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By Barbara Black
David Graham says he still has to learn the ropes, but he looks quite comfortable in the Provost’s office.
Graham, who came to Concordia in 2005 as Dean of Arts and Science, now finds himself academic head of the university, having become Provost on March 1.
Learning the ropes, in this case, means reading people’s expectations of his role — what he should be doing, and what he should back off and let the faculties do — and he has asked the deans for guidance on that question. He sees his role as managing the overall academic strategy of the university in a clear and consistent way.
His most urgent challenge will be dealing with stark financial reality, as the universities pressure the government to raise tuition fees over the objections of student groups.
“In her address to the Conseil des Relations Internationales de Montréal last week, [McGill Principal] Heather Munroe-Blum talked about the serious effect underfunding is having on all the Quebec universities. It’s a difficult political issue. Does the government have the courage to grasp the nettle?”
As the gap widens between Quebec’s artificially low fees and those of the other provinces, Graham worries that a rise in tuition will be increasingly hard for students to absorb.
Munroe-Blum also pointed out that attendance at university isn’t directly related to higher fees, he said. Fees are highest in Nova Scotia, yet that province has the highest proportion of students relative to population. In fact, keeping tuition fees artificially depressed may devalue higher education in the public mind.
“The strain on our government is enormous,” Graham said. “It already funds universities at a higher per-capita rate than the other provinces, and they face other demands, such as physical infrastructure.”
Straitened finances are prompting Concordia to build an integrated budget and planning process.
Graham explained that the university is coming out of a period of rapid growth, when an entrepreneurial spirit was encouraged. “We’ve done wonderfully, but that kind of rapid growth is no longer sustainable. We’re entering a period of having to manage with relatively flat revenues and rising costs.”
He smiled. “We all know a rising tide lifts all boats, but we don’t want any to be left high and dry when the tide goes out.”
He considers his two-and-a-half years as Dean of Arts and Science “a wonderful chapter, but a closed one,” and expects to work well with the current staff in the Provost’s office. By coincidence, he and President-Elect Judith Woodsworth come from a similar background in the humanities. All the more reason to remain sensitive to the particular needs of the other three faculties.
His own field of expertise is French emblem books of the 16th and 17th centuries, and his research has given him considerable experience with information technology. It’s a subject that fires him up.
“I hope I’m not just an uncritical enthusiast, but I am comfortable with it, because I’ve used it in my research and my teaching for a long time. It potentially offers great benefits. The best new technologies are becoming more accessible and more pervasive, and hence less noticeable.
“These technologies — social networking and online communities, for example — are increasingly interactive and immersive, and that has exciting implications for education.”
While Graham is a Canadian scholar of French literature, he had never before lived in Montreal, and loves it. “It’s a fabulous time to be at Concordia,” he said.
His wife is a McGill graduate who is pleased to be back in the city. Their family is spread across the continent. One son is a risk management analyst for a bank and lives in Toronto with a partner and small son, and the other just earned a graduate degree in linguistics and lives in Fort McMurray, Alta.