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Gearing up for the fall term

Read a message from Concordia President Graham Carr
September 8, 2020
By Graham Carr

Dear colleagues,

Summer has come to an end and we’re about to embark on a fall term that will be very different from what we’re used to, to say the least.

Before turning our attention to the period ahead, I want to say, once again, how impressed and grateful I am for the hard work that so many of you have put in over the summer. We should all be proud of the incredible efforts that Concordia faculty and staff made to deliver the summer semesters and to prepare for fall classes. Equally, we should applaud the impressive suite of virtual supports and activities that have been put in place for our students.

As we continue to adapt to the virtual environment, you might be interested to know that we had the largest summer registration in Concordia’s history – and that was for summer courses that were only available online. We also had the lowest dropout rate ever for the same period. And despite the uncertain economic situation, staff in many programs worked creatively to place 800 students in internships over the summer, 629 of which were done remotely.

If you’ve been following the newsfeed on our website and in NOW, you’ll know that there’s been great coverage this summer of a host of stories about the accomplishments of our students, staff and researchers. It’s so pleasing to see Concordia’s expertise feature prominently in the public conversation on issues of the day. Those stories about the impact of our work are such an important part of building and expanding Concordia’s reputation. Indeed, it was gratifying to see that we continue to hold our own internationally in the THE rankings released last week.

Good news about campus re-opening

I’m extremely pleased to report on the success of our gradual campus reopening over the summer. More than 200 labs are now operating on both campuses and faculty members have been coming into their offices since early July to prepare for the fall semester or do research.

As of September 14, the Webster and Vanier libraries will be reopening at limited capacity to allow access to reserved single-seat study spaces for students. Priority will be given to those who are not able to study at home.

We’re also booking our greenspaces for use on both campuses and will soon be unveiling the process by which street-level atria and amphitheatres can be booked for university business meetings and para-academic activities.

While we continue to expect that the majority of our staff will work from home this fall, we‘re actively considering how we can facilitate office use for colleagues who have particular challenges working remotely. We’re aiming to announce a preliminary game plan later in September.

Looking at the term ahead

One thing the pandemic has done is increase the level of competition in the higher-education landscape. Students’ geographic mobility is obviously severely constrained and universities everywhere around the globe are being tested to demonstrate the quality of their virtual environment.

We’ve all seen the sobering examples south of the border, where a number of high-profile universities have had to quickly abandon their plans for an on-campus experience. While such situations may validate our decision to deliver fall 2020 almost entirely online, we need to recognize that students will judge us by the quality of the teaching we deliver and the opportunities for virtual engagement we provide them outside their courses.

As we start the term the encouraging news is that our registrations, at least in terms of head count, are holding steady with last year’s numbers. Our undergraduate and doctoral numbers are up somewhat but we’re lagging at the Masters level, particularly in certain non-research programs.

The challenge in the coming weeks will be to hold our registrations as best we can by giving our students a compelling learning experience, providing them with as much institutional support as possible, and remembering that for them, as well as for us, this is all uncharted territory.

In this context, I particularly want to thank those faculty members who have put in so much work to make course content available asynchronously. Making education accessible is one of Concordia’s founding values and providing student-centred flexibility is certainly one key to attracting and retaining students in the competitive online teaching environment.

Government relations

In July, the Government of Quebec announced that it was creating a new Ministry of Higher Education focused exclusively on universities and CEGEPs. This is extremely welcome news, as was the appointment of Danielle McCann, who had a long career in public service prior to joining politics, to head the portfolio. I’m looking forward to my first one-on-one meeting with her this week, which will give me the opportunity to introduce her to what makes Concordia a globally top-ranked university and a pillar of Quebec society.

Financial outlook

As you can appreciate, we’re inevitably very focused on the negative financial impact that the pandemic has had on our sector in general, and on Concordia in particular. We are pleased by the government’s recent announcement of significant financial support for student loans and bursaries, and we welcome the injection of $3.6 million to Concordia’s finances to address some of the challenges related to COVID. However, the emergency and transformational costs, net of savings, that we’ve experienced since mid-March far exceed this amount. It’s also quite certain that we’ll generate less tuition revenue this year because of a reduction in numbers of new international students.

Supporting faculty

I recognize very clearly the efforts that full- and part-time faculty are making to adapt their courses for the online environment. For some of you this has been an exciting process and for others, highly stressful.

