COVID-19 Remarks to the April 16 2020 Board of Governors Meeting

Good morning everyone. Thank you for joining us for this meeting via zoom video conference. I will give high-level remarks this morning regarding COVID-19 and the extraordinary impact it has had on our university, our province, our nation and the world.

I trust you have received my regular communications via broadcast email, our newsletter UBC Today and my weekly video messages. You have also received very focussed communications regarding decisions from various Vice Presidents via broadcast email. I will therefore, not repeat many of the decisions that we have already communicated to UBC.

Over the past several weeks the UBC executive, deans, faculty, staff and students have manoeuvred (in my view admirably) an almost unprecedented  jolt to the system in the form of COVID-19.  Certainly, this is a global challenge that does not affect UBC alone. But that does not negate the tremendous impact this pandemic has had on our university.

Undoubtedly, COVID-19 will have impacts on this university for many months if not years to come. The duration and magnitude of these impacts are not clear at this time, because the virus that causes COVID-19 SARS-CoV2  is poorly understood.  Knowledge about the biology and immune response to the virus is still emerging.  For example, although there might be a modest seasonality of SARS-CoV2, there  is likely insufficient population level immunity to ensure that there will not be a continued need for testing and physical isolation until an effective vaccine has been developed.  Although there are numerous efforts to produce such a vaccine, it is likely that they will take another 12 to 16 months before a vaccine’s safety and efficacy can be verified and produced at levels sufficient to allow population level vaccination.

It is also clear from looking at global data from Johns Hopkins (specifically Hong Kong, China and Singapore) that a “flattening of the curve” does not guarantee a secondary spike in cases will not occur. In the absence of herd immunity, there is a critically important need to enhance the capacity to test for the virus, to contact trace and to appropriately physically isolate.

Now let me remind everyone about what UBC has done over the past several weeks. Over the space of several days the university moved to largely online instruction and curtailed all but COVID-19 and other essential research. We have already made and communicated difficult decisions regarding closure of events to ensure the safety of our community.  This has greatly impacted almost every member of our community.

We feel especially for the class of 2020 whose anticipation for a typical and much deserved celebration of their hard work at a university was stalled abruptly.

The decisions we made were made with full consultation and alignment with provincial leaders as well as public health officials.  During those weeks and as we speak, the university also has played a thought leadership role in the provincial and federal responses to COVID-19.

In terms of research, groundbreaking work has already been published that has a potential as a possible future treatment for COVID-19 and the university has been a top recipient of CIHR-funding that lies at the core of Canada’s response.

The university has also been responsive to both provincial and federal requests for support with respect to supplies, space and volunteer support. Our clinical faculty have been on the front lines of the battle and the battle is not yet over.

Two groups: the Crisis Management Team (CMT) and Emergency Operation Centre  (EOC) have been in constant operation during the duration of this emergency.  Members of the Executive from both campuses have populated the CMT.  It has been chaired by our Provost and staffed by Julie Wagemakers from my office.  Meeting daily, these teams have triaged  immediate needs and have recommended actions to me on a daily basis. Those actions that I have approved have been communicated as mentioned to the broader community.

The Provosts of the university have been meeting daily with the Deans of the university and this has been crucial for decisions such as the transition to on line.  They have also discussed  other important matters such as the tenure clock and grading policies impacted by the transition.  Our VP HR, VP Research and Innovation and VP students have also played key roles in developing our response.

Together with the VP, External Relations, I have focused on UBCs interaction with Provincial and federal  government leaders.  We have been in contact with the provincial ministries such as AVED, Health, Chief Public Health Officer and the Deputy Premier in aligning our decisions with their guidelines and in articulating the need for support of our students and employees.  And we have been in touch with multiple federal ministers to articulate impacts on our students, researchers and trainees.  These regular contacts have already resulted in support from both the provincial and federal governments and are ongoing as we speak.

I (along with the presidents of three other U15 universities) have worked over the past few weeks and intensively over the weekend on a significant request for support for post-secondary students that was submitted via U15 and Universities Canada on Monday.  We requested emergency support for student aid, increases in Canada Student Grants and changes to the Canada Student Loan Program.  We have asked for support for graduate students impacted by COVID-19 and we have advocated for widened eligibility for CERB.

We have recommended enhanced educational opportunities for the Class of 2020 and current students, asked for support for summer work experiences and for graduate students via Canada Graduate Scholarships.

And finally we have asked for support for universities to help up-skill Canada’s workforce to help prepare for  a post-pandemic economic recovery.  These discussions are happening real time and we understand that the government  understands the impact of COVID-19 on our students.

In parallel we are working on similar advocacy documents  detailing impacts on research and innovation, the need for support in the massive task of transition of all of our curriculum to on line and to support our international students.  We intend to submit these in the near future to relevant offices in Ottawa.  Some supportive decisions have already been communicated, for example from  the Tri-councils. More responses are anticipated in the near future.

Internally, three programs are being developed to support our students.

  • First, I have created a President’s Student Emergency Fund that has been nucleated with funding from the province as well as new donor-funding.  Some of the funding is “ring-fenced” to support  indigenous students. Students can access this in a need-based manner via their ESAs.
  • Second, we are working on a enhanced bursary program with a rapid online application process to gain support.
  • Third, we are developing a mechanism to provide emergency  funding to faculty to support trainees where funding has been interrupted.  Some of this is already available and some is fast-tracked to become available shortly.

Finally, since we do not know the duration or magnitude of impact of COVID-19, we are in the midst of scenario planning and financial modelling to help us prepare for any eventuality.  It is certain that there will be impacts on both revenues and expenditures (there already have been) and we must protect resources so we can respond to the financial impact of the pandemic on UBC.

Since our people are our greatest asset, this will mean careful analysis of our hiring plans, cancellation or postponement of discretionary spending and possible postponement of some of our capital projects. We will also look to cut any non-essential spending.

Now any federal support will have an impact on the bottom line, so information on such support will determine what decisions we will have to make in the future.  All of this information will need to be integrated over the coming weeks to months. It is a little bit too early to make decisions because they’re still too many variables, but we are monitoring  those variables carefully. And all and any decisions moving forward will be data driven.

I will be directly involved in these decisions and will of course involve our BOG and Senate in any major decisions.  In making such decisions it is my hope that we will be guided by these core principles:

  1. protecting the academic core mission of the university;
  2. looking after the progress and wellbeing of our faculty, staff and students; and
  3. being mindful of accessibility and affordability of a UBC education for our students. On top of that, it is essential that all of us practice flexibility and empathy as core central values during these unprecedented times.

All of this, my friends,  represents an enormous amount of unexpected work for the entire university.  We are grateful for the support of the BOG and the entire university community during the past several weeks that has allowed us to respond to a fast moving, ever evolving crisis situation.

This is not business of as usual and we will need your support moving forward. This will be a marathon, not a sprint.  And we will need to all work together to get past this challenging time.

But that is what we will do – I have not doubt. What UBC has accomplished already has been miraculous and ….working together, we will prevail and may I dare say  that we will emerge even stronger; more resilient.  Because that’s simply the UBC way.

Thank you very much.