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Concordia at 40: Poised for a bright future

The university has built upon its founders’ strengths to evolve into a thriving educational and research institution
September 8, 2014
By Julie Gedeon

Students heading into fall classes or buying a Stingers hoodie along with new course packs at the Concordia Bookstore are following in the footsteps of four decades of students — now alumni — as the university celebrates its 40th anniversary this fall.


“Concordia has matured into a world-class learning and research institution while never losing sight of its roots,” says President Alan Shepard. “The result is a university in which we can all take pride, with goals grounded in dynamism and social responsibility.”

Hardly anyone gives the shuttle bus ride between the Sir George Williams and Loyola campuses a second thought today, but the idea of those founding institutions merging initially caused some unease. “When you join together two lively institutions, each with its own philosophies and ways of doing things, each firmly dedicated to freedom of thought and speech, you must expect a measure of friction,” said the late John O’Brien, former rector and vice-chancellor, one week prior to the merger.

Fortunately, faculty, staff and students quickly realized that while Loyola and Sir George Williams differed in character, they shared the goal of delivering an accessible, quality higher education. In 1975, O’Brien observed: “There are still people, particularly from other parts of Canada, who say, ‘So you did finally get together.’ Yes, we have got together, there is a new university, and its reputation is being affirmed here and now.”

Named after the Englishman who founded the Young Men’s Christian Association, Sir George Williams traces its origins to classes offered by the YMCA in 1873. The institution grew into Sir George Williams College by 1926 and began granting university degrees in 1936-37. By 1959, it was the first Canadian university to offer a full range of evening programs.


The Jesuit Loyola College, founded in 1896, started offering some evening courses for part-time students in 1958, a year prior to opening its doors to women and welcoming people from more varied backgrounds.

The two institutions came together to form Concordia, whose name was derived from Montreal’s Latin motto Concordia salus — meaning well-being through harmony. “It’s that increasing openness and flexibility that Concordia has embraced from both of its founders that has resulted in enrolment climbing from 27,000 in 1974 to more than 46,000 today,” Shepard says.

Today, Concordia offers some 500 undergraduate and graduate programs, diplomas and certificates, through its Faculty of Fine Arts, Faculty of Arts and Science, Faculty of Engineering and Computer Science, John Molson School of Business and School of Graduate Studies.

International appeal

Concordia continues to draw many students in part because of the reputation it has earned for welcoming those of diverse origins, cultures and socio-economic backgrounds. The university now attracts more than 8,700 students from outside Quebec annually. “Upwards of 6,300 students arrive from more than 150 other countries — an international student body that was minimal at Concordia and elsewhere in North America 40 years ago,” Shepard notes. “Another 2,400 students join our community from the rest of Canada.”


The university has worked towards helping out-of-towners feel more at home by establishing new student accommodations as part of the extensive renovations and restorations this summer at the Grey Nuns Residence, an iconic former convent on René-Lévesque Blvd. The transformation of the splendid convent and chapel establishes a quiet reading room for up to 240 students — a haven within the city.

Concordia has welcomed many of the world’s top academics who have fostered a climate of research and innovation that spurs graduates to publish 500 theses a year on average and garner many prestigious awards for their pioneering work.

The university has encouraged innovative research by putting a significant portion of its $600 million investment in infrastructure over the past decade into interdisciplinary facilities such as the Centre for Structural and Functional Genomics, and the Hexagram-Concordia Centre for Research-Creation in Media Arts and Technologies. “Concordia has aligned itself with Montreal’s economic fabric by embarking on initiatives that bolster the city’s health fields and technology/gaming sectors with innovative research and a highly qualified labour pool,” Shepard says.

The university’s value to the Quebec economy is estimated at $1.3 billion annually. It also benefits from contributions from its 188,000 alumni, 95,000 of whom reside in the university’s home province. Graduates from other provinces and countries have become key champions as well.

As Concordia’s scientists have connected to Canada’s leading research networks, external initiatives such as the United Nations’ new Future Earth program for global sustainability, the Solar Buildings Research Network, and the National Cyber-Forensics and Training Alliance of Canada have chosen to launch their respective bases at the university. This presence propelled its research funding to more than $44 million last year.


Concordia has expanded dramatically over the past dozen years. On the Sir George Williams Campus, the university has built the Engineering, Computer Science and Visual Arts Integrated Complex and the John Molson School of Business Building, as well as purchased the Grey Nuns Building, while the Loyola Campus has added the state-of-the-art Richard J. Renaud Science Complex, Communication Studies and Journalism Building, Centre for Structural and Functional Genomics, and PERFORM Centre.

Plans are in the works for significant transformations to the R. Howard Webster Library and Georges P. Vanier Library, which now open 24/7 to meet demand. Concordia has achieved substantial progress in offering digitalized information and online availability to students by lending tablets and laptops, providing a wireless network and establishing free and open access to scientific findings.

Concordia’s influence extends locally and globally. Its reach extends into the local community by inviting neighbours at both campuses to participate in projects such as the better health through improved lifestyle programs at the PERFORM Centre and the Concordia Volunteer Abroad Program.

As Concordia fetes its 40th anniversary throughout the coming year, it will look back — and forward. “We are poised for a bright future as a next-generation university,” Shepard says.

—with additional research by Kayla Morin

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