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President takes his leave with Concordia on the rise

“I feel passionate about Concordia and I’m thrilled to have been its leader”
June 20, 2019
By Doug Sweet


Ask departing Concordia President Alan Shepard whether it’s tough to leave when things are going well and his answer might surprise you. 

He feels he has done what he set out to do. He can leave with a feeling of comfort and satisfaction rather than regret and a sense of things left undone. 

Enrolment is up substantially since Shepard began his tenure in 2012. Funding for sponsored research is also up sharply over the same period, as is annual fundraising, with the university in the midst of a major campaign. Things are clearly well-steered. 

“I feel in some ways like I’ve done what I was meant to do at Concordia,” Shepard says. “I don’t mean that in some kind of grand cosmic sense, it’s just that I’m somebody who likes to build systems, give people opportunities, get people excited about ideas and get them to believe in themselves. 

“There’s something very satisfying – for me intellectually, professionally and personally – to say, ‘Wow! The team has done these amazing things!’ Because it’s not just me, it’s the team. For me, the excitement is plotting where you’re going, how you’re going to get there, and who’s going to be with you, and all of that. 

“So I feel like when we’re at cruising altitude it’s time for me to look for a new challenge – it’s just who I am.” 

That doesn’t mean Shepard, 57, who is leaving Concordia in June to take up the reins as president at Western University in London, Ont., doesn’t care about the place. And deeply. 

“I feel passionate about Concordia and I’m thrilled to have been its leader,” Shepard says. “I am constantly intrigued by the tension in its mission between access and excellence and the ways in which we’re trying to pursue both, and I believe strongly in the ways that education changes people’s lives. 

“I will take from Concordia all those examples of the transformation that education has over people and over a society. I like the entrepreneurial spirit of the place. And I like the sense of open debate. Sometimes that causes difficulties, but I think in general it’s a very lively, smart place, and not a place that’s complacent. I think complacency is pretty dangerous, so I really like that about Concordia.”

It doesn’t mean there aren’t some things he wanted to see through to completion. 

“One is the Campaign for Concordia. I wish I could have had the chance to bring it all the way across the finish line,” Shepard says. “I’m grateful that it’s doing well and we have really built a strong network of supporters. We’re doing kind of deep background work with alumni and alumni communities and principal donors that will pay off very well for Concordia over the next 15 or 20 years. I would have loved to have been there at the checkered flag. 

“I’ve said that for some big announcements or the close of the campaign, I want to come back. I want to be present.” Capital campaigns are hard work, Shepard says. “You have to earn trust and respect. That’s been one of the main themes of my presidency – trust and respect. I always feel if you get that right, everything else sort of falls into place. 

Spring 2018 convocation Alan Shepard with grads at Spring 2018 convocation.

Momentum is vital 

“We have a lot of graduates who have had prosperous lives and careers and they want to be asked to make a contribution to their alma mater. They want that opportunity to participate and to help us build and they want to be investors in the future of Concordia. I’m optimistic about that.” 

Then there’s athletics. Shepard notes that the university’s varsity facilities are “quite modest.” At Loyola, they might be described as “less than modest,” and in need of an upgrade. Facilities for recreational sports also need improvement, and could be a recruitment tool if handled well. 

On the academic front, he says, things are going well. “I would like to see continuing progress on some of our multidisciplinary programs, interdisciplinary work. There are some good things in the works, we’ve got some new programs coming on line, and have come on line, but we also need more. I think it’s a real challenge for all universities, not just Concordia, to keep the curriculum fresh. And the speed at which we’re able to do that – we need to get faster. All universities do.” 

Concordia is perhaps uniquely placed in Canada as a university able to make the jump to light speed as post-secondary education changes, dramatically and rapidly, in the coming years. 

“We’re just at the very beginning of the digital revolution.” Shepard says. “I have no idea, I don’t think any of us really knows, how profoundly it will change higher education, but it will for sure. 

