By Dr. Tom Phenix, Dean of Campion College, University of Regina
In July 2019, I became Dean of Campion College at the University of Regina in Saskatchewan, Canada. I was thrilled to start my new position but knew that things were going to change for me. I had been an associate professor of psychology prior to this appointment and had grown accustomed to a work life that, although busy, had predictable periods of greater or lesser intensity. Our previous Dean warned me that I could expect a greater workload and far more of the unexpected. Of course the unexpected came in a way that no one could have anticipated.
My first fall semester began in a predictable way. Lots of meetings were followed by lots of evening dinners. Not long after the fall semester started, our Executive Director and I began negotiations over our Collective Agreement with our Faculty Union. By January, we had reached a successful conclusion and the new Collective Agreement was ratified. I recall thinking that I was finally getting a feel for what it was like to be a Dean.
The first reported case of Covid-19 in Canada arrived from a flight to Toronto on January 25. While worrisome, it seemed to be contained. For those unfamiliar with Canadian geography, Toronto is more than 2,600 km from Regina, which feels like a world away. This world grew smaller as Covid cases spread throughout Europe, the United States and across our Canadian provinces.
On Thursday, March 12, a person in their 60s who had recently travelled to Egypt became the first Covid-19 case in Saskatchewan, and our planning for the worst-case scenario became reality. We cancelled all classes for the next week while our faculty and staff tried to pivot to a new online environment. In my mind, this was a defining moment for Campion College. Our entire faculty and staff had mere days to transition to a work-from-home context without losing any functional capacity in the process.
In a matter of days, workstations were set up in kitchens, garages, basements and, for one professor, on an ironing board in her laundry room. Workshops on how to teach remotely were set up within our College and resources were identified and made available to all of our academic staff.
I frequently think back to this period and on how our College managed to make such dramatic changes over a small period of time. I have been a professor long enough to understand that change occurs at universities and colleges, but that dramatic changes tend to occur gradually over time and rarely all at once. The process of change tends to be slow because our faculty often have heterogeneous viewpoints that need to be discussed and considered. When this collegial process works well, the resulting item of change is often more nuanced and effective than its original form would have allowed. To my mind, the power to produce intelligent institutional reactions and adaptations is why institutions continue to rely on groups. This pandemic forced our College, along with other colleges and universities around the world, to effectively react within remarkably short timelines. How did this feat happen?
First, it is clear that this change didn’t happen solely because of the efforts of a few administrators. The workload and the complexity of the problems facing our institutions prevented a singular and simplistic response. Instead, the coordinated efforts of numerous groups, united around a common objective, produced responses that deftly addressed the various concerns.
Administrators, faculty and staff accepted that we needed to transition to a virtual teaching/work environment while doing everything we could to maintain the quality and integrity of our activities. Ideas were encouraged, developed and refined. Instead of looking for one solution, numerous possibilities were proposed and accepted. For example, instructors were asked to develop distance learning courses that were primarily using web-based or Zoom-based approaches. Although guidance and resources were provided, the details of how these courses were to be constructed were left to the individual instructors who each had their own unique set of concerns and talents. Thus, by trusting in the professionalism of our instructors, we ensured that each of the unique courses taught were effectively transitioned to this new context of distance learning.
As a new Dean, I did not appreciate the impact that unexpected events could have on our College. However, I have been a witness to the power and effectiveness of coordinated and diverse groups of professionals in addressing these challenges. I do not know how long this pandemic will last or what further challenges are in our future, but I remain confident in my outlook for Campion College because I know we will overcome our challenges together.
Dr. Tom Phenix is an Associate Professor in Psychology and the Dean of Campion College, a federated Jesuit college that is part of the University of Regina in Canada, and an associate member institution of AJCU.