Two out of five student media outlets attended a first-ever university news conference with Concordia president Judith Woodsworth. CUTV and the Concordian attended the media conference, which lasted about 30 minutes last Tuesday afternoon at Woodsworth’s office in the GM building.
Also present were university chief financial officer Patrick Kelley, director of media relations Chris Mota and Woodsworth’s chief of staff Jonathan Levinson.
Topics discussed included tuition and student participation.
Woodsworth, along with heads of other Quebec universities, has come out in favour of unfreezing tuition caps. When asked about how she would personally address a student who could no longer afford to attend school because of tuition increases, Woodsworth at first skirted around the question, offering what sounded like a prepared statement. She discussed needing to increase tuition in order to close a $500 million funding gap. A gap which is partly attributed to Quebec’s low tuition in comparison to the rest of Canada. Though she initially came to Concordia in favour of lowered tuition, Woodsworth now said that “all of us are agreed that you can’t improve the education in Quebec without some form of tuition increase.”
When prompted on how she would answer a student on the verge of quitting school, Woodsworth responded: “I would take the student, and I would have the student go to our financial aid office, and look at what’s available in terms of funding. We’ve got scholarship programs, bursary programs, we’ve got work available on campus.”
“Usually we can support people and they shouldn’t have to drop out,” Woodsworth added. “We can give them financial counselling, too.”
Financial aid, in her view, should be limited to deserving students however. “I think we can support students who really need the money,” she said, “and there are some students who don’t need the money as much because the either have money themselves or their parents can help them.”
Mota added that there did not seem to be a “direct correlation between tuition levels and enrolment,” noting higher enrolment in Ontario.
Responding to her comments at the Sept. 24 Shuffle bursary fundraiser that it would have been nice to see more students, Woodsworth said she understands students are busy. But, the president also said “I just came from the gym downstairs. The gym was full of people busy exercising and that’s great; they should be on their treadmills … If they’re on a treadmill in the gym, that’s wonderful, they could get off the treadmill and spend an hour and 15 minutes doing the shuffle.”
“It would send a good message if we had that unified campus,” she continued, noting that Concordia staff have great spirit. “It would be nice if the students also felt that Concordia was a place they could participate [in].” She compared Concordia’s urban campus, where students go home at the end of the day, to a rural campus where there is not much else to do, except get involved.
Woodsworth also said she liked going out and talking to students, though most students who approach her on the street do not usually raise “big issues.” As part of her campaign to make herself more available to students, Woodsworth has initiated the Open to Question series, sends an email newsletter to all students, and addresses new students at orientation sessions.
As for the $1 campaign, where students were encouraged to send emails and make a $1 transaction on their tuition payments before paying them in full, “seven people paid $1,” Kelley said.
“I don’t think it’s been a huge success,” said Woodsworth, acknowledging that students have a right to protest.
Kelley also attempted to explain the $41 million loan approved at the last Board of Governors meeting. “It’s a very complicated financial process called grant bonds,” said Kelley, elaborating that the university must first borrow money to cover projects supported by the provincial government, which would afterward be fully reimbursed by the government. It’s a common practice, he said, among universities and hospitals, and must be approved by the board.
Media outlets were asked to submit their questions a few days before the event. Concordia’s director for media relations Chris Mota explained that this was to prepare the president to answer the questions, not to censor.
Regarding the low turnout by campus media, Mota said: “I don’t think it’s disappointing. I think it’s something new.” Woodsworth echoed the same sentiments.
The event was modelled on a weekly sit-down at Ryerson University in Toronto by the president with student media. A tentative date for another press conference has been set for November, with plans to make it a regular feature, said Mota.