Gwen Chapman Interviewed by Nicolas Landers
What was your job when the pandemic started? How did it change after you became Provost in August 2020?
When the pandemic started I was Dean In the College of Social and Applied Human Sciences, and then several months later I moved into the Provost role in August of 2020. Being Dean was intense, but being Provost was way more intense, especially in the midst of a pandemic.
As Provost, all the Deans and Academic Units of the University reported to me; the Vice Provost of student affairs, the Assistant Provost of Graduate studies, the University Librarians, Chief Information Officer, etc. I had many more people reporting to me than I had previously, and there were more layers between me and the students and faculty members in general.
As Dean, I had to deal with faculty members on a fairly regular basis, whereas now I deal with Deans that deal with the faculty members, and so on.
In some ways it was such an overwhelming time. Everything was changing and everything was up in the air. There was just so much happening that it was just like, ‘okay! Here's something else, I’ll just jump in and do this!’
How did the initial shutdown affect you and the University? What issues needed to get sorted out at the very beginning? How did your job change?
Initially, the shutdown happened. We all had to go and work from home. At the very beginning, we had to work out what was going to happen with classes, because there were about two weeks of classes left, and then the exam period. We had to figure out how we were going to shift everybody to remote learning, and so, the decision was made to shut things down for a week to give the faculty members time to figure out how they were going to deliver their last couple of weeks of classes remotely, and also time to figure out what they were going to do about their final assessments.
And then, technology. I don’t even think I had Teams on my computer! It was the Friday... I knew people were going to come into work on Monday, only to be told they had to go home. That week, IT support came in and got my laptop and put on all these programs. I got a quick lesson on how to use them, and then we went home and were expected to work from there!
Even at the beginning, the first couple of meetings that we had, even for the first week or two, we were on phone conference calls, because that was how we were used to doing things, but, very quickly, it was Teams meetings all the time.
Essentially, the main changes were, I was working from home, all my meetings were online.
What was the hardest decision you had to make regarding COVID-19 on Campus?
When I was Dean, I wasn’t making the direct decisions at the start of the pandemic, but as Provost I certainly was. I think the hardest decisions for me were around the return to campus, decisions regarding classes. Should we be having in-person classes? How should we be handling that?
When there were very strict government and public health mandates around lockdowns, it was relatively easy for me. We knew what we had to do, we just had to figure out how to do it. It was more when things started to loosen up in terms of the provincial context, that it really was more up to us. Particularly the decisions around when to have classes back on campus.
It all feels like a blur now, but I believe it was January of 2022. Omicron had just come in December, and we made the decision back then to make the first 2 or 3 classes remote learning in January, and then we would bring people back. There was a bit of variation as to what Universities were doing, and so that was a really tough time, in trying to decide what we were doing with the University of Guelph.
On that note, what was your experience of the Omicron outbreak in December/January 21/22?
We felt that we were on a path, and that things were getting better, and that we were gradually bringing more and more people back onto campus. Then the Omicron outbreak started, and we were all like, ‘Okay... what are we going to do now?’, because it was taking over.
It was an interesting time because it was right over the December break when it peaked, so in some ways, that was helpful because people were going home anyway, and the University was shutting down... Also, we could see the transmissions and knew what the epidemiology was kind of looking like then. It was making that decision for what we were going to do in January, and that was hard, because things weren’t necessarily clear.
Throughout, there were people who had very strong opinions, and they could be in opposite directions from each other, and so, I certainly learned that whatever decision I made or was involved in, I couldn’t make everyone happy, and in many cases, most people wouldn’t be happy, because it wouldn’t be far enough one way, or far enough to the other. I really had to get used to making decisions that were not going to be seen completely favourably by most people. Omicron was a case in point, because there was a ton of uncertainty and large variation of opinion.
Listening to the various opinion was important and trying to understand where people were coming from, and trying to understand, even with health experts for example, epidemiologists, public heath, people weren’t always agreeing and saying exactly the same thing, so trying to sort through the core principles, and trying to make the best decision for this time.
Which parts of university life changed the most due to COVID-19? Do you think that these changes will be permanent?
The biggest Impact due to COVID was working remotely, and realizing how effective we could actually be with the majority of aspects of what we do, whether that’s teaching, whether that’s administration or research... We could actually do a lot from our homes.
Certainly, during the lockdowns, things changed completely. As we’ve come back to campus, we now have a real flexible work policy. We started by telling people they should be back 2 days a week, then 3 days a week, but there are many people who are still working a couple of days a week remotely from their homes.
Students are definitely back on campus. Some of the administrative offices are now not quite as well populated as they were...
Also, I would say meetings. Meetings used to be all in person. If you were going to a meeting, you had to be there in person whereas now, most are in person, but we’ve certainly tried to incorporate a hybrid option for if someone can’t be on site, or isn’t feeling well, then they can attend remotely. Sometimes we’re on meetings and we know 4 of the 5 people are probably on the same floor as me, but we’re all sitting in our offices attending virtually. The thing is, some people aren’t going to be remote. The hybrid meetings, in some ways, are more difficult than either purely face to face, or purely remote, so, if half the people aren’t going to be there in person, then let’s just go with a Teams’ meeting. I think the other thing is that we used to build in more travel time between meetings. My office is in the UC now, but when I was Dean, my office was up at the Macdonald Institute, and I had to build in 15 minutes travel time between meetings, if I had a meeting, say, at the UC, then another at the Macdonald Institute. During the pandemic, we got out of the habit of scheduling that travel time, so sometimes people meet remotely, because they just don’t have time to get to where the meeting room is from their previous meeting. I’m somebody who feels quite comfortable with both on-line and in-person meetings. It’s interesting, because I know some of the people, I work with who are very much ‘Oh, it's so much better in person...’. They feel like they communicate much better in person, whereas I have found that the remote works quite well too. It is helpful being back on campus, and being back in the office, I think for me more, because of the informal conversations that happen between meetings, or over lunch, because on-line you just can’t have those types of interactions.
