Alan Shepard's first day as Concordia University's new president was Aug. 1, the day Quebec was plunged into an election campaign with university financing as a central theme after spring tuition protests ground Montreal to a standstill. Yet he insists he isn't daunted by the powder keg he calls his new home.
"I am the kind of person who loves taking – I hope – smart, calculated risks," said the 51-year-old U.S.-born academic, who served most recently as Ryerson University's popular provost.
It is easy to see Concordia's top job as a mixture of possibility and peril. With 46,000 students, and applications on the rise, Concordia has plenty of potential. But it is also emerging from one of the more tumultuous chapters in its history: two presidents ousted in the space of three years, a public report citing an imbalance of power in the senior ranks and a culture of mistrust, and a $2-million fine from Quebec's government as punishment for being too generous in doling out severance to some departing administrators.
The interim leadership of Frederick Lowy – a well-liked past president who returned in a peace-making role – combined with changes to the university's leadership structure and substantial turnover on the board of governors have steadied the ship. With transparency and good governance still top of mind, Dr. Shepard is eager to close the book on Concordia's woes.
"We're trying to look frontwards out of the car and not in the rear-view mirror, if I can put it that way," he said in an interview this week.
Dr. Shepard got an early reminder that the road ahead will likely have some bumps. When he was introduced to the Concordia community as the board's preferred presidential candidate at an April 24 event, as is the school's custom, about 20 striking students commandeered the meeting with a megaphone and chanted slogans. The event was canceled before Dr. Shepard said a word.
At the time, past board chair Lillian Vineberg wondered aloud "how anyone would want to be president after that," but Dr. Shepard took it in stride. "I was actually quite at peace with it," he said. "It was a small number of students disrupting an event that a lot of people had wanted to come to."
When discussing his ambitions for the Montreal school, he now has a common refrain. "Presidents are just people, and it takes the whole community to decide it's going to be a great university. It's not one person," said Dr. Shepard, a former English professor and Renaissance literature scholar at the University of Virginia, Texas Christian University and more recently in Guelph, Ont. "The whole place has to make up its mind – yeah, we're going to be a happening, great place."
It is an olive branch to the school's faculty and students, many of whom felt shut out after Dr. Lowy's predecessor, Judith Woodsworth, was abruptly pushed from the president's chair at the end of 2010. "You forget faculty governance and shared governance at your peril," he said. But it also has the ring of an appeal for as much civility as possible in the uncertain fall term to come.
Dr. Shepard faces an array of challenges, from the possibility that class boycotts could resume to his ongoing work improving his spoken French (he summered in Trois-Rivières, taking an immersion course with his partner and two adopted children). Still, he sees "an auspicious time" for Concordia, with "a sea change" coming in the way universities operate, and predicts an era when urban universities contribute to society's health and prosperity like never before.
He envisions a chance to build on Concordia's strengths, from business and engineering to less heralded interdisciplinary endeavours, such as the Centre for Technoculture, Art and Games, which joins faculties from engineering and computer science to fine art in exploring digital culture. He wants to raise the school's relatively modest research profile, although serving students remains his top priority. And with so many new faces in the school's leadership, he sees a window of opportunity to catch donors' interest, and to burnish the school's reputation – something his old boss, Ryerson president Sheldon Levy, taught him to guard carefully.
He also wants to nurture the same culture of entrepreneurship and innovation he helped grow at Ryerson, where students "wanted to do stuff – they didn't just want to sit in classes and take tests and get a diploma." Dr. Shepard cited Ryerson's student start-up incubator, the Digital Media Zone, and its two-year-old Centre for Urban Energy among his top accomplishments.
Even as he reflected on those successes, however, he noted once more it was a collaborative spirit that made them possible.
"Those were huge experiments and they're paying off very well. But, of course, they were risks," Dr. Shepard said. "That community had an incredible sense of trust in its leadership, and we had trust in the community. It was great."