On the return to in-person classes amid COVID-19, vaccination policy, and more.
President and vice-chancellor of Concordia University, Graham Carr, spoke with The Concordian about the gradual return of in-person instruction, the construction of a new building for the Concordia Student Union (CSU), and the strategy for the university’s success on a global scale.
TC: With the fall semester just a week away, how ready is Concordia for a gradual return to in-person classes?
GC: I think we’re pretty ready for a gradual return to in-person classes. I think a lot of people in our community are also really looking forward to coming back.
TC: In this hybrid semester, how will the university provide students with the best learning experience while also mitigating the risk of COVID-19?
GC: Those are… the two most important goals for this semester. We want to do our utmost to make sure that students have as great of an experience as possible academically, whether they’re here in person, studying remotely, or doing a mix of in-person and online. And of course, as we have been doing over the last 18 months, we’re very focused on the health and safety of the community.
The deans, led by the Provost, over the course of the summer really took their time to think through the schedule that they wanted to offer students for fall. That meant thinking through which courses they felt could productively be delivered online that may not have been delivered online before, and which courses were going to offer an important in-person component or a hybrid component as well.
One of the things that motivated the decisions in all of the faculties was making sure that there were a significant number of online courses targeted to students who we knew might have difficulties being in Montreal in person, particularly international students. So we did a mapping of which courses had high international student enrollment and were compulsory for programs, and have tried to make sure that we have online components there.
TC: If an international student’s arrival is delayed by the 14-day quarantine (or other issues related to vaccination or travel) — and they have in-person courses — would Concordia be able to accommodate them in any way?
GC: Yes. We’ve been messaging with international students directly for months now, because it’s been a challenging environment for international student travel generally. And the instructions that we were getting from federal and provincial authorities were that students should be planning … to start arriving in Canada in mid/late August, and we know that a number of international students are already arriving.
But others, for the reasons you described, won’t be able to be here at the beginning of the semester. So what we have done is we’ve set a deadline for Nov. 8, which is the add/drop date, and have given students that leeway to arrive in Montreal — which is important for the visa processing that they all need to go through as well. So we’re trying to be as flexible as possible and, in the meantime, provide those students … with a way to begin their semester in an online environment.
TC: Concordia has encouraged both international and local students to get vaccinated as soon as possible. But some Canadian institutions such as the University of Ottawa and Carleton University have gone even further, making vaccination mandatory for all students and staff to continue studying or working on campus. Is Concordia considering using the same approach anytime soon?
GC: In Quebec, the government has deemed higher education to be an essential service. And we are not … allowed to deny essential services to individuals on medical grounds. … To be quite honest, I think we are, like other universities in the province, reluctant to demand mandatory vaccines when it’s not clear how we would implement that. It’s not clear how we would monitor that, particularly on university campuses, which have many, many, many points of entry.
So instead, what we will be doing is taking advantage of something that’s unique in Quebec, which is the vaccine passport. What we are looking at is how we can apply the vaccine passports for non-essential activities that happen on the campus: things like going to the gym for recreational purposes, going to Reggies, going to cafeteria and other food places, or attending cinema events that are not academic. If we can implement those measures on campus, our feeling is that will further encourage and incentivize unvaccinated people (whether they’re faculty, staff or students) to get vaccinated.
We will have vaccination sites on both campuses, which we’re mounting in collaboration with public health and the city of Montreal, and we’ll have mobile vaccination units as well. Now there’s also a kiosk at the Trudeau Airport which allows international students … to get vaccinated once they arrive, if they are not fully vaccinated at that point.
So I think when you put together the ensemble of those measures, over the already-high vaccination rate that students in Quebec have achieved*, I feel that there’s quite a good range of measures that are in place … to help us ensure a safe experience for everyone.
* In Quebec, over 82 per cent of university and CEGEP students are either fully vaccinated or have booked their second dose appointment, thus exceeding the provincial government’s original target of 75 per cent.
TC: If Santé Québec ends the provincial mask mandate later this fall, which would apply to university classrooms as well, will Concordia follow suit and make masks optional on campus then?
