Memorandum from the President:
Success thus far, challenges to come

April 30, 2020

To our faculty, librarians and staff:

I hope that you and your families are in good health and bearing up as well as possible under these trying circumstances.  From the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, I have committed to communicating with you regularly to keep you apprised of the impact of this crisis on the University of Toronto, and our plans for the coming weeks and months.

Let me begin by thanking you all once again for your response to the unprecedented challenges posed by the pandemic.  With astonishing speed, and under extremely difficult circumstances, we have made changes to the core activities on our three campuses to ensure that we can protect the health and wellbeing of all members of our community, while enabling us to deliver on key aspects of our core mission.  Many of these changes have been highly disruptive.  And yet, in all of this, you have performed brilliantly.

You have kept our vital operations intact.  You have enabled our students to complete their terms.  And you have helped position U of T as a world leader in combatting the novel coronavirus.  Each of you deserves to be very proud of your contributions to our common cause.  I am proud and humbled to serve such an incredible team of talented and dedicated colleagues.

Restart and recovery

Recent epidemiological data for the Toronto region and Ontario are encouraging, and the Ontario government has announced its framework for a gradual reopening of the province, when conditions are right.  Accordingly, the University has shifted its focus from crisis response to planning for the restart and recovery.

We are all eager to return to some semblance of normal as soon as possible.  But we must keep in mind that this will be a gradual process.  Some services and functions will restart sooner than others.  It will be many weeks, or possibly months, before we can safely permit larger gatherings and resume activities requiring close physical proximity.  We expect that international travel will be strictly limited for quite some time, affecting many aspects of our education and research activities.  This process of gradual return to ‘normal’ will call on our collective creativity, as well as our patience and consideration for our students and colleagues.  As with your response to the initial crisis, I know you will continue to work with dedication, commitment and care to meet the challenges ahead.

Our advocacy

While you have been busy helping us fulfill the mission of the University, I have spent much of my time working with our government partners to ensure they understand the impact of the pandemic on our operations.  Together with the U15 group of Canadian research universities, Universities Canada and the Council of Ontario Universities, I have been actively advocating to protect and advance the interests of our sector and our university.  While I am pleased to say that these efforts have led to some success, there is still more work to be done.

The initial priorities of the federal government were to ensure the financial viability of individuals and businesses across the economy.  They have introduced a series of important support mechanisms such as the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS) and Canada Emergency Business Account (CEBA) programs.  While these initiatives are already providing vital assistance to many individuals and businesses across the country, they do not directly address the needs of post-secondary education.

After much persistence over the past several weeks, our collective advocacy succeeded in convincing the government to address the needs of students and the research community.  Let me also acknowledge the important work of our student leaders in this regard.  The comprehensive $9 billion package announced last week includes a new Canada Emergency Student Benefit (CESB), major improvements to the Canada Student Loan and Grant programs, provisions for volunteer opportunities and work-integrated learning, and significant support for graduate students, postdoctoral research fellows and principal investigators who have watched their research funds decline steadily while their labs have remained idle over the past month and a half.  The government has also announced a series of major investments in research related to COVID-19, in which our scholars will be actively involved.

These are very significant gains for our sector, and we are extremely grateful to the federal government for this assistance.

At the provincial level, we have focused on ensuring that the government’s pandemic directives recognize the unique and complex operating environment of our three campuses, allowing us to maintain crucial support for students in our residences and to keep essential labs open during this difficult time.  We have worked closely with the government to support their efforts to manage the supply of critical equipment for our health care system.  And we appreciate their early efforts to provide loan relief for students, increase COVID-19-related research funding, and offer short-term assistance to offset some of our unexpected costs.

Elsewhere, our conversations with our government partners remain a work in progress.  We are working with Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada to ensure that our international students (both current and prospective) will have visas enabling them to resume or begin their studies at U of T – whether they are physically present here or not.  We are also seeking financial assistance for those aspects of our operations that may be in need of support due to dramatically decreased demand.  At present, for example, public sector organizations such as universities are not eligible for the CEWS, even if they are able to demonstrate major financial impact due to the pandemic.