Remember that if you need a space to record your classes or deliver them live, we have designated rooms for this in the John Molson (MB) and Faubourg (FB) Buildings at our SGW Campus, or at Loyola in the Central Building (CC). We also have mobile kits available to film your classes in labs or other locations. Please complete this form to reserve audio-visual equipment, a mobile filming kit or a studio with a dedicated technician.

To go a step further, I also want to commend our interim provost, our interim VP of research and graduate studies, and the faculty deans for decisions they have taken to reduce the service commitments by faculty in the semester ahead. Specifically, we won’t be doing program evaluations in the current context and will endeavor to reduce meeting frequency for certain committees while upholding university governance standards. In addition, researchers who’d like an extension on internal reporting requirements can contact the Office of Research, which will do its best to grant such requests wherever possible.

Supporting all our staff and personnel

One thing we cannot do as an institution or as colleagues is underestimate the toll that the last six months has taken on all of us, or the challenges the foreseeable future is likely to exact.

Not just at Concordia, but in many organizations in different sectors, there is growing concern that some personnel are reaching their mental limit after the strain of spending so long living and working in a kind of lockdown – particularly as there’s no clear end in sight. Therefore, we’re asking for your help, not just in terms of looking after your own personal health and being willing to seek out support if you’re encountering problems, but also by looking out for colleagues who may be showing some signs of distress.

Please remember that the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) is available to all faculty and staff during the COVID-19 pandemic. Concordia employees, including their spouses and dependent children, are now eligible to use the service at no extra cost.

Faculty and staff covered under the Concordia Health Plan now also have access to telemedicine services through Lumino Health Virtual Care. The virtual clinic allows users to chat with a nurse or doctor about their physical and mental health, or to receive a diagnosis or prescription.

COVID’s inequities

The pandemic has also exposed and exacerbated social inequities that are felt daily by members of our community. Members of racialized communities are experiencing greater health impacts. Many women are struggling to maintain work productivity remotely while carrying extra burdens of care for dependents. For Indigenous communities, pandemics have historically produced devastating social upheaval and often demographic catastrophe. And, of course, the Black Lives Matter movement demonstrates again the systemic nature of racial bias, including when it is institutionally ingrained.

Several members of my leadership team and I have been part of many constructive discussions over the summer about these topics and the actions the university must take to address them. I thank members of the Indigenous Directions Leadership Council, the Black Concordia Caucus, participants in our campus-wide EDI consultations and many more staff, students, faculty and alumni who have taken the time to share their views. In the coming weeks we will be making some important announcements on these issues that matter so greatly to our community.

Lessons learned

I want to thank all the members of my executive team and the heads of our unions who participated in a lessons-learned exercise about our experience of, and response to, the health emergency over the summer. Similarly, I am looking forward to the results of the questionnaire sent to the community about our handling of the COVID crisis. This feedback is crucial to understanding what we did well or need to improve, but also to our thinking about how, together, we can improve Concordia going forward in a very different context.

We also realize that department and college heads have taken on a particularly heavy burden these last few months, often dealing with an unprecedented range of issues. Following discussion with the interim provost and the deans, we will conduct a special lessons-learned exercise with this important group of leaders in our university over the coming weeks.

Questions about January

Although the fall semester is barely underway, I realize that some of you are already wondering, ’what about January?’

It’s a good question, but in this ever-evolving context of COVID we’re not yet ready to make a definitive decision. We expect to be able to make the call in the coming weeks, but you should understand that there are many variables to be taken into consideration.

What I can say is that we should all prepare ourselves for a winter semester that will resemble fall, with courses delivered online with limited in-person labs and studios, and most work done remotely. Should circumstances dramatically improve, it will be much easier to convert to more in-person activities than the other way around.

In this context, I’ll add that a working group of Montreal universities has recently been created by Dre Mylène Drouin, the Director of Public Health for the City of Montreal, to share information and collaborate on pandemic-related protocols and actions specific to our sector.

Wishing you the best of success

Finally, I want to wish all of you all an excellent start to the term and a productive semester ahead. Even under unusual circumstances the start of a new semester is always a moment for optimism and anticipation.

Yes, we will have our challenges, but there will also be many inspiring moments of great accomplishment and we need to do our collective best to savour and celebrate those.

Take care,

Graham Carr
President and Vice-Chancellor

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