From the Boardroom: BoG reviews emergency response to COVID-19, delays 2020/21 budget

After two days of teleconference committee meetings last week, the UBC Board of Governors (BoG) met online again today for the full April meeting. UBC’s response to the global COVID-19 pandemic was top-of-mind throughout.

“At the risk of overstating the obvious, we’re meeting at a most unprecedented time,” said BoG Chair Michael Korenberg as he opened the session.

“Reflecting back, even including the two world wars, UBC and other post-secondary institutions here and elsewhere have never faced a set of challenges equivalent to what we’re facing now in [this] crisis.”

Responding to COVID-19

Provost and UBC Vancouver (UBCV) VP Academic Andrew Szeri noted that Term 1 summer classes have already moved online, adding that the university is preparing for the possibility of summer Term 2 and fall courses to be online as well. Final communications to faculty, staff and students are expected soon.

Both provosts also mentioned the impacts of COVID-19 on enrolment planning. The process is still in early stages — but as most applicants have until May 1 to accept their offers, Szeri said that UBCV is seeing fewer acceptances primarily with first-year international students compared to the same time last year.

However, domestic transfer student enrolment is up 16 per cent.

UBC Okanagan VP Academic Mukherjee Reed added that UBC Okanagan (UBCO) is also seeing fewer acceptance rates compared to last year, but she noted that UBCO’s offer acceptance deadline is slightly longer than UBCV’s so she hopes the numbers will pick up.

Both campuses have also been working to strengthen emergency funding programs for students through the announcement of the President’s Emergency Student Fund campaign. UBC is asking students to contact their enrolment service advisor for information about financial assistance referrals to support based on individual needs.

President Santa Ono added that UBC has been working with the U15 group of Canadian research universities to lobby the federal government for increased support for students and recent graduates.

“We have advocated for widened eligibility for CERB. We have recommended enhanced educational opportunities for the class of 2020, feeling for them especially, and current students asking for support for summer work experiences, and graduate students through the Canada graduate scholarship mechanisms,” said Ono.

BoG members acknowledged the efforts of faculty members in transitioning courses online so quickly. VP Human Resources Marcia Buchholz said UBC has been providing resources to faculty and staff about how to work well remotely, expediting the implementation of the well-being strategic framework and promoting the Employee Family Assistance Program.

“Even before COVID, the impacts of isolation on mental health are really becoming more well known and understood,” said Buchholz.

“We’re encouraging all of our leaders to do regular check-ins with their teams so that their teams feel connected.”

Delays to budget planning and capital spending

Due to the uncertainty of the pandemic, the Board passed a motion deferring the 2020/21 budget to “a future meeting once assessment of the financial impact of COVID-19 can be completed.”

In the meantime, the university will operate from the base allocations of the 2019/20 budget. But additional releases of $20 million for emergency COVID-19 spending, $2 million for the implementation of the Indigenous Strategic Plan (ISP), $5 million for faculty renewal, $1 million for climate action and $45 million for spending priorities including wages and program implementations were approved.

The Board also approved the first stage of planning for the School of Biomedical Engineering Building and amendments to the Wesbrook Place Neighbourhood Plan. But Korenberg and other governors emphasized that new buildings and infrastructure will likely be delayed due to the financial demands of the COVID-19 crisis.

BoG staff representative Kavie Toor noted that the federal government has been urged to provide relief funding for infrastructure projects that have been delayed due to social distancing requirements. He said UBC should look into taking advantage of similar opportunities because it could save money in the long run.

“I know that earlier comments were explored potentially slowing down capital projects, but maybe it’s an opportunity in some regards to double down on how we approach them to take advantage of funding opportunities,” said Toor.

VP External Robin Ciceri said the matter has been and will continue to be discussed in virtual meetings between Ono and federal authorities.

IRP funding release, divestment update and policy amendments

As planned when the university declared a climate emergency in December, the Board approved and finalized a plan to divest its endowment from fossil fuels.

No timeline has been outlined so far, but a more detailed plan is slated for presentation during the Board’s June cycle of meetings.

The Board also released $89 million for the Integrated Renewal Program and $42 million for the Application Ecosystems Program, which will replace UBC’s aging student, HR and finance software systems.

The release brings total spending on the programs to $362 million, which is what was originally budgeted including contingency funding.

The Board also discussed and approved an update to the ISP. Despite the pandemic, ISP staff have been working remotely and the plan is expected to be fully implemented in September 2020.

The Board also approved amendments to policies SC13 on At-Risk Behaviour and SC18 on Retaliation. The approval comes after the amendments were put up for student consultation earlier in the term.