Q&A with President Graham Carr

How is Concordia finding its footing in tumultuous times?

Courtesy Concordia University

COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter defined the summer. How is Concordia adapting to the moment, and can students take comfort in the administration’s plans for the unprecedented days ahead? The Link sat down with President Graham Carr to discuss the university’s preparations, expectations, and hopes.

Answers have been lightly edited.

How has your quarantine been?

It was quite an adaptation in March, April, and beginning of May. It’s nice to be in a situation where we’re de-confining now, but obviously trying to be pretty respectful of the public health guidelines. It’s disappointing to see how quiet and empty the city is, but that’s the reality we have to cope with.

Did you find any good sourdough recipes?

No, that’s one thing I didn’t try! I must be the only person who didn’t bake sourdough bread. I was worried early on that eating was becoming too easy of a habit, so I’m trying to do more on the fitness front.

What would Concordia consider a successful fall semester?

I’d have to look back at what we’ve already experienced in the spring and in the summer. Conditions in March/April were suboptimal, to say the least. But I was really pleased and proud with how the university as a whole—faculty, staff, and students—responded to that situation. That was a big turnaround in a short period of time for courses that had been designed for in-person delivery to a remote format. At the end of the day, we ended up with the largest graduating class we’ve ever had at Concordia. It’s a testament to the resilience of the student population.

In the summer, we had the largest registration that we’ve ever had for summer courses at Concordia, even though they were all 100 per cent online. That tells me there’s an appetite in the student population to get on with their education. What I’m hoping is now that faculty members, support staff, the Centre for Teaching and Learning, and I have been working flat out all summer, that it will allow us to provide online courses in the fall that are thought through as online courses, even if they aren’t full eConcordia courses.

What I would like to see is a high level of student success in the fall semester. I would like to hear that our online services have improved and identify those areas that are not working, so we can correct them for the future.

Have any issues from the summer semester been addressed for the fall semester?

The people teaching in summer had very little time to turn around and develop those courses. We did surveys of students in the spring and in the summer to determine their experiences. There’s been a lot of conversation going on between our Centre for Teaching and Learning and faculty members, sometimes whole departments. They’ve had dozens of meetings with departments to help people think through how they can deliver their course content online in a more interesting fashion. A big part of that conversation is encouraging faculty to rethink some of the assessment modules that they’ve used in the past, because the format is different, and familiarizing people with the kinds of technology and teaching aides available in an online environment. There’s been a lot of work behind the scenes this summer to give faculty a higher degree of comfort with this online design.

How has this unexpected change altered your vision for Concordia?

We used to say “Disruption is coming, and we need to be a university that is prepared for disruption,” but we didn’t think of COVID. Part of the answer to that is, how are we able to adapt? What are the things we can do in the current context? What lessons can we learn that can be applicable to the post-COVID reality? What is it that we are learning from the online experience? What can we keep and what can we integrate going forward, hopefully, as we return sooner rather than later to an in-person format? We also know there is a fairly healthy appetite for online. About two-thirds of Concordia students had taken at least one eConcordia class before COVID happened.

This isn’t about moving Concordia fully online. No one has that as an ambition, but are there some things we can learn from high-quality online teaching that we can integrate going forward?

We know some students feel more comfortable in an online environment. They find it easier to ask a question in a chat or in an email to a faculty member than they would putting their hand up in H-110. There’s an opportunity if it’s prepared well and supported well to create peer mentoring through chats that can be deployed as well. It’s a part of the experiment—what works really well in an online environment and what would we want to keep going forward? Some of our in-person teaching activities, if people are more comfortable with digital tools, they could apply in an in-person environment or a hybrid environment as well.

What conditions would have to be met to bring everyone back to campus in the winter?

That’s a public health issue. We’re working with the head of public health in the city of Montreal, Dr. Drouin, to discuss and monitor the ongoing public health situation in Montreal. There are particular challenges for a downtown university like Concordia because most of our teaching takes place in the vertical skyscraper type buildings that are 14, 17 storeys tall. To respect the current physical distancing that’s required, we did a calculation: if we wanted to move 30 per cent of the students into the Hall Building, where most of our teaching takes place—you’ve been to the Hall Building, you know what we’re looking at—we’ve got two passenger elevators and a freight elevator, an escalator, and a stairwell. With social distancing it would take nine-and-a-half hours to get the first class in. That’s obviously not a viable option.

What we’re experimenting with instead are activities that we’re trying to design using our green spaces, using our first-floor amphitheatres on both campuses, that would allow for student activities. Not for classes per se, but for meetings, for workshops, things of that nature. How can we begin to bring a limited number of students to campus or give them the opportunity, if they feel comfortable, to come back to campus under those conditions in the fall?

Every time over the last two months that we’ve opened up the campus to some level of activity, it’s always been a learning experience. We started in June opening our labs. We have about 180 labs open right now, and that’s given graduate students an opportunity to come back on a limited basis. Every time we do that, we’re learning about the protocols we need to follow, and we’ve been able, over the course of the summer, to bring back a limited number of people to both campuses in a healthy fashion, and we hope to do the same in the fall.

How do you justify keeping the tuition the same for online classes?
When students are paying for tuition, what are they paying for? Before COVID happened, if students were registered for an in-person or eConcordia version of finance 101, let’s say, they paid the same tuition. The tuition is not for the delivery format, it’s related to the competencies they develop in the course and the credit value assigned to the course. The courses that are being delivered in the fall, like the courses that were being delivered in the summer, will have the same learning objectives in terms of competencies and skills that students develop and they’ll be valued at the same credit level. So that’s why tuition stays the same. For me, that’s the most fundamental argument.

