University Resilience Project

About the Resilience Project Team (RPT)

The University of Toronto Resilience Project was initiated by the Vice-President & Provost, Professor Cheryl Regehr, in the spring of 2022 as a way for the members of the University community to reflect on their experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic, and to consolidate and retain the knowledge gained during that period. The primary focus of the project was to gather lessons learned during an extraordinary period of uncertainty and change, and to develop strategies for a more resilient university for the U of T community.

The seven-person Resilience Project Team (RPT), led by the Provostial Advisor on University Resilience, Professor Nick Rule, sought to identify what processes, procedures, and practices worked during the pandemic (and which did not), with the goal of updating and improving the University’s operations, particularly as it anticipates and prepares for future large-scale challenges (e.g., new pandemics, issues related to climate change, social or political unrest). The RPT considered the following questions:

  • How can the University community better prepare for the next time?
  • What can the University create now to make it easier for everyone?
  • Where can the University adjust existing practices to make everyday operations work better?
  • What initiatives were implemented, and should they be maintained or expanded?

The Team also assisted the University community in making the transition from crisis to recovery, and to return to a more active campus experience in the 2022-2023 academic year. In that role, the RPT was supported by an operations group with members from across divisions and the three campuses. This group made recommendations to senior leaders in response to changing public health conditions. Professor Rule also represented the University at sector discussions regarding pandemic response in higher education more broadly.

The work of the RPT built upon an existing foundation of practices and policies established prior to the pandemic. These measures served the University well during a period of sustained interruption of regular operations, and enabled U of T to continue its core mission of teaching and research throughout a global pandemic. This foundation included:

Resilience Project Team Activities

From April to September of 2022, RPT members conducted extensive consultations with the U of T community. Based on the early results of these consultations, senior leaders at the University took several actions in the spring and summer of 2022 to support the community as it recovered and prepared for the new academic year.

From April to September of 2022, RPT members conducted extensive consultations with the U of T community. These included:

  • 300+ academic, administrative, and student leaders from every division and campus in small sessions
  • 224 web-form responses
  • 43 presentations to operational units, senior leadership, and members of Governing Council

The consultations focused on key questions:

  • Lessons learned
  • Identifying obstacles
  • Things to change
  • Innovations and practices to keep

During these consultations, the RPT heard a desire for the University to acknowledge the loss experienced because of the pandemic; to show gratitude for the efforts of staff, faculty, and librarians; and to communicate goals as the University moved forward into recovering from the disruption that the pandemic caused. The RPT also learned about valuable innovations and adaptations made by individuals, groups, and units in response to the challenges they faced, and the benefits accrued by the greater collaboration that occurred as the three campuses coordinated their efforts to support the University’s academic mission, and the broader community’s pandemic response.

The group also became aware of the need for added support and attention for new and returning students as the University prepared for what became known as the “Biggest Back to School Ever.” In the fall of 2022, U of T welcomed approximately 16,000 first-year students and 7,000 upper-year students who had limited on-campus experience. This scenario required additional welcome and orientation efforts, as well as an extra focus on lab safety training and other programming. Focus was also put on new and returning staff and faculty members who might not be familiar with the campuses, particularly those who had been hired since the pandemic’s onset.

Based on the early results of these consultations, senior leaders at the University took several actions in the spring and summer of 2022 to support the community as it recovered and prepared for the new academic year. These included:

Improving Your Experience

Members of the RPT worked in partnership with campuses and divisions to implement nine initiatives in response to the feedback received in their consultations. The work of sustaining these initiatives has continued in the hands of the RPT’s collaborative partners since its end in June 2023. These initiatives fall into three categories: (1) Navigation, (2) Engagement, and (3) Future Proofing.

The University of Toronto is a community of approximately 125,000 students, staff, faculty, and librarians across three campuses. Each year, U of T welcomes thousands of new students to its campuses as well as new faculty and staff. The decentralized nature of the University, with strong decision-making powers at the Faculty and campus levels, can result in variations in practices that sometimes create confusion. The limiting of on-campus activities during the pandemic and the subsequent return to in-person campus life highlighted the need to help members of the U of T community find their way to the information, resources, and tools that they need to support its academic and research mission. In response, the RPT worked to support several initiatives.

