Commentary  COVID-19 Pandemic Proves McGill’s Faculty Needs a Lesson in Empathy

Uncoordinated Communications from the McGill Administration Helped Uncover the Lack of Empathy in McGill’s Faculty Pedagogy.

Since February 27, 2020, McGill students have received over a dozen emails from the University’s Media Relations Office (MRO). These began as check-ins from the administration regarding the growing spread of COVID-19 across the globe. The first check in was comforting as it provided some sense that the University was aware of these developments and would be working on contingencies in the case the virus made it to Montreal. It was a simple gesture that made me think that the University actually cared.

This past week, McGill’s email bursts and social media posts were uncoordinated and confusing. It showed that the organized and methodological response we were told our administration was taking in light of this global pandemic was severely flawed. As a result of these communications, an even more concerning flaw was found at McGill: our faculty are severely lacking in empathy.

The flaws in McGill’s communication strategy began on March 12 when the MRO sent out an email from the Deputy Provost (Student Life & Learning), Fabrice Labeau. Labeau declared that all classes and exams scheduled for Friday, March 13 would be suspended. Despite this intervention, certain professors at McGill independently sought out and utilized online tools to hold regular class hours, compelling their students to attend. One such class, CANS 310, held class online during its regular hours using its MyCourses discussion page. Through this method the professor would moderate answers to their posted questions and discussions between students. Even though the official MRO communication explicitly indicated that all classes on March 13 were to be suspended, this professor took it upon themself to compel their students to attend a virtual classroom and participate. 

As a result of [McGill administration’s] communications, an even more concerning flaw was found at McGill: our faculty are severely lacking in empathy.

On March 13, the Premier of Quebec, François Legault, announced in a press conference that all schools in the province would close for at least two weeks, in response to the growing cases of COVID-19. That same day, McGill students received two more MRO emails from Fabrice Labeau, none of which contained McGill specific directives. Moreover, Christopher Buddle, McGill’s Associate Provost, was featured in a video posted to McGill’s Facebook page. In the video, Buddle mentions that McGill still had not exactly defined what the two week closure meant, but that details regarding that would be communicated by the next day for both students and staff. Nothing in that video contained information that was in the MRO, and vice-versa. 

Finally, on March 14, the defectiveness of McGill’s communications was laid bare. At 1:38pm, Labeau sent another MRO stating that all teaching activities would be suspended for two weeks, but what was meant by teaching activities was not clarified. At 5:53pm, another video featuring Buddle was uploaded to McGill’s Facebook page which explained that all classes, online or otherwise, were cancelled and that any assessments would be postponed. While we finally received details regarding the school’s two week closure, it came in the form of a video uploaded to a Facebook page, not in an email directed at the entire school as had been the method of communication in previous days. Moreover, McGill Principal, Dr. Suzanne Fortier, sent out her own communiqué about COVID-19 exactly 21 minutes before that video was uploaded to Facebook, but her communiqué contained absolutely no details about the school closure and read more like an empty hearted presidential address.  

In the video that Buddle uploaded on March 13, he included footage of the room McGill’s operations team was working in. We students have been constantly “reassured” in these emails that the administration is working diligently and cooperatively to handle this crisis, yet they can’t even be bothered to unify their lines of communication between one another. Important communications were being posted to accounts on Facebook and Twitter, which are not followed by all students who use those platforms. It’s also important to mention that these platforms are not utilized by the entirety of the student population. While that was happening, the Principal of McGill sent out a school-wide email that contained more fluff than I’ve ever written for my own essays, marking an extreme failure of leadership and communication on the part of the McGill administration. 

While lines of communication were failing, various faculty members across McGill were also showing just how little empathy they had for their students during a worldwide pandemic. The professor for EAST 212 instructed students that the due date would be maintained after students inquired about an assignment that was due on March 20th. While that communication was sent out before Buddle posted the Facebook and Twitter video on March 14, EAST 212’s instructor needed to remind their students that their class assignments were still important in the midst of a global outbreak. Meanwhile, the instructor for EDPE 375 communicated to their students that quizzes and assignments that were due for March 18, 19, and 22, were still scheduled to be handed in. The professor for ARTH 205 emailed their students to remind them that their final essay was still due on April 2, and that their take home final was still to be handed in by April 27. While these dates are at the moment outside of the designated two-week closure, this professor felt the need to remind their students that these assessments were not to be forgotten. 

Our students cannot reasonably be considered able to meet the academic expectations that were agreed upon at the start of the semester.

These are only some examples that I have come across in the past few days. I am sure that there are many more instances of professors from different departments across McGill who have sent their students similar correspondences. While lines of communication were indeed failing on the part of the administration in detailing what students and instructors can expect in terms of schoolwide academic policy directives, the lack of basic empathy on the part of these various faculty members is disheartening. We are in the midst of a global pandemic; borders are closing, and governments are essentially instituting martial law. International students are afraid of how COVID-19 is affecting their home countries and if they’ll be forced to remain in a foreign place for the remainder of this pandemic. Low-income students are wondering how they’ll be able to pay for food and rent now that their workplaces are closing. Student parents have to stay at home for at least the next two weeks and take care of their children while daycares and schools are closed. Our students cannot reasonably be considered able to meet the academic expectations that were agreed upon at the start of the semester. It is truly disheartening that professors were not taking the initiative to take actions that will relieve their students academic stresses in a time like this, instead electing to wait for communications from an administration that is inept at communicating. The world is in crisis right now and our collective anxieties are elevated. Our concern and attention right now should be about our neighbors, friends, and loved ones, not on completing assignments for class. 

Our concern and attention right now should be about our neighbors, friends, and loved ones, not on completing assignments for class.

The confusion brought on by the McGill administration was demoralizing enough but seeing this clear lack of empathy from our own faculty during a crisis is just heartbreaking. It is in times like these that we must act in solidarity for our fellow humans, to make lighter the collective burdens we are all being given in this moment of history. The actions of McGill’s administration and faculty members shows that there is indeed more for them to learn as well.

 

A previous version of this article included a wrongful mention of the class CANS 306. The Daily sincerely regrets the error.