There’s a secondary argument, which is important. The reality is that the cost of moving to an online environment is very significant for all universities at this moment. I know there’s a perception that you go online and you’re saving cost. I can assure you that the contrary is true. Right now we’re incurring very significant costs in terms of instructional technology and licenses that we’ve needed to acquire and building up our curriculum support teams.

There have been petitions circulating, some with over 1,000 signatures, calling for reduced tuition. Is the administration taking any of that into consideration?
In the Quebec context, tuition is set by the provincial government. So the government of Quebec mandated a 3.1 per cent increase in tuition, and we’re implementing that. We don’t have the luxury to modify the tuition at Concordia. [Editor’s note: This does not apply to international students, whose tuition is set by the university, with some exceptions.]

How will mental health resources and psychology services be adapted to serve students online?

Our health service centre on the downtown campus remains open for people who need the service in person, but we’ve significantly increased the amount of support that we’re providing for mental health in particular. There’s a resource page on Concordia’s coronavirus website that provides more details. We’ve also increased, through Counselling and Psychological Services, follow-up tele-counselling outside of office hours—students have access to 24/7 telecounseling. It’s something we’ve been very mindful of—not just around mental health but also for health promotion in other aspects of well-being through the online environment. This is a major concern about the online environment. It’s not just the academic environment, it’s the level of support that we can provide to students, and how we can provide some sense of virtual community.

How will fee-levies be impacted?

Fee-levies are managed by the Concordia Student Union and we don’t interfere with that at all. We’ve had conversations with the People’s Potato, because they provide a service to the external community, about whether we could allow them to function—not to bring people to campus, but to deliver food outwardly. We’re certainly aware of the services the CSU and the Graduate Students’ Association provide for their members.

“With social distancing it would take nine-and-a-half hours to get the first class in. That’s obviously not a viable option.” — Graham Carr.

Your letter about Concordia’s commitment to diversity was mentioned in the Black Lives Matter petition addressed to the university. What actions have been taken, and are any of them in line with what was laid out in the petition?

We’ve had many conversations over the course of the summer with different groups on campus, including some of the authors of the petition, including the Black Caucus, including faculty members, staff, and students who are engaged in those issues. It’s been a really fruitful series of conversations over the course of the summer. We’ve discussed a number of actions that we feel collectively could and should be taken, we’re just trying to finalize what we will be prepared to announce in the coming weeks. It’s been a very active and positive summer in terms of discussions, and I think the thread of the conversations has been how can Concordia—which has a strong history of commitment to social justice issues and diversity—be a leader in the higher educational realm for how we’re attempting to address these issues of Black Lives Matter on the one hand but other kinds of diversity as well.

Can we get a more specific idea on what’s been going on over the summer in regards to the petition?

We’ve had a number of meetings with the authors of the petition—with the Black Caucus—and the CSU. One of the first meetings we had was with the CSU about these issues. The thrust of those meetings has been to have a conversation around “Okay, what are the actions that we could and should take as a university?” We’ve pretty much come to an agreement on that. Once it’s finalized, we’ll move forward with an announcement.

That should be at the beginning of the fall semester?

Ideally, yeah. We want to make sure we have the consensus before we make the announcement. That’s the timeline we’d like to make before we make the announcement. I think we’re on track for that.

How do you plan to put these actions into effect on a closed campus?

We have some experience with this with the Indigenous Directions initiative the university took a couple of years ago. That’s been a very important model for us, not that we want to replicate everything that is being done in Indigenous Directions, but in terms of engagement with the community as a whole.

There’s an additional challenge with engagement in a virtual environment as opposed to an in-person environment, but we’re learning how we can be more and more effective in that virtual environment. We’ve talked with a very large number of individuals who are interested and committed and want to be a part of this process, so I feel very optimistic about that, in terms of there being champions on campus for the actions we want to take. I’m confident once we have agreed on the details and make an announcement, there will be a number of actions deliberately attempting to mobilize people around a diverse set of issues, some of which are from the petition. Others have come up in discussion.

There were also some calls to improve the university’s sexual assault resources. How will those resources be adapted to serve students remotely?

We have made a number of changes to the policies on how we handle sexual assault, which were approved in the spring of this year. We’ve tried to simplify the process in that the Sexual Assault Resource Centre will become the point of entry for victims, for complaints. We’ve also tried to develop—because this was identified as a serious gap in our previous protocols—much better support for victims from the moment they come forward through the process as a whole. Those are a couple of actions we’ve taken. SARC, like all the other services the university offers, has adapted to an online environment. The activities and services they provide continue to be available. The major changes are the changes to the policy, but it’s more the change and the approach we’re taking in terms of the feedback that we got from the community engagement we did around sexual assault. For me, those are open issues. If there are things we don’t do and have to modify and improve our practices, we should be open to that.

This fall, we’ll be starting another round of sexual awareness training on campus, the online training we piloted this year. That’s an important step, and it was designed for an online environment.

Will there be any resources specifically for victims of domestic abuse, especially while under quarantine?

Our health services, our mental health services, our sexual assault services they’re available. If individuals call with a concern, if it’s a concern we can handle at the university, we certainly will. If it’s a concern that’s beyond the jurisdiction of the university, obviously we’re in touch with other support networks across the city that might be better designed to help in a particular case.

This article originally appeared in The Disorientation Issue, published September 8, 2020.