“At Concordia, we’re teaching about 36,000 (of 50,000) students in online courses today. That number will grow. We’ll never be an online university, we’ll always be a face-to-face university. More online learning will not mean that we need fewer buildings or bricks and mortar. What we’re going to have is an intensification of the interpersonal exchanges, because a lot of the rote learning will happen online. And what you do in a classroom or a lecture hall or studio will be much more personalized education and very intense, maybe in small groups. 

“I think Concordia is extremely well positioned for the next phase, the next evolution of higher education,” Shepard says. “The urban nature, the diversity we have here, the kind of real education for the real world orientation that’s etched into our DNA – that’s all to the good. “I think there are big changes coming,” he says. 

“I think there will be hundreds and thousands of curriculum pathways. I think you’re going to see more personalization of education. It’s going to be an exciting time. And our sector is not one that changes very radically or very gracefully, so I think there could be some pretty rocky times, too.” 

Convocation, Spring 2018 Concordia Chancellor Jonathan Wener, Grand Chief Wilton Littlechild, LLD 18, Concordia President Alan Shepard.

Concordia is already a leader in Canada in online learning. 

“Historically,” Shepard says, “continuing education or adult learning has been the poor stepcousin for undergraduate degrees. It’s kind of on the side. It doesn’t get many resources or much attention. 

“But in this fast-paced world we’re talking about, it won’t matter if you’re 30, 40, 50, 60 or whatever, you’re going to want and need to keep up your learning and you’re going to keep your skills sharp by kind of coming in and out of the university. 

“I think Concordia’s better positioned for this than almost any institution I’m aware of. There needs to be a certain porosity to our boundaries. So, you’re 40 and you want to do a refresher. We shouldn’t make you do the six-month program, there should be some combination of online and/or weekend opportunities around your schedule, your kids’ schedules. There are huge, huge, huge opportunities there. And you’re starting to see some of the major institutions in North America start to wake up to this. There’s a lot of opportunity there and we can do a lot of good for the world.” 

One of the things universities will have to do is a better job of engaging with their communities, Shepard says, pointing to Concordia’s three-year-old Public Scholars Program as an example of how this engagement can occur. 

“The Public Scholars Program is a wonderful example of Concordia responding to the real world. One of my obsessions/passions is how universities engage with the communities that sponsor us. We owe the public the respect of helping them understand what’s happening inside our institutions and how we are contributing to the overall wellbeing of the society that sponsors us.

Gina Cody and Alan Shepard Snapping a selfie with Gina Cody at the 2018 Concordia Shuffle.

Elite institutions 

“The Public Scholars program was born out of this idea that we should try to close the gap between what’s going on inside the institution and social needs, questions and big problems that are facing society.”

The program, in partnership with the Montreal Gazette, trains next-generation PhDs to be public scholars, to communicate their ideas and their research to journalists and lay audiences, in order to better convey to non-academics the value of their work. 

For centuries, universities were elite institutions preparing society’s elite for elite work – physicians, lawyers, clergy, and such. More recently, they began training for more “middle class” jobs, like insurance, banking and so on.

“In the old days, we were at the margins of society in the sense that we were preparing the one per cent,” Shepard says. “These days we’re asked to be engines of commercial activity, engines of innovation – we’re asked to do so many more things than we once were. In the old days, we were asked to teach students, do some research, graduate them, and hope for the best. 

“Now, we’re seen as integral to this economic and innovation ecosystem that’s got high stakes, where the prosperity of a nation is in a large way tied to what’s happening inside the university.” 

Universities, he says, have to learn to move at a much faster pace if they are going to meet those challenges. 

That includes managing the earthshattering effects of social media. 

“It won’t be a surprise that I think social media has changed everything – sometimes for the better and sometimes not. We’re in a world where everyone with an iPhone is now a journalist and can post things before the university can really understand a situation, understand what’s going on – you have people commenting, criticizing us, proposing solutions, and that’s changed for sure, that’s changed for all of us. 

