U of M’s viral response reveals reactionaries in charge

Absence of direction, cohesion of recommendations during outbreak frustrates community

With the COVID-19 virus changing life more every day, society looks to our leaders to find our individual ways forward through the pandemic.

With Parliament suspended and the provincial government quickly developing a strategy to reduce possible transmission in public schools, it is clear that such leadership and quick decision-making is possible.

And when direction is not provided, an uncertain situation becomes unnavigable.

This is where graduate students find themselves: essentially part of the operation of the campus but not employees that would be encouraged to work from home. And if they choose to self-isolate to protect the vulnerable people in their lives, there is no guidance from the university.

From the first message issued by the university March 12, any response the U of M might take had focused on undergraduate classes and social distancing options for staff to work from home. This is most possible for administrative staff.

However, for staff in research positions — whose materials, resources and equipment necessary for doing their jobs are available solely on campus — no provisions were planned at this early stage. Graduate students were not mentioned as they are neither staff nor undergraduate students.

At noon on March 13, the university’s statement on COVID-19 was updated to encourage departments and units to complete the University of Manitoba Business Continuity Plan Template. This creates a plan for the continuity of the university’s operations, dealing with research spaces only to the extent that they affect vendors and clients. Where graduate students fall in this is unclear, though they may conceivably be at some of the points of contact with those vendors and clients outlined in the  template to ensure the continuity of university operations.

A later March 13 update provided more clarity for staff, academics and others who planned to work remotely. IST support — for questions related to computing — would be available to them.

The final March 13 update, at 4 p.m., said in-person classes on campus are ending for the 2019-20 academic year. Non-essential events have been cancelled, but the campus remains open.

The implication here is that graduate students are integral to the functioning of a research university. But they are not being communicated with. Nor communicated about.

Unlike Manitoba’s other universities, the U of M’s response — 30 minutes before the end of business hours for the week — was obviously rushed. The University of Winnipeg communicated a plan in place for faculty and staff to develop contingency plans for research programs.

Brandon University ensured that students were clear about libraries remaining open during a week-long break. Red River College also implemented, in Friday,  a week-long break this week.

These other institutions were more agile and able to to respond faster and more appropriately than the U of M, with even the provincial government apparently able to change its mind on the status of public-school closure more quickly than the U of M on its operations.

At a time when rapid decisions are needed in response to a rapidly changing situation, the University of Manitoba has seemingly reacted based on the actions of the city, the provincial government and the other large universities and colleges in the province. As the only medical and doctoral university in the province, this was a chance for decisive leadership.

Individual graduate students have sent more reassuring emails to students in their classes than they received on Friday or over the weekend from administration.

Graduate students and instructors are scrambling to figure out a way forward with no clear direction. Some professors are even unclear themselves about when and how classes are being taught, receiving conflicting messages from their department heads and other levels of administration.

While on-campus classes are cancelled, where does that leave research? If university staff begins working remotely, will the university libraries be open? So far, the libraries on campus are maintaining their own set of updates, separate from the broader university updates. There is no cohesive approach to sharing updates with students.

With this complete lack of central direction, everyone is left to make their own decisions. And these decisions are often in stark contrast to each other and only fuel frustration and the fear of the unknown. The unknown of committee meetings and other degree requirements. The uncertainty of paycheques with classes moving online. The lack of communication regarding work expectations.

Over the weekend, some research groups were informed by their principal investigators that they would be completely shutting down, as far as possible, till the end of semester. Others were going to be continuing to operate normally pending university updates. And others seemed to be wrapping up experiments in preparation for a university closure.

Some students are self-isolating to protect people vulnerable to the COVID-19 virus in their lives. Others are working harder, or packing materials for off-campus work.

Monday’s updates did little to clarify with the faculty of architecture suspending in-person meetings between students and advisors entirely — which by extension means no year-end in-person committee meetings — and the faculty of graduate studies’ stance of video calls allowed, but not mandatory, for those year-end meetings, without which registration will be restricted.

And that weak statement that provided insufficient clarity for students across faculties was dated Thursday, March 12, with a file creation date of Friday evening. Yet it took till early afternoon Monday for even that bit of information to be circulated to students.

The variety of communications appears due to a lack of communication among administrative levels. The only communication from the faculty of science having been to share the brief faculty of graduate studies thesis defence and committee meeting statements, the research protocol statement having gone to students through the faculty of graduate studies.

In addition to tenure-track faculty, students — at all levels — suffer. In a climate lacking direction, only the fittest will survive.

Students across faculties remain unclear whether incoming salaries and stipends for teaching during this time — fewer in the case of labs being moved online — or if the time spent away from campus, while paid, will mean more unpaid time in the future. The bits, and inconsistencies, of communication does little to assuage confusion.

Faculty members are feeling the uncertainty as well, with wishful thinking of extensions to graduate programs being readily provided and the winter, spring and summer semesters not counting toward teaching evaluations and research output metrics, including for purposes suck as for promotion.

But all this is temporary. The best-case scenario is the spread of the COVID-19 virus slows, not as many people in the country, in the province, in the city and at the U of M are infected as could have been. Everything will return to normal. And that’s the reason for all the closures and cancellations of large events — for nothing to happen.

So, if social isolation is needed at this point, communication and consistency are also needed.

With about three times as many graduate students as full-time faculty members and about as many graduate students as support staff at the U of M, this is too large a group to not be included in the published planning measures to ensure the health and safety of an entire campus community, and an entire city.

Despite promises made in the sparse communication to graduate students Monday and the 12 bullet points from the vice-president research and international that additional info would be posted on the university’s coronavirus page, the only update was at 4 p.m. to delay the voluntary withdrawal date to April 13.

This approach to responding to a continually changing situation is not one of planned co-ordination. It is one of every faculty, every department, every research group setting policy details for themselves.