spend time with our children at lunch or after school, and still put in a full workday even if we are back on campus, I enjoy the flexibility it decreases my stress level.”
Decker stated, “flexibility is very important to the extent it can be accommodated, I think it is something we should strive to do. Obviously, there are certain roles where it cannot work that way depending on the nature of the work community on campus to do it. However, I do believe there are many opportunities to provide more flexibility. I know as an employer the university is more flexible than pretty well anywhere else I have ever worked, to be honest, but I still believe there are additional things we could.”
Meaghan Whelan stated, “one thing that I noticed Dr. Gavan Watson did earlier in the pandemic was he had in his email signature that he was working on unusual work hours and that just because he might be sending an email after hours he was not expecting a response until someone started their own so I think being really overt and acknowledging the flexibility and that just because you are sending something at 8 PM does not mean you expect people to be responding in those hours is a good way to help people set those boundaries.”
Decker stated that “people are working different hours and communicating to different hours and that may be inadvertently created an expectation that people respond at all different hours so something I really like the idea of what Gavan did there.”
Sheri Roberts asked, “can you speak to the viability, if any, of international work/co-op or internship placements for Fall 2021? I assume we are not promoting it in the spring but is there a possibility for fall?” Abrahams responded, “you’re asking me to predict the future. I hope so, but I cannot say for certain.”
“The campus has no academic freedom, no collegial leadership at the school level, and no faculty.”Paul Ryan
Paul Ryan asked, “the Marine Institute has greatly increased its academic programming into graduate degrees and PhDs in the last 10 years, yet the campus has no academic freedom, no collegial leadership at the school level, and no faculty. Can you explain this?”
Timmons responded to the academic freedom part of the question, “the Marine Institute is Memorial University and there is academic freedom and so I want to make that clear for our academic colleagues.”
Abrahams stated, “I cannot really comment on the detailed operation of the Marine Institute, it did opt to go with a somewhat different model than the rest of Memorial University with respect to the academic appointments, so they are not within the faculty association they are within another bargaining unit.”
Timmons stated, “that happened when it merged with Memorial University, so it is a long-standing history.” Abrahams corrected her and stated that it was not that long ago.
Decker stated, “My understanding was when the Marine Institute became part of Memorial in 1992, I think it was, that the faculty union there came with them which is normal that is what would normally happen. Before then the Marine Institute was part of the, I guess, the college system as opposed to the university so the unions which is NAPE came with them.”
Michael Seymour commented on the upper limit for work terms, “I think an upper limit was set so them companies who could afford high pay would not always take the best students. At U of T [University of Toronto], we could only get the second-choice work from students as we could not match the pay of private industry but after the 2008 economic crash, we were able to get the best.”
Jennifer Shea commented on mental health, “to support student mental health I often feel ill-equipped to help beyond referrals to supports. As a university community could we consider additional training such as mental health first aid and expansion of mental health resources beyond those that existed pre-pandemic?” Timmons responded that it was a good suggestion and that she will take it up with the counselling services.
Susan Fudge commented about the best practice to send emails and that she tries her best to put rules on her emails and the rules she sets up only sends it during the day.
Decker stated, “that is a great idea. I think in Microsoft Office you can set it up or Outlook that your email goes the following day, so I think if you are sending emails at night. I would encourage people to absolutely use that function.”
Bose stated, “I did do that in my previous job and the people I was working with did not always appreciate receiving 30 emails all in one go at eight o’clock on a Monday morning so it can backfire sometimes.”
Shannon Lewis-Simpson commented about rural parts of the province, “I see an opportunity for Memorial to be an even more important employer throughout rural Newfoundland and Labrador, therefore, fulfilling in part our special obligation to place stimulating research and reducing infrastructure pressures and costs on the main campus.” Timmons responded that it is an excellent point and that they have been having discussions with several tech companies that have been looking at that.
Lisa Moore asked, “is there a plan to expand the indigenous cluster hires beyond scholars only to include practitioners and clinical faculty for example?”
Timmons responded, “with equity and diversity we have to look at our whole workforce and we have to look at making sure that we have a more representative workforce. So, the answer to that question is absolutely yes we are we will be looking at that as we go forward.”
Victoria Collins asked, “what measures are being considered to prepare the campuses for hybrid learning when some folks attend in person and some virtually?”
Abrahams stated that the options like blended learning will likely become much more popular and that if he remembered correctly that they had only one blended learning course at Memorial University and that he expects that number to grow dramatically.
Lindsay Alcock asked, “there is a sense that staff was mandated back to work to address optics that nobody was working rather than addressing a need to be on campus can you respond to this?”
Abrahams responded that the decision to bring people back onto campus was to bring the campus back to life and for there to be the opportunity for personal interactions.
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.