By Dale Woodard on January 13, 2021.
The University of Lethbridge’s trek through 2020 might as well have come equipped with some seatbelts
It was indeed a roller-coaster ride.
The past 12 months saw the U of L hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, tough economic times and multiple layoffs as well as the loss of its hockey program.
Still, the latter months of 2020 brought some upside as the U of L attained a second-place ranking in the Maclean’s University Rankings Report, earned a nice boost in the form of the Alberta Agriculture and Forestry agreement in addition to fast-tracking their way to online learning when the pandemic knocked the world on its ear.
Overall, it made for a topsy-turvy year that began with an optimistic vibe as 2019 turned to 2020.
“We went into 2020 feeling really good as to where the university was at,” said Mike Mahon, U of L president and vice-chancellor. “We had a really good year in 2019 and ended the year off with a big announcement around the ($15-million) Mastercard Foundation funding. So we were really optimistic about how 2020 was going to unfold.
“At the beginning of the year things continued really positively. We had our first-ever TEDxuLeth talk, which was hugely successful. We had an exciting announcement for funding around Power Corporation of Canada and Canada Life to continue support. The early part of the year was pretty exciting – and then COVID hit.”
But out of the challenge of the pandemic came transformation as the university moved to an online learning program in a matter of days.
“It’s been quite transformational and I think as we come out of 2020 and into 2021, what we’re doing is looking back at all the change we had to move through and thinking about further change that will be necessary, but thinking about all that we’ve learned from COVID,” said Mahon. “If you were to ask me at some point how long would it take for the university to be pretty much entirely online, I would have said it would probably be at least a five-year transformation. In contrast, it was a four-day transformation. So I’m very proud of how our community, our faculty, our students and our staff came together in rapid fashion to transition.
“At the same time, I joke that four-day transformation was done with duct tape and other approaches.
“Of course, you don’t go online in that short of time without any hiccups.”
After getting through the spring semester after COVID hit in early March, Mahon said the summer was spent taking a look at how the U of L could transition all of its academic programming online.
“That was great because it did give us time and we did have a massive amount of work during that period of time, everything from creating video laboratories to our faculty really repositioning their academic programming in that light,” he said. “But I would say it was exhausting at the same time. Because you had gone through COVID in that early phase and then you had to spend the summer truly transforming everything and then you moved right into the fall and had to deliver it in very, very different ways.”
When fall classes began, registration was up .4 per cent.
However, Mahon noted more students stepped back from their studies in the latter part of the fall semester than they would normally see.
“We always see a small percentage of students that step away for various reasons,” he said. “We’ve seen a bit of a higher percentage on that front. We’ve done some survey work and in the end it really comes down to students feeling not as connected, somewhat lonely and struggling a bit with the use of so much technology. Not all students, but some.”
Mahon said that signalled to him and the university a need for a more engaging environment for its students.
“We just did a video last week and we had the mayor and people on campus all contributing to communicating to our students that we know it’s been a huge transformation, that we’re here for them and we’re going to continue to find ways to connect with them,” he said. “So I think overall 2020 in the fall has been good, but there are still some lessons to be learned about when you’re in this virtual environment so much. How do you still continue to help students and faculty and staff, for that matter, feeling engaged with each other? I think we’re as a world community experiencing that as we go through Christmas in very different way. I think this transformation the world has had to go through, we’re seeing the effects of that with our students and continuing to say ‘OK, how do we do it even better in 2021?”
As the COVID pandemic took hold in the spring, the U of L athletics department was rocked with the discontinuation of the men’s and women’s hockey programs, one of a number of budget-reduction strategies in response to cuts from the provincial government.
“I grew up in sports and am passionate about sports, so that was a very difficult decision for me to be a part of because I’m such an advocate for university sports benefits to student athletes,” said Mahon. “But you have to balance that against other difficult decisions. We’ve see a significant reduction in funding for student mental health from the province, for example. You have to balance all of those difficult decisions and in the end, none of them are decisions we would like to make. All of them are decisions we had to make because it’s just the reality of both the provincial economy and COVID.
“But we remain highly committed to university sports. It’s an important part of the University of Lethbridge and we’ll continue to explore other avenues to fund university sports.”
While there’s a group exploring the possibility of one day bringing the hockey program back in a different model – a group Mahon said he had some interaction with in mid-December – cutting the sport was still a difficult decision.
Mahon said more tough decisions lay ahead.
“We are forced with such a difficult situation, budget-wise,” he said. “We still have to cut an additional $10 million out of our budget over the next two years. So it’s not an easy road. We had to make a lot of difficult decisions. We’ve permanently laid off 93 staff thus far and the next two years are not going to be any easier.”
However, there was good news in October when the U of L placed second overall in the annual Maclean’s University Rankings Report in the primarily undergraduate classification, their highest-ever ranking, moving up three spots from the previous year.
“As you move through these difficult times, you first have to deal with them and try to come up with as many strategies to be successful, but you also have to celebrate the successes,” said Mahon. “That Maclean’s second-place ranking couldn’t have come at a better time. As you’re struggling through this, all of a sudden there you are, front-and-centre in a very positive way. Those are the things we continue to focus on for our community so we get past only thinking about COVID and the effects of COVID.”
Also in October, Alberta Agriculture and Forestry signed a $1.8-million agreement with the U of L to provide a new home for three agricultural research specialists – Shelley Hoover, Michele Konschuh and Kim Stafford – formerly associated with the provincial government’s own agricultural research wing.
“We were really excited,” said Mahon. “In our case, these are three really focused scientists who have come over from the provincial science program in agriculture. It’s a great fit for us because we’ve been really focused on increasing the amount of work from a research perspective we’re doing in agriculture and to have three high-quality scientists come over to the U of L, and bring their resources they have, they’re focused in really important areas for us in terms of irrigation and potato research and beet research. It’s a demonstration of the great work the college and the university are doing in this agriculture space.”
After a 2020 of Zoom conferences and being constantly in front of a computer screen, Mahon said the goal in 2021 is to try and back away from that scenario a little more.
“I think 2021 will be our opportunity to continue the transformation and think about how this becomes not the new normal, but going forward we have more virtual. We’ll have more of these sorts of things, but finding that balance point between face-to-face and virtual is going to be a big part of 2021.”
With the dawn of 2021, Mahon said the experiences and adversity faced in the past year and the U of L’s response gives him optimism.
“I think if you can come through such a tumultuous year and still feel like the institution is moving forward productively and still see these signals of optimism and excellence coming from our students, faculty and our staff, I think there is every reason to be optimistic for 2021,” he said. “I think the University of Lethbridge has demonstrated that it can work through tough times and tough decisions and come out the other end still looking forward as to how the university can benefit our students, the community of Lethbridge, southern Alberta and beyond.”
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