In Conversation With President Graham Carr

Concordia’s President Sat Down With The Link to Discuss the Upcoming School Year

Graham Carr sat down with The Link to discuss pressing issues. Courtesy Concordia University

The beginning of a new academic year means students have a lot of unanswered questions. Concordia President Graham Carr sat down with The Link on Aug. 23 to address some of the most pressing issues facing students across campus.

Answers have been edited for clarity.

As the 2022-23 academic year begins, what will be Concordia’s top priorities?

As we go into year number three with COVID, our priority is to continue trying to ensure we have a safe campus and create the best possible experience for our students. 

I’m really excited about a couple of announcements we’ve made in the last two weeks. The announcement on experiential learning: every new student coming into the university this year will have at least one opportunity to do EL as part of their program by the time they graduate. We look like we’re on track to increase that commitment to two EL by 2025. 

I’m excited about that on so many levels. I think it’s a real differentiator for Concordia in terms of student choice. It doesn’t matter what program you’re in, there’s going to be some kind of opportunity for you to capitalize on that. Whereas many universities across North America are talking about the importance of experiential learning, we’re actually at a point to say we can deliver and make that opportunity available for everyone. 

The other announcement we made last week was that we’re tripling the number of students we’re going to admit into the cinema school at Concordia. That is specifically in response to the demand of the cinema industry and the labour shortage. We have the biggest cinema program in the country; we were getting 700 applications for maybe 70 positions. The faculty of fine arts piloted a couple of short courses online in the past year—the demand is definitely there. 

In the past year, Concordia made a return to campus amid multiple waves of COVID-19. Is there anything you would have done differently to ensure the health and safety of students, faculty and staff?

I'm not sure there's anything we would have done differently per se. Last fall, Quebec universities made decisions with regard to really pushing vaccination mandates. I know in other jurisdictions, they took a different approach where they had mandatory vaccine mandates. We brought about half of our classes back in person last year. 

By the end of Fall 2021, because we could track cases, Quebec universities came out very well in terms of avoiding outbreaks. It was tough in the winter. It was really discouraging for everybody. We had come through the fall so well, we were looking forward to being back fully in person in January, then Omicron hit.

We made the decision to do the first month [of the winter 2022 semester] remotely, although the campus was open. I think it took a lot of steam out of everybody's semester, and it was exhausting. It was just a push too far for all of us. We were already kind of fed up, and Omicron was so rampant—it was a challenge to imagine what was coming. 

We followed public health guidelines. I think everybody did their level best to pull through the semester. I know there was a high level of anxiety, not just in the university, but in society at large. And that's perfectly understandable. 

On the other hand, in June, we had our convocation ceremonies and we had record turnout of students for convocation. To me, there was just a pent up excitement and demand to be able to share that proud moment. I think it was, in a way, a reaction against what people had experienced.

We have convocations coming up [on Aug. 24, 25 and 29] for the classes that graduated in 2020 and 2021. Again, the registrations for those are at record numbers. I think that also says something about people wanting to experience that social fabric which is a big part of university life.

Multiple Canadian universities have reintroduced mask mandates this fall. Concordia removed most of its COVID regulations in late June. How will you commit to keeping immunocompromised students safe this school year in light of these decisions?

Obviously we are watching what universities or higher education institutions are doing, as was the case last year. It is a bit of a mixed response. Western [University] announced this morning that they are introducing a mask mandate for academic spaces and activities. 

It was very clear at that point, that unless there is a new variant, the government at this stage has no intention of introducing new health measures. Our approach has been to align with public health guidelines. 

We will be moving very actively with a communications campaign to underline the fact that masks will continue to be made available in the entrances to all buildings and that hand sanitizers will continue to be made available at all buildings. Anybody should feel free to wear a mask if it makes them feel more secure. We'll watch things carefully; that's the approach that we are taking at this stage. 

For individuals who are severely medically compromised, we have in place a protocol for faculty members by which they can apply to teach their courses remotely. The threshold is fairly rigorous in terms of what qualifies for that. 

We've been through the experience of trying to support immunocompromised populations on campus, as I'm sure all institutions have. It's often very much a case by case situation. It's a challenge to generalize because medical conditions are individual—they're particular. But it's something that we are very conscious of.

In March 2021, the Senate passed plans for a fall reading week, but only beginning in 2023. Why is it taking 31 months to implement the policy?

That's a good question. It has to do with the way in which schedules are designed. When we're designing, we're always making schedules for the full university a couple of years out, and it involves respecting holiday dates and so on and so forth.