“It will have profound impacts on the notion of leadership, of institutional authority, institutional autonomy, the role of leaders, the speed and pace at which leaders must make decisions, how you handle a crisis. A crisis 20 years ago was something that would unfold over days and weeks. Now it unfolds in minutes, and it requires a different kind of response.” 

The presidency of a university, Shepard says, is really a service job. One of the main roles is to help others. “I’ve always gotten incredible personal and professional pleasure from helping other people succeed in their careers,” he says. “There’s a real joy in being able to bring people together, get them working together, get them wanting to collaborate with each other, finding the resources to make that collaboration possible, and helping them achieve their dreams.” 

Alan Shepard with Concordia students Alan Shepard with Concordia students.

9 strategic directions

Shepard’s deft handling of the development of new strategic directions for the university, including a rigorous consultative process that produced a dynamic road map, is the kind of modern approach to advancing an institution that has sparked praise from various corners of the university – and beyond. “I think people have been inspired by it. I hear that. People say it to me. People inside and outside Concordia say it to me.” 

Projects that emerged from the 9 Strategic Directions include: District 3, an innovation hub for entrepreneurs; 4TH SPACE, at once a science centre, living lab, theatre, design showroom and exhibition space that offers the public the opportunity to become a part of a unique experience; and the Public Scholars Program, which aids in the communication of research work to the general public. 

But that begs the question: how has Concordia changed Alan Shepard? 

Like most people in a world that travels at the speed of a smartphone, he has developed the multitasking and juggling skills required of a complex, sprawling job. Developing a divided attention span is par for the course these days, only more intensively when you’re leading a large university.

“There’s something about the pace, I think for all of us, but particularly if you have responsibility for an institution of this size, there’s something kind of non-stop about the role. That’s one thing that’s changed me. I’ve become extremely organized; I just have to be in order to survive. And I have a wonderful team of people who help me stay organized and really support my work and I’m very, very lucky to have them. We have a great team in the president’s office. 

“I’ve become more of an extrovert. I’m by nature an introvert, but I’ve become more of an extrovert. I also think I’m more careful about what I eat, getting enough sleep, certain basic things just so I can be well in the job. 

“I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to meet people from such fascinating walks of life. I’ve met Arctic explorers, I’ve met army generals, I’ve met people who were the first in their family to come here and they came from a war-torn country and now they’re thriving. I’ve met this huge range of people. In any given year, I must meet thousands of people and hear their stories. And that’s such an incredible joy and privilege for me.” 

What is he going to miss most about Montreal and Concordia? 

“I’m going to miss the energy and dynamism of the city. It sounds clichéd, but I’m going to miss the joie de vivre of the Island of Montreal, the obsession with public art, the interest in food and the arts. I find that incredible. It’s a very rich and complex place to live and that’s incredibly fun. “I’m going to miss Concordia very much,” says Shepard, who was recently named an Honorary Life Member of the Concordia University Alumni Association. “I’ve loved the can-do spirit of the place. I really love its mission.” 

Shepard doesn’t think university presidents leave legacies.

“I don’t have some kind of grand notion that presidents leave a legacy. I just don’t think it works like that. I think you do the best job you can do and then you hand the reins to somebody else. You hope that person does the best job they can. It’s a role, it’s an important role, but there are lots of important roles at the institution, and you just try to do the best job you can. 

“Overall, I’m really happy with the work I’ve done, and my team has done. I’ve built a diverse team and I’m proud of that. I think respect for Concordia is really doing well and that matters a lot to me. I think it’s a wonderful place. 

“I’m really proud of the respect and self-respect that people at Concordia are showing toward the institution. And I often say in my alumni talks that of the 9 Directions, the one that means the most to me is Take Pride. And my argument is that if people are taking pride, whether that be in their studies, their job, their research, the institution itself, whatever their job is here, if they take pride in Concordia, all the rest of it will fall in. 

“Because if you have pride in something, you’re wanting to nurture it, defend it, protect it and challenge it.”

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