New year, new president: 10 minutes with Graham Carr

Following Alan Shepard’s seven-year mandate, Graham Carr is stepping in as new Interim President at quite a euphoric and challenging time for the university.

Concordia recently took a significant jump among the 2,000 worldwide universities ranked by the annual Center for World University Rankings; the largest surge in any Canadian university in the past year. As social movements are calling for educational reform and a change in power dynamics, seizing the momentum will be one of Carr’s greatest challenges. So, what’s next?

Graham Carr

Carr: I have been in a leadership position at Concordia for quite a number of years. I think I have been part of a lot of decision making since 2006.  We have incredible momentum at the moment and we want to seize that momentum, continuing in our strategic direction. But always asking what can we do more? What can we do next? There is a terrific opportunity for us in terms of increasing our visibility of the university – nationally and internationally. How can we continue to improve the student experience at the university and increase our research impact for Quebec and Canadian society? Those are all priorities for us; the appetite to grow, the thirst for knowledge and curiosity about what’s different, those are pretty good drivers for education. You can’t stand still if you’re always thinking of the next generation. We need to always be in that mode of constantly refreshing our reflection about who we are and where we want to go.

Such mentality undeniably helped Concordia’s worldwide reputation, but how can you explain its latest jump in the rankings? 

Carr: We have made a conscious effort in Quebec to be better known, to recruit the majority of our students. More than 70 per cent of our students come from Quebec. We are bringing about 25 per cent francophones into the university now, as well as our international students mix. I think that is also a way of communicating to a wider world, who we are and what we can do.

A student’s experience is something quite personal. Every voice is different. In a university which holds more than 50,000 undergraduate and graduate students, how do you balance the interests of every student? 

Carr: That is a challenge! Part of the issue is to realize that in a large comprehensive university like Concordia, people’s needs are different. What might work in business school, doesn’t work in the science labs. The needs of students for apprenticeship opportunities in aerospace engineering, for instance, are different than a student who wants a global experience, like the chance to study another language, another culture in another part of the world. So, the starting point for trying to be successful is to understand what the different needs in the university are, and to realize that with the resources you have are not infinite – how you can use [those resources] in a way that has a big impact for as many students as possible.

When you look back on your own student years and the impact that education and different experiences had on you, what do you wish to bring upon Concordia?

Carr: I think if you want to be successful in higher education, whether you are a student or staff or administrator, it’s because, fundamentally, you want to learn. The university has changed a lot since I have been here. It has gone from strength to strength. I think it’s just really an opportunity for everybody’s growth; growth in terms of your curiosity, your network. If you are a student, you have the opportunity to grow and discover areas that you are interested in; to meet new people, to build your network. Equally, I would like to believe that for the staff’s faculty, for university administrators, it’s also all about growth. It’s all about looking for ways to improve and do things differently -– being curious about what makes a next-generation university. Those are the things that I find excited about the job. I’m, frankly, learning new things every day. I meet people that I wouldn’t otherwise meet. For example, when I was in the research sector of the university, I got the chance to learn a lot about fields of knowledge and expertise that I didn’t know.

It’s true that it’s usually once you have graduated that you realize how many opportunities were presented to you through the university…

Carr: Yes! It’s about the best opportunity. As a student – and I don’t want this to be misunderstood – you have the luxury of time. You have time to explore, to experiment. And I’m sure many students have started down one pathway and realized “that’s really not for me, here’s a different path that I didn’t know about and that looks very exciting.” 

Your own path led you to this presidency. The very nature of being a positive leader is in itself fascinating, but as we are running out of time, what would be a must-quality?

Carr: Top quality for leaders? Can it be two? I think one is the ability to listen. Then, the other is the ability to foster success in people and encourage them to do their best and get the best out of them. Short and sweet. That would be it!

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