Three years ago, the Faculty of Arts & Science produced an ambitious academic plan — a detailed course of action designed to help the Faculty fulfill its core objectives. The plan’s title, Leveraging our Strengths, recognized the breadth of knowledge possessed by an extraordinarily diverse group of students, staff and faculty members.
A roadmap for A&S, the plan lays out key priorities in six areas: pushing the boundaries of research excellence; enhancing academic programming and the student experience; Indigenous research, teaching and learning; equity, diversity and inclusion; building partnerships with our local and global communities; and A&S operations.
Now, the Faculty finds itself at the halfway point in realizing the goals set out in each of the six areas of focus. While it goes without saying that the COVID-19 pandemic’s onset in March 2020 might have threatened the implementation of even the best laid plans, Melanie Woodin, dean of the Faculty of Arts & Science, says that in many ways the pandemic strengthened the Faculty’s resolve.
“Throughout the pandemic, I’ve tried to stay connected to students and our student leadership, the Arts & Science Students’ Union, to ensure we are always holding student concerns front and centre,” says Woodin. “We want to provide an experience that is truly holistic. We’ve been developing a wider range of academic options for students, while also focusing on enhancing experiential learning opportunities and mental health support.”
On track to achieve and in some areas even exceed initial goals, the Faculty has also course-corrected where necessary — remaining flexible and responsive to a community whose needs naturally change with the times.
“We’ve been especially mindful of any improvements we can make and what supports and resources we can put in place for everyone in our community during this time,” says Woodin.
A key new initiative for undergraduate students has been the launch of the Arts & Science Internship Program, or ASIP, which aims to provide them with a range of paid work opportunities coupled with specialized professional training. Students can now also choose from a wider range of academic programs, including new majors in Quantitative Biology, Work & Organizations, and new course offerings in computational and data science.
While strong academic programming is integral, Woodin says she is also focused on providing everyone in A&S with the optimal environment in which to teach and learn. To further enhance a sense of connection and belonging, the Faculty has put in place stronger mental health supports than ever before. Among these are an extensive series of workshops and training sessions for faculty and staff, as well as a conference called Minds Redefined, first held in person in 2019 and then virtually in 2022. The Faculty has also created a new summer program, ArriveReady, to help new undergraduate students transition to university studies.
In addition, three units transitioned to a new “EDU” status within the Faculty, which will enable them to broaden their strategic and teaching impacts.
Both the Centre for Indigenous Studies — which fosters a vibrant and welcoming culture of research, teaching and learning — and the School of the Environment — an international leader in interdisciplinary environmental research and teaching — have gained new status as “EDU:As.”
The Faculty’s long-standing Caribbean Studies program, housed at New College, transitioned to form a new “EDU:B” — the Centre for Caribbean Studies — which is home to the only programs in Canada specifically dedicated to the study of the Caribbean and its people.
A&S drives much of the research that has made U of T the country’s top-ranked research institution, which is why Woodin says she is especially excited about initiating the Dean’s Research Excellence Awards program, which will help accomplished mid-career A&S researchers to compete successfully in national awards competitions.
"We are also playing a key role in several transformational research initiatives,” she says. Last year, the Data Sciences Institute was created to harness the finest scholarship emerging from the data revolution, while the Acceleration Consortium is a global coalition of academia, industry and government, committed to state-of-the-art materials design. And the Schwartz Reisman Institute for Technology & Society — a large-scale, cross-divisional initiative — is inspiring the next wave of positive change, bettering lives through advances in artificial intelligence, biomedicine and other disruptive technologies.
These are prominent examples of the way A&S regularly works in tandem with innovators both inside and outside the University. “Building productive connections with partners is critical,” says Woodin. “These partnerships encourage the exchange of skills, knowledge and resources and intensify our commitments on both local and international levels.”
One notable relationship is the Faculty’s recent alliance with Palette Skills Inc., a not-for-profit organization that equips students with skills training and certifications to fortify their work experience.
And — responding to the tragic displacement of citizens due to the war in Ukraine — A&S has initiated a unique collaboration with Ukraine’s Kyiv-Mohyla Academy (KMA.) By next year, more than 200 students, and some KMA faculty, will have been welcomed to the Faculty on an academic exchange supported by the Temerty Foundation. “We’re honoured to be able to assist these students and visiting faculty to help them continue their work and studies,” says Woodin.
The KMA agreement is but one of the ways in which action is now being taken on the most significant issues of our time at the Faculty. Woodin says she is also very focused on finding ways A&S can be a more welcoming and inclusive community and has created the first-ever role in the dean’s office — a Director of Equity, Diversity & Inclusion (EDI) — dedicated to developing and implementing initiatives aimed at advancing EDI within the learning and working environments across the Faculty.
“We are in fact many communities in A&S,” says Woodin. “We need to continue to improve our policies, our access and the systemic ways in which we serve all our members, while recognizing and correcting historical wrongs.”
Because the Faculty also remains committed to enhancing digital offerings and access to current tools and technologies, ongoing attention to the Digital Learning Strategy will also continue to be a key focus.
Despite challenges posed by the pandemic, Woodin says this has been an enormously productive period for the Faculty. “Everyone at A&S has worked very hard to achieve our goals, while consistently responding to what’s happening in the city and world at large,” she says. “Simply put, I am incredibly grateful to them all and am excited about what we will continue to accomplish in the years ahead.”
For more information on the progress of the academic plan visit the website.