Concordia’s Vision as a “Next-Generation University”

University’s Goals for Balancing Research, Teaching, and the Student Experience

As Concordia strives to double its research, Provost Graham Carr insists that its priority will always be teaching. Graphic Aiden Locke

Concordia brands itself as a “next-generation” university.

While it sounds ambiguous—and in many ways, it is—in the past two years, Concordia has taken some steps to turn the catchphrase into a reality. Those steps are what the school calls “strategic directions.”

First approved in the summer of 2015 by Senate, Concordia’s highest academic decision-making body, the strategic directions are nine buzzword-filled objectives that are meant to lead the university’s academic priorities for the foreseeable future, with the caveat that there is no specific timeline attached to the directions.

The action plan that would see these directions become reality were put in place the following fall, in 2016.

This game plan, titled “First Moves,” was more tangible than the strategic direction slogans, which are along the lines of “Embrace the City, Embrace the World,” “Teach for Tomorrow,” and “Get Your Hands Dirty.”

The game plan tends to centre around three main themes: recruitment, research and reputation. Items like “Develop specialized offerings for specific student populations,” “Make ‘jump-start’ faculty appointments,” and “Keep up the pace of transdisciplinary cluster hiring,” although vague, highlight the university’s desire to bring people in as students, researchers, and professors by creating a seemingly desirable atmosphere.

But what that means for students in the classroom is still unclear.

Researching for the Future

Graham Carr, Concordia’s provost, explained that the first strategic direction on the list, “Double Our Research,” addresses each of those three elements in one way or another.

“Some of what we’re doing to double our research and increase our research profile is actual investments in people,” Carr said. “And some of it is trying to imagine and create new ways of making Concordia research more visible, giving it a greater impact, and help drive the reputation of the university because of that.”

What that impact is, Carr stated, varies from department to department, subject by subject. He explained that in the hard sciences, winning a $3 million grant could be a sign of success, while Concordia researchers winning prestigious awards can be an equally positive sign in other areas of study.

“It’s easy to go for the numbers as a proof of something, but there are a lot of equally important and equally powerful measures of success that aren’t about the numbers, that are about the impact that we’re making,” he continued.

And because success looks different, Carr explained that the university must look at different ways of funding research in fields, such as social sciences, that might not have as many dollar signs attached to them.

Cluster hiring, he offered, is one way.

In 2018, Carr said the university will be hiring 30 tenure-track professors. The work of six of those professors will focus around “smart, sustainable, resilient cities.”

He explained that after coming to an agreement with the four faculties—Arts and Science, Engineering and Computer Science, Fine Arts, and the John Molson School of Business—they’ve decided to hire a group of scholars in the field who all come from a variety of disciplines.

Part of the motivation, he explained, was “because the problems [we’re] facing in the world [are] bigger than any single discipline can answer.”

Of the six new hires, three will have hard science backgrounds, one will be coming from Concordia’s philosophy department, and another will have a background in real estate management.

Another motivator, he said, was the idea to create public interest by focusing on areas that they’ve determined they want to become even stronger in, such as sustainability and social economy.

Bodies in the Classroom, and in the Lab

When the strategic directions were first announced in 2015, faculty and students alike expressed concern about the impact of these directions. Particularly, some were concerned that the university’s desire to dive into research would be detrimental to the classroom experience, with professors more focused on conducting research than teaching.

Marion Miller, a former student senator, told The Link at the time that it was up to the students to ensure that these directions actually work to create a better academic experience.

At a senate meeting at the time, Virginia Penhune, chair of the psychology department, was worried that because of the university’s emphasis on research, newly hired full-time faculty perhaps wouldn’t be spending enough time in the classroom.

So how will the university ensure that those new hires spend as much time with students as they do with their research?

“That’s absolutely a fair question,” said Carr, who took over the role as provost last fall. He first joined the university in 1983 as a professor in the history department, and since becoming chair of the department 13 years ago, he has made his way up the ranks to oversee the university’s academics, in both his role as provost and vice-president of academic affairs.

