Taking the time for wellness v. fostering the spirit of wellness

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The University of Ottawa’s Wellness Week, which aims to help students and staff mind their own mental health during a self-declared mental health crisis, falls well short of a useful response to mental health concerns.

Then again, a recent University report promises a ‘cross-university wellness strategic framework’. If such a framework is going to work, more faculty and departmental solutions are needed because a multiversity of some 41,000 students is too large to effectively resolve personal health problems.

Hence my proposal: the University of Ottawa must afford professors, departments, and faculties more autonomy to foster personal relationships between faculty and student. Such an enterprise notably requires giving professors and faculty administrators more ‘free’ time. This time may foster the relationships necessary to create a collegial, supportive environment.

The University’s best method for providing professors and faculty administrators with this mythic free time is to push against creeping government demands. The managerial welfare state, obsessed, in some sense, with accountability, requires more and more information from universities that it funds.

These demands cause pressure to abound for professors as much as for students. ‘Publish or perish’ is alive and well at universities. New professors must work harder than ever to produce articles and books so that they may have job security; established professors may face pressure from their faculties to annually publish.

The University of Ottawa, which recently signed a strategic mandate agreement with the Government of Ontario, is one of many across the country that now depends on government funding approval, which is now indexed to measurable performance targets: an indication that learning and teaching are being reduced to numbers. We might understand these figures, but they do nothing for wellness.

Wellness Week and the University’s recent mental health review is a poor substitute for the care that students can receive if these pressures are relieved. This argument, of course, proceeds on the assumption that the relationship between professor and student fosters wellness.

I’ve experienced such relationships in my former faculty, the Faculty of Arts, where I could speak with the Dean or the Vice-Deans with relatively few hurdles to clear. Granted, during these times, I was privileged to be a member of the University Senate—and an active member at that. More locally still (and divorced from my senatorial duties), my department head (English) was almost always available for a chat. Professors gave of their time and expertise, which engendered the feeling that one’s ideas and character are being noticed. This feeling goes to the heart of my point.

These conditions and my experience begs the question: how can university administrators foster wellness and impose the need to meet metrics that satisfies government?

Saint Paul University, the old University of Ottawa, offers some answers. It teaches a far smaller group of students of roughly 1,000. Small size fosters closer community because students and administrators come into more regular contact.

I’ve had the pleasure of conducting extensive research on and taking a course at Saint Paul. I got the sense that everyone knew everyone; the school’s lore was, moreover, just around the corner. The Oblates of Mary Immaculate, who still own the University, until very recently maintained their house just beside the University.

Imagine having that closeness and rapport with professors and with a University’s owners. 

Contrast that idyll with the multiversity. The University of Ottawa spends increasing time and effort placating faceless masters. There’s nothing new in this situation: the Oblates sold most of their university to its present incarnation to avoid submitting to government. Even so, in 1965, when the universities split, the Oblates dug in. They claimed that the University of Ottawa was not secular; it was non-denominational. 

This difference is slight, but crucial, for the Oblates were claiming the existence of a soul in the University, one able to assist students and faculty with their mental health. A non-denominational university leaves open the question of faith, or mystery, while not attaching to any imperatives. Faith and mystery exhorts students and professors toward discovering values that go beyond the strictly rational. This was the spirit of Oblate education and they fought for it in the 1960s.

Central administrations won’t cure the wellness issue, and neither will events that responsibilize individuals for their health.

The University community will instead need to take stock of its beliefs, and departments and faculties must be leaders in this regard. Shared purpose must flourish, but the means for that flourishing are not flashy. The old adage of university education, that it is ad studentum et orandum—for study and prayer— evokes the remedy. Scholars must have ample time for introspection because introspection allows us to better teach and to more efficiently learn.