In terms of teaching, people had to learn about what remote synchronous teaching is. Prior to the pandemic, we had basically face-to-face and distance education, which was remote asynchronous. More and more stuff began to go on-line. Courselink, people posted their PowerPoint slides, videos and so on, but I think that faculty and instructors learned a lot more about how to use technology and how to teach remotely. I think there are things around teaching that have changed. While we have certainly brought students and teaching back to campus, it would be more interesting to talk to students there about how things have changed permanently.
What were the most challenging aspects of the pandemic for you?
There were several things. The uncertainties and the inability to predict the future, even if it's one month, two months, three months, etc... and so you think that you’re working towards something and then as you’re getting closer, it’s like, ‘no that’s not happening’, or the situation has changed. The unknowingness and the unpredictability was a major challenge.
And then, always needing to make decisions about various things like offering courses for example, or pandemic restrictions. Not knowing far in advance what was going to work or not, and, as I said earlier, having to learn that no matter what decisions we made, some people were always going to be unhappy. With the unpredictability, it was hard. Everyone was looking for it, and we were often critiqued for not communicating early enough about what our plans were, and, well, we couldn’t really, because we didn’t know, and when we did communicate and something would change, people would get mad that we keep changing our minds. It’s like, ‘well, we didn’t change our minds... the context changed, and therefore we had to change our decision.’
Were there any aspects of pandemic life that were good for you and for the University?
Yes, for example, the flexibility we have now, or my previous comment about when you’re not feeling 100% and are a bit contagious, you’re still able to work but you now have the ability to work from home. Other aspects of people’s lives and their work life balance were having that ability to work from home some of the time is a good thing for many people.
I think for the University, we really upped our game on using technology very quickly, and learned what we can do and what we could learn from, and that definitely improved things too. In terms of what we learned from the Pandemic, we did see, for some students, that some did have better access to the University throughout the pandemic; better access to education than in normal times, because of family circumstances, or mobility issues, or transportation issues, that it just worked better for them, and we learned a lot through that.
How did COVID-19 impact the student recruitment process?
Student Recruitment isn’t directly my role, but the registrar does report to me, and the recruiters report to the registrars. I’m indirectly involved. I will say that one of the main things that changed of course, is that a lot of the face-to-face recruitment that used to happen just didn’t happen for a couple of years. Typically, we had recruiters that go out to High Schools to recruit people, both domestically as well as internationally. Recruiters would usually be across the world, and back at home we would have the Ontario University Fair at the end of September, or early October, and none of that happened.
Our website became even more important than it had been before, although I do think it was already important before that. Doing virtual fairs, virtual recruitment events, on-line Fall Preview Day, and that sort of thing. Really having to pivot all that stuff online and figure it all out.
And some of it was good, again, because some students who might not have been able to travel to a University Fair or something could now have access to events.
How did you navigate the transition from the COVID-19 Student process, back to normal? Is it fully back to normal now, or did it keep elements of its COVID-19 Style?
A combination of both. We’ve certainly transitioned back to a lot of in-person events... Like, the Ontario University Fair did happen last year, recruiters are out domestically and internationally again, but now we know a lot more about having some virtual events or using the website and using chats to keep in touch with people.
What did your typical day look like and how has it changed due to COVID?
Before COVID, my typical day was interesting. I typically worked on Campus 4 days a week when I was Dean, with Friday as my research day, where I might work remotely then; it depends. Otherwise, I was in my office from shortly after 8:00 until close to 5:00 in the afternoon, sitting at my computer, and going to meetings. Prior to the pandemic, those meetings were all face to face. Some of those may have one or two people meeting with me in my office, and some were larger... If it involved meeting with other Deans, or meeting with the Provost, I’d come to the UC. My role was pretty well on campus. I travelled a little bit, but not a lot. I might head to Toronto for a meeting, going out to visit Alumni or donors as a Dean...
Compared to now, my job is obviously different, but my days don’t look all that different... I do try to work remotely on Fridays, but other than that, Monday-Thursday, I would be here shortly after 8:00 to shortly before 5:00, meeting with people, sitting at my desk or having meetings. The main difference is that more of those meetings were virtual at this point. Certainly not all though, there was still a combination of face-to-face and virtual.
Are there things that you will do differently, looking back, as a result of the pandemic?
I think that Communication is always a challenge. We were certainly trying to communicate and to have conversations, but we probably could have done more. We could have had more town halls, to try to hear from people and let people know what was going on.
I don’t think there were any big things I would do differently... Maybe tweak them a little bit, but there isn’t really anything big that’s coming to mind right now, that says, ‘Oh... we should have never have done that...’ for example.
Knowing that, in many cases, there was no perfect decision. Maybe there are a few things I would have done a little bit differently, but that would be more nuance, I think, and it’s not that necessarily what we did was wrong, but it could have been done a bit differently. It was a very challenging time.
It was interesting to think back over all of that time. We’re not completely out of it obviously, but we are definitely in a better place than we were almost 3 years ago now.