We’re not a research institute. We’re a university. – Graham Carr, Provost

“We’re not a research institute. We’re a university, and universities are involved in both teaching and research activity,” said Carr. “The ideal faculty member at Concordia is someone who does both of those things extremely well.”

Even with the first moves underway, Carr was unable to provide concrete examples as to how the university will be able to mandate that professors put enough emphasis on teaching. He said that bringing in strong researchers gives the university the opportunity to explore options such as developing new online classes. Although they haven’t “deeply reflected on it yet.”

However, new faculty members “can’t take a pass on teaching,” he added. Unless they’re both active in the classroom and in their research, “you’re not going to get tenure.”

Patrice Blais, vice-president of grievance and collective agreement for the Concordia University Part-Time Faculty Association, agreed that in order to receive tenure, there needs to be a balance between research and teaching.

“If you don’t publish, if you don’t do research, you’re lowering your chances of ever getting a tenure-track [position] somewhere,” he said, particularly for young professors.

He explained that CUPFA’s latest collective agreement, which was ratified on Aug. 14, will set out guidelines for how much part-time faculty can be paid for their research—something which previous iterations did not have. He said that that could act as a motivator for part-time professors to take on more research duties.

Although still hesitant—the guidelines have yet to be put on paper—he said the addition can be positive, particularly in terms of the university’s academic goals.

“[Part-time faculty] can play a role, and I think this is a win-win-win for everybody,” said Blais.

Institutionalizing Change

In response to concerns regarding how professors will be able to balance teaching and conducting research, Carr mused, “How can we best use the research skills that faculty members have, and the training skills faculty members have, and channel that into undergraduate education as well?”

Kimberley Manning, principal of Concordia’s Simone de Beauvoir Institute, has some ideas.

“The Strategic Directions are really exciting and very inspiring, but also potentially contradictory,” said Manning about the university’s ultimate goal to double their research while maintaining a quality learning experience. “How do we make these things work together?”

To do that, she says the school needs to incorporate research into course curriculums for all students.

“We’re trying to find ways to add in rather than add on,” she explained, arguing that doing so can create institutional change.

“If you want, think about it as adding these strategic directions into our work, but in a way that supports the development of the other strategic directions,” Manning continued.

Particularly, Manning has her eyes set on social action research projects that engage the community, drawing on the “Embrace the City, Embrace the World” direction.

As a university whose student population is composed of “a large minority” of student activists, she said that incorporating this work into classes would allow these students to receive course credit and faculty mentorship for work they’re likely already doing.

And it could be beneficial for the professors as well, she said.

“They actually, through engaging with these projects, will be able to continue to enhance their own research, so it’s this adding in idea,” she elaborated. The students involved will be “building core experience and knowledge.”

She offered the Critical Feminist Activism and Research project from the SdBI as an example. In its first year, 2016-2017, C-FAR conducted consultations with students about the microaggressions they face on campus.

Using the data they’ve collected, Manning said that they are engaging the Faculty of Arts and Science to move forward in taking concrete steps that will address some of the issues that came up, such as inequity and a lack of diversity at Concordia.

“Concordia does not exist in a bubble,” said Manning. “The fact that we end up with these particular outcomes in terms of who studies here, who’s teaching here, who’s heading up the place, who’s making decisions—all of these are connected to decisions that are being made elsewhere.”

With that information, C-FAR is working on creating projects that connect the university and students with community partners to understand their needs and “create bridges that could inspire diversity.”

She further explained that programs like C-FAR also allow the university to explore the option of finding community partners who are willing to invest in “knowledge creation,” so that the research can be self-sustaining and alleviate the financial burden on the university.

“This would become a funded part of our infrastructure that would also include financial support, potentially, from community sources as well,” she suggested.

Manning explained she hopes that C-FAR can become an active example of how student-engaged research can contribute to the accomplishment of the strategic directions, so that “we don’t feel pulled apart.”

“All of my efforts are going towards how we see this work in such a way that eventually the university will embrace it in a systemic, holistic way,” said Manning. “So that […] this will become part of how we do what we do.”