This past year, FSS students, staff, professors, alumni and community partners all faced
the same challenge: how to adapt — and move forward — in the throes of a COVID-19 pandemic that has held us firmly in its grip. Regardless of where we are in our personal and professional lives, we have all had to learn new ways of interacting with our peers, friends and families, and many of us have had to rebuild our professional lives in significant ways.
Collectively, we have been the subjects of a gigantic natural experiment. Students and faculty have been learning how to teach and learn in virtual classrooms, and it is actually pretty amazing how well things have gone. While our colleagues in the physical and health sciences were able to continue with their research with little significant interruption, anyone who requires access to archives, works with human subjects or needs to travel has faced impediments.
Colleagues who have been able to pivot to COVID-focussed research have thrived — and have helped us to find our way through this difficult period — but others have lost not merely this past year, but in some cases, additional years of work. Interruptions in their projects have meant that they will have to restart them post pandemic.
Our staff have also been stretched in hugely significant ways. They have had to figure out how to deliver student services, manage our finances, staff and IT systems, recruit new students and organize conferences and events virtually, often while coping with kids who are in and out of school. We are very fortunate to have such professional and dedicated support staff here at the Faculty — their contribution to our mission cannot be overstated. And one cannot ignore the elephant in the room: while some have discovered an unexpected silver lining in their pandemic lifestyle, there is also evidence of a significant mental health toll on others, particularly as the pandemic has worn on.
What comes next?
We are currently — cautiously — planning for a partial return to campus for the coming academic year. It is crucial that our students (and faculty and staff) once again have the opportunity to interact in person, not just virtually.
We know already that next year will be one of transition, to the post-pandemic university. but what we don’t know is what exactly the post-pandemic university will look like, in either the short or medium term. Our challenge is to use the results of the past year’s experiments to build back better. We have learned — arguably to our collective surprise — that a mix of online and in-person courses might be appealing to students and to faculty as well. We have learned that many of the services we offer to our students and professors can be delivered virtually, which has opened up the possibility of experimenting with ongoing telework for our support staff.
Many of the most exciting discoveries about better meeting the needs of our community on and off campus have been due to virtual events. This year’s Singh Family Lecture, featuring Christiane Taubira, attracted participants from over 15 countries. The live audience far exceeded the capacity of Huguette Labelle Hall, and the video posted on YouTube has already attracted over 2,500 views.
The Marleau Lecture, featuring Andrew Lo of MIT, was equally successful in bringing together a global audience that would not otherwise have had the opportunity to get to know uOttawa. And our inaugural Conference on Indigenizing and Decolonizing the Academy Symposium, featuring Michèle Audette, former commissioner for the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, not only brought together an audience that exceeded the capacity of our largest meeting space in FSS, but more importantly, made it possible for faculty, students and staff to interact directly with the community of Kitigan Zibi, as well as with other Indigenous communities further from Ottawa.
These have been very exciting experiences for all involved. We want our post-pandemic university to use our improved understanding of how we can effectively use technology to enhance teaching, research and our relationships with the community, and do so in a way that is inclusive and sustainable.
The support of both internal and external stakeholders will be crucial to building back better. Over the coming year, we will be undertaking a strategic planning exercise, a catalyst to plan ambitiously for the future. We anticipate that our plan will set bold objectives for strengthening the Faculty’s research mission, re-imagining our undergraduate and graduate programs, and enriching the student experience, addressing concerns around equity, diversity and inclusion, and decolonizing and indigenizing our curriculum.
Of course, the Francophonie will be a keystone of our strategy. The Faculty of Social Sciences is home to 3,275 Francophone students and close to 900 French immersion students from Canada and abroad. In the coming years, we want to be a hub of attraction for the Francophone world in terms of academics and research. Our ambition is to prepare graduates to play a key role in developing leadership representative of the diversity of Canada’s French-speaking population.
However, achieving our goals will require significant additional resources, and we are currently writing the case for support for our renewed fundraising campaign. Nicolas Mercier, Emily Aalbers, Kate Desmarais and Suzanne Bray are leading efforts to connect with alumni and community partners to secure philanthropic support. This past year, despite the pandemic, the Faculty received over $1,700,000 in new gifts, one of our best years ever.
I want uOttawa FSS to be recognized for our culture of innovation and social relevance, and for the depth and breadth of our connections, both locally and globally. With support from our community, we will make our shared future brighter.