Student wayfinder
As a result of the feedback that the RPT heard from student groups, the Office of the Vice-Provost, Students is expanding its online Navi tool to help students find online and in-person resources to answer questions about U of T. The expanded online tool, which will direct students to information for all three campuses, is scheduled to be available in the fall of 2023.

Convene software navigators
RPT members heard from faculty and staff about their difficulty finding software solutions to help them respond to specific situations, only to later discover existing information technology features or products that could have been used. Building on this feedback, Information Technology Services (ITS) is engaging in broad client-relations consultations that will include ways to provide staff with expertise on software products.

Ideas and adaptations toolbox
The UTogether site is home to a new “toolbox” of ideas and adaptations contributed by U of T staff and faculty developed in response to the pandemic. The goal of the toolbox is to provide examples and advice for others interested in adopting similar changes, and to inspire further innovative thinking and problem-solving in the post-pandemic era.

The importance of timely communication to members of the U of T community was underscored during the pandemic, especially during periods when many students, staff, faculty and librarians were required to study or work from home, and public health guidance and government rules often changed quickly. Faculty and staff told RPT members how much they valued regular communication from their Faculty and division, and hearing directly from senior University leaders. The pandemic also highlighted challenges with drafting and disseminating information quickly, given the decentralized structure of the University.

In response, University of Toronto Communications (UTC) is working to streamline internal communications, refine procedures and best practices for institutional messaging, and make the most of existing channels. UTC also is continuing to evolve the UTogether website to strengthen its purpose as a resource for connecting members of the community with relevant information and resources, and is exploring additional content for the site.

The desire for greater connection heard during consultations also points to an opportunity for senior leaders to engage more with the U of T community through a variety of formal and informal channels. 

A major focus of the RPT was to better prepare the University for future disruptions by acting on the lessons learned during the pandemic. Much of this work continues past the RPT’s term and will be guided by the relevant offices and teams. This work includes:

Creating a practice of regular policy, code, and guideline reviews
The Office of the Governing Council is working to create a framework on policy development and review, and to update existing policies with more information for staff and students who refer to them. This work will continue over the coming years.

Developing a research communication framework
The Division of the Vice-President, Research & Innovation is consulting with divisions to develop best practices for relaying information to researchers, students, and staff working in research labs or in the field when events impact the continuity of operations. 

Encouraging academic divisions to create or update Business Continuity Plans (BCPs) and integrate key elements of institutional plans
Divisions were consulted on a simplified BCP framework, and a “hackathon”-style writing session hosted by the Office of the Vice-President Operations and Real Estate Partnerships is planned for the summer of 2023.

Coordinating resources for future resilience within the University
The Division of People Strategy, Equity & Culture is identifying skills common across critical roles as part of a cross-training program for administrative staff. A process to request institutional resources during extended interruptions is also under consideration.


The events of the pandemic underlined the need for the University to consolidate and share knowledge regarding operations, and to continue to update and improve its processes. It was a time that brought into sharp focus U of T’s core mission of teaching and research. It also demonstrated the value of cross-functional teams working across campuses toward common goals, and the role of these teams in enabling an agile response to changing circumstances. Through its consultations and work, the RPT offered the following takeaways as it transitioned the continuation of this work to campuses and divisions. 

The role of recovery
The RPT’s early work illuminated the community’s need to discuss and acknowledge the significance of the pandemic. This was an episode that upended everyone’s lives and threatened the health of the community. Acknowledging the losses experienced, and the effort required to keep U of T’s campuses operating safely was a necessary part of moving forward.

Intention is necessary to incorporate learning
As the University returned to regular operations, individuals were inclined to follow past practices. Without conscious effort, gains or improvements will fade.

The importance of connections
Executing plans requires familiarity and trust among co-workers, and an understanding of the roles played by different parts of the University. The close working relationships developed while responding to the pandemic across campuses and divisions were vital. Maintaining these connections will enhance the University’s operations and its ability to respond to future interruptions in an agile manner.

U of T’s complexity
The need to provide navigation tools and roadmaps for students, faculty, and staff was underscored when many members of the University community returned to campus after an extended absence or came to campus for the first time. Providing physical and organizational navigation tools reduces stress and confusion, and is an important part of making students, faculty, and staff feel supported and welcome.  

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