I will continue to represent the University’s interests as strenuously and effectively as possible in my daily conversations with cabinet ministers and senior civil servants, and will keep you updated on my progress.

Our operations

Many of you will be wondering about the impact of the pandemic on the University’s operations.  As we proceed with our restart and recovery planning, we are examining this question carefully, looking at the immediate impacts – operational and financial – since the crisis began, as well as the future picture, and doing our best to position the University for all contingencies.  As you can appreciate, while the range of potential impacts is considerable, there is still much uncertainty about the future.

Not surprisingly, the biggest impact on our revenues thus far has been felt in our ancillary activities such as food services, residences, daycare centres, recreation services and parking, where the recent changes on our campuses have reduced current income dramatically.  As for our core operating budget, the lion’s share of our revenue comes from tuition fees.  The federal government’s new student support measures noted above will greatly bolster the ability of our domestic students to pursue their studies in September.  And we are all working hard to ensure that we can continue to offer our students an outstanding educational experience, no matter what the format, come the Fall.

At the same time, we are facing considerable uncertainty when it comes to international enrolment at the start of the next academic year.  We are currently examining the impact of a range of different international enrolment scenarios, some of which point to significant declines in our revenue.  While our advocacy work on this front continues, we continue to face many unknowns concerning international travel, immigration issues, and public health conditions – both here and abroad.

As for the expenditure side of our operations, we have already incurred (or will soon incur) major, unexpected expenses that go well beyond the short-term assistance provided by the provincial government.  These arise from operational challenges such as the rapid shift to remote teaching, the need to repatriate hundreds of study-abroad students on short notice, much greater demand for student emergency bursaries, and the cost of shutting down (and eventually restarting) many laboratories.

The budgetary implications of these changes are likely to be material, and the impact will likely be felt across the entire University.  But as we work to manage the situation, we will try to limit the impact on individual members of our community as much as possible.  We will also strive to ensure that the University of Toronto maintains the highest standards of academic excellence, which have made us one of the world’s leading institutions of higher education and advanced research.

Keeping staff engaged and supported

From the beginning of the crisis, most of our faculty, librarians and staff have been working from home, while others (essential workers and those performing certain critical functions) have continued working on site.  Some of our staff members have been unable to continue working because their units have been completely or partially shut down, as required by the current provincial public health directives.

Leaders across the University have been working creatively to explore all options to keep their staff in these units engaged and supported.  Potential solutions vary, but include re-assignment, using vacation or lieu time, and shared work arrangements, among the range of possibilities.  We will continue to keep the entire community up-to-date on key developments.

As noted above, I have been deeply engaged in advocacy with our government partners at all levels, alongside my counterparts in the post-secondary sector.  I will continue this work, in the hope of obtaining key safeguards for members of our community.  The leadership across the University of Toronto remains committed to doing everything possible to protect the health and wellbeing of our employees in this most challenging period.

This has been a uniquely stressful time for all of us.  Many major challenges remain, and we will have to make further difficult decisions in the days to come.  But when I look back over the past seven weeks, I am heartened by how the U of T community has rallied, and how we are providing crucial leadership as our society faces an historic test.  I know that by working together, we will come out of this crisis stronger than ever.

If you need help

Let me take this opportunity to remind all employees of the services that are available to you through the Employee and Family Assistance Program (EFAP).  If you are in need of help, please do not hesitate to reach out at any time.  EFAP services are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year at:

(Toll-free) 1-800-663-1142

(TTY) 1-866-398-9505

(Collect) 604-689-1717

http://benefits.hrandequity.utoronto.ca/efap/

For all the latest information, please see the University’s Coronavirus page.  Please take the time to review our Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs), the HR & Equity COVID-19 website, and the Research COVID-19 FAQs.  If you or members of your unit have a question that is not covered, please use the Contact Us button located at the top of the FAQ section to submit your question.