At the Head of the Table

Concordia’s Department Chairs on Where They Are—And How to Move Forward

  • Photo Erin Sparks

Dr. Yogendra P. Chaubey pauses as he considers the question of optimism.

“There is a feeling coming from every corner that anything is on the table,” he says slowly.

But even as the words come out, the Mathematics and Statistics department chair sounds skeptical at best.

It’s hard to pretend that Concordia’s last few years have been smooth. From scandalous severances to a budget yo-yoing in time with a sea of red squares, the school has been in a state of perpetual turbulence.

When it comes to calming the waters, students and unions seem consistently out of sync with the administration and the Board of Governors.

Department chairs are stuck somewhere in the middle and, in some ways, probably have a better sense of the whole.

They are attempting to recruit impressive faculty with salaries they can’t afford, to market their program to students and parents and to constantly re-imagine the curriculum their departments provide.

These challenges are common—if not uniform—at universities across the country.

But Chaubey has heard that Alan Shepard, Concordia’s new president, might try something previous administrators did not—he might listen.

Reform

With a new president, a new Board of Governors chair, a new government and a new outlook, there’s a sense that now is the time for reform.

For some chairs, that’s specific to Concordia’s governance overhaul.

“Previously, there were a lot of unnecessary disruptions, particularly from the Board of Governors. They didn’t do the right things and they didn’t handle them right,” Charles Draimin, chair of the Accountancy department, said “But I think that’s behind us now.”

But it’s also the attitude outside the school’s walls that’s changing.

“We’re definitely in an age where everyone is questioning established disciplines,” said Joanna Berzowska, chair of Design and Computation Arts.

In order to grow, she added, departments are realizing they must rely on academics with totally different backgrounds.

“Looking at any discipline from an outsider’s perspective automatically helps you reform the question,” she said. “So it will lead to innovation more often than not.”

Grant opportunities encourage inter-departmental collaboration, but more often than not, questions of logistics get in the way.

Several chairs admitted that while they’d like to work with other departments, it’s just simpler to work with someone within the same structure. The alternative requires paperwork, headaches and time that professors just don’t have.

While red tape is notoriously difficult to cut, the Marketing department chair, Christopher Ross, sees a simpler solution.

Waving absentmindedly at the row of offices behind him, Ross said it might be as easy as mixing up existing space.

“This corridor is all marketing,” he said. “But what if we changed that? What if I was next to a geography professor, next to a biology professor, next to someone from design? Suddenly, you might have a paper because casual conversation is happening.”

Sustainability

But departmental reform can take several shapes, and doesn’t always have to be drastic.

For all four faculties, climate change is seeping into curriculum. Its effect on virtually every industry can’t be ignored if the school hopes to keep up.

That means different things for each department. For Design and Computation Arts, it’s approached as a theme throughout most courses. In Electrical Engineering, it means combining concepts of renewable energy with a specialization in power.

“Renewable energy is something that, over the past five or 10 years, has become incredibly important,” said William Lynch, the Electrical and Computer Engineering department chair. “A lot of renewable energy involves electricity one way or another.”

And while there is currently no course on environmental marketing, Ross said it’s just a matter of time.

“Sustainability is becoming increasingly prevalent in the field of marketing,” he said, adding that environmental marketing and sustainable packaging would be two possible components to the future of Concordia’s marketing education.

Recruitment

Sitting as the chair can also mean attempting to convince faculty deans that the needs of your department are greater or more important than others. Intra-faculty funding is a zero-sum game, and there’s not a lot to go around.

Design classes should be talking about these things and the programming classes should be talking about these things. What’s the greater impact? Does this help society? Is it good? Just because we can do it, should we?

—Centre for Engineering in Society Chair Deborah Dysart-Gale

There’s not really a better example of this than the job of recruiting and maintaining new faculty, something many chairs will be quick to tell you is their greatest need.

“I don’t know if people understand that one of the major things that chairs do is recruit new faculty,” Accountancy’s Draimin said.

“In our department, we end up hiring one or two people every year, which I know is not typical of other universities, but we’re also losing one or two people a year,” he added. “So, we’re sort of running just to stay up.”

The chairs are constantly just looking for ways to convince potential faculty to forgo the temptation of a private income.

“The question becomes, ‘How do we attract people using non-monetary draws?’” Ross said. “It’s a tough sell, but we try to convince them that this is an exciting work environment, that it’s an exciting place to be.”

Even if they do get a budget for a new professor, there’s no guarantee it will be for the area most in need.

Chaubey says that when resources are limited, he’s told to determine departmental priorities and allocate more to those areas.

“You’re expected to say, ‘Well, mathematics isn’t important, only actuarial mathematics is important, because they’re getting jobs,’” he said. “How can you say that? But that’s what the direction right now is.”

Accreditation

This struggle to prioritize becomes even more important for departments going after accreditation.

Canadian universities are somewhat unique in the sense that accreditation is granted to individual fields rather than institutions as a whole. Organizations such as the Canadian Engineering Accreditation Board evaluate the program and provide accreditation to those that meet their standards.

For universities, this doesn’t just mean a jump in reputation—although that helps. It also means that students may be exempt from certain professional exams needed to work in the industry.

“Accreditation is proving to society that you’re doing something right,” Chaubey said. “But if some department doesn’t have that accreditation, it’s not clear that they are at a real disadvantage.

From some faculties, however, this reality provides the opportunity to experiment with new models of learning.

At least that’s how Deborah Dysart-Gale, chair of the Centre for Engineering in Society, feels.

Still in its infant stages, the department was formed to address changes in the accreditation system. The CEAB is rolling out a new model that focuses more on social skills that complement traditional technical abilities.

So Concordia piloted the Centre for Engineering in Society department. For now, it’s a complementary program. Students can’t major in it, but everyone in the faculty must fulfill requirements within it.

“We want to do things that are going to help engineers be leaders and be citizens,” Dysart-Gale said. “So many of the problems we’re going to face in the future are going to be technological in nature. We’re going to need engineers’ technological expertise to address those.”

Other universities, she added, usually farm these courses out, requiring their students take certain classes in other departments such as Sociology, or English.

Concordia used to do the same thing, but according to Dysart-Gale, that just doesn’t make sense. She gave the example of asking engineering students to write an essay about what they would buy if they won the lottery.

“They would just go into tears,” she said. “They asked where they got the money; were there taxes involved, because that’s how they think. They have a different kind of imagination, a different kind of creativity.”

Dysart-Gale is hoping the department will expand in the future, perhaps even offering a certificate for students interested in applying engineering skills with an eye towards improving society. A certificate, she said, that would be within Concordia’s central mandate.

“Concordia was always rooted in the community, it was to make the community better,” she said. “At the heart of [the Centre for Engineering in Society], it’s really about taking this knowledge and mobilizing it within the community.”

She feels that this department teaches a fundamental core that doesn’t need to be limited to engineering.

“Design classes should be talking about these things and the programming classes should be talking about these things. What’s the greater impact? Does this help society? Is it good?” she said. “Just because we can do it, should we?”

She added that it’s the kind of future dialogue she imagines Shepard will engage in. She’s optimistic that he’ll help push it through.

Chaubey believes in Shepard too, but says any meaningful reform requires more than a change in president. It’ll require a change in the university’s top-down culture.

“People at the lower level,” he said, “Department chairs, departmental committees—should be given a better ear by the administrators than they get.”

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