GC: Well, I’m not going to forecast what may or may not happen. Obviously, that would be a major decision on the part of Santé Québec. You may remember that it was McGill and Concordia that insisted upon mandatory masking (including in classes) with procedural masks, not face coverings. And subsequently, that became policy for the higher education sector as a whole, as we see, as of [Aug. 24] for certain elementary and secondary school districts as well. The public health situation has been evolving.
If we’ve learned one thing over the course of the last 17 months or so, it’s the challenge of predicting where the next bend in the COVID-19 road will occur. And I think our track record has been pretty good in terms of adapting to those changes in ways that maintain the health and safety of our community. Obviously, we work very closely with public health authorities, and we would certainly cross that bridge when we get to it — I think is the best answer at this point.
TC: Earlier in March, the CSU held a referendum on a variety of issues, including the construction of a new building for the CSU, and nearly 85 per cent of all students who participated voted in favour of the project. With the CSU saying that it will provide a new “space for events, social gatherings and new services,” does the Concordia administration support this project? And if so, how would you collaborate with the CSU to make this plan a reality?
GC: In 2019-20, the then-head of the Concordia Student Union began meeting with me and more importantly with Roger Côté, who was the vice president of services at that time, to discuss exactly how we would collaborate on creating the student union building.
Those conversations obviously got interrupted because of COVID. There was a change in the CSU with the elections for the 2020-21 team, but conversation resumed late in the 2021 mandate — probably around the time when the referendum was taken — between the CSU and our facilities management people, led by Michael Di Grappa, who is now the vice president for services and sustainability. So the university has been very open to that.
There’s been talk at Concordia for decades, frankly, about having a Concordia Student Union building on the downtown campus. Equally importantly, we want to make sure that in the coming years, we improve student services on the Loyola campus as well. I know that’s something that the current CSU leadership is also interested in. There’s a report which is due on the animation and future of the Loyola campus, which had student representation over the last year and a half. I’m looking forward to seeing that report. So for us, how we can, as a university, improve student services, including places for students is important, but not just on the downtown campus — on both campuses.
TC: Last year, Concordia was ranked first in Canada of all universities under 50 years old. Going forward, what will be your strategy to not only maintain Concordia’s reputation among Canadian universities, but also to increase its prestige on an international level?
GC: That’s an important priority for us, because we know that one of the things which is hugely motivating for students in selecting a university are the rankings.
I would say that looking forward, … one of the areas where we’re really focusing is on sustainability, and particularly the work that we’re doing to advance the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). So there is the Times Higher Education Impact Rankings, which measure how universities are performing against the 17 UN SDGs. By performance, they’re measuring not only their academic and research activity, but also what’s called the stewardship of the goals: how the institution advances the goals through its own operational practices, its external partnerships, etc.
And earlier this spring, … Concordia was ranked 62nd in the world, for the work that we’re doing on advancing the SDGs. And in three categories, we were actually ranked in the top 25 in the world; in one of those categories, which was reducing inequalities, we were ranked number one in Canada.
This will not only improve the impact that Concordia is making as a university for the community and society at large, but it will bring recognition internationally for us. … We announced in the spring that we wanted to undertake a map of voluntary university review, to map how we are performing against each of the UN sustainable development goals — that process has begun. And I think it’s something that’s very exciting, very mobilizing for the community as a whole, and has a great opportunity to position Concordia as a leader internationally.
TC: Is there anything you would like to say personally to all Concordia students ahead of the new academic year?
GC: I want to wish everybody good luck! I have to say it will be nice to see more people on campus in the fall.
I recognize fully that there’s a spectrum of opinions, attitudes and concerns about the return to campus, and I appreciate that some students and some faculty, staff and administrators have misgivings about returning because of the public health situation. But I think we have to be feeling so much better than we felt a year ago at this time.
There’s still uncertainty, but the situation 12 months later is that we can offer a rich mix of in-person and online activities. Our online courses continue to improve because of what we’ve learned over the course of the last 17 months. And more importantly, we’re able to bring society to reopen in part because of the success of the vaccination program, which was not the case a year ago.
I fully expect that everybody coming on the campus should be vaccinated at this point, unless they have a valid medical or religious reason not to be. And if there are students, faculty or staff who still are not fully vaccinated, my message to them is:
Please, get fully vaccinated. Not only for your sake, above all, but also for the health and safety of the community as a whole.
Photo courtesy of Concordia University