In this particular case, this is a big adjustment for a lot of programs to go from because it's not just a fall reading week. We're going from a 13-week teaching semester to a 12-week teaching semester in both fall and winter. That is very significant for programs that have always designed their curriculum around 13 weeks of course delivery.

It takes time to make the adaptations for that, particularly, in some cases for programs that are subject to accreditation rules.

I, for one, am looking forward to Fall 2023. Both because I think fall reading week, which is something that students have been asking for a long, long time, is necessary, and also because I'm really excited about moving to the 12-week semester. That’s going to give people a little extra breathing time over the end of year and New Year holidays. It is going to allow research faculty more time to be in the field or in the labs to do their work, so I think it is a really positive development.

Multiple student associations are planning to strike in early October 2022 for a fall reading week. What do you have to say to potential strikers?

We need to explain to new students or to students who were part of the decision at the time because it's important to understand this was a Senate decision. It had the input of undergraduate and graduate students and faculty members.

People were really excited about the decision [to add a fall reading week], but we also knew it was going to take time to implement it.  I think my response is just to explain the rationale for the delay. 

I would love to have been able to do it right away, but it's not going to work. There are going to be students in programs that are making significant transitions to their curriculum. We have to keep in mind what their needs and interests are too, and do this in a prudent fashion.

Nationwide, student populations are facing a dramatic increase in cost of living. Seeing as more and more students struggle to make ends meet, what do you have to say to those criticizing Concordia’s hikes in tuition rates?

There is no question that the cost of living is going up globally. Students are certainly no exception. With respect to tuition in particular, it's important to understand that in the Quebec context, tuition is set by the government. In the budget in the spring of this year, the government had a formula in place based on family income. That was the formula it usually used to determine what tuition increases would be. 

Precisely because of the economic situation, the government this year opted against using that formula because then the tuition increase would have been significantly higher. It instead came forward with a very modest increase. I think the government has been responsive to the economic situation in its approach to tuition. 

That also applies to the government setting tuition rates for out-of-province Canadian students, French students, and students from French-speaking Belgium.

And with respect to international students, the formula we have used has been to create a predictable model for all incoming students. That model hasn’t changed, so students coming in know what they will pay year over year for the course of their degree.

What concrete actions have been taken by the President’s Task Force on Anti-Black Racism since its preliminary recommendations were published in November 2021?

This fall, we will [publish] the report on the President's Task Force on Anti-Black Racism in October. I'm incredibly impressed with the work that the task force has done. The task force involved the mobilization of a large number of faculty members, staff, students, alumni, who have been working pretty tirelessly with tremendous creative energy.

Yes, we have things in our past that we need to own up to and recognize, but this is also about setting a pathway for the future. 

We pride ourselves on being an accessible university. We pride ourselves on our commitment to equity, diversity and inclusivity. Just as I'm really proud of the progress that we're making in terms of Indigenous Directions, I'm looking forward to making the same kind of progress for Concordia in response to the recommendations of the task force.

Since 2020, there have been calls from the Concordia community to reform campus security and its relationship with the SPVM. Given multiple instances of misconduct between security and racialized students in the past year alone, what will you do to keep students safe on campus?

Keeping everybody safe on campus is a priority. I think that's the baseline. You're probably aware that the task force has a specific working group that is focusing on addressing issues of campus security. I know that they've been in liaison with our campus security team as part of that process. 

We have an incredibly diverse student population. That's one of the riches of Concordia. We need to work to ensure that people from racialized backgrounds feel that they are safe on campus, just like all members of the community. We have an additional challenge, particularly downtown, because we are an urban storefront campus. 

Are there any new initiatives or projects coming to Concordia this year that you would like students to know about?

One of the things I really hope we can continue to move forward on is the Sustainability Action Plan. That involves the whole community. Concordia has shown some pretty good leadership in this respect.

In the Times Higher Impact rankings last year, we placed 20th in the world for our work in addressing the SDG on climate action, top 50 in the world for what we're doing collectively to address the SDG on reduced inequalities and fifth in the world for what we're doing in addressing the need to develop sustainable cities and communities.

We're trying to walk the walk. We misstep, yes. We don't always get to the destination as quickly as we want, but I think there's a strong collective will to push forward. 

A correction has been made regarding international student fees. The Link regrets this error.

This article originally appeared in Volume 43, Issue 1, published August 30, 2022.