By Johanne Adam
The University of Ottawa has just named a new vice-president academic and provost. David E. Graham, who starts in his position May 1, made his mark in the academic world pursuing a dual career path as a professor/researcher and an administrator. Until recently, he was a professor in the French studies department at Concordia University, where, for four years, he was also provost and vice-president, academic affairs.
We wanted to learn more about Graham, who agreed to share a few words with the Gazette.
What is the role of a VP academic and provost?
It’s really up to the president to define exactly how he wants the position to be configured. But generally speaking, the VP academic is the chief academic officer of the University. [In that respect] I will be responsible for a number of academic and administrative matters, including oversight of all the academic faculties and the University library, but also for such matters as program development.
What are your priorities for uOttawa?
The University has quite a sound strategic development plan in Destination 2020. […] To a large extent, my priorities over the next year will be generated by the work that has already been done [under this plan]. But my absolute top priority at the beginning will be to immerse myself in what is for me a new culture. I will talk to as many people as I possibly can, and when I say talk, what I really mean is listen, and get people to tell me about what they see as our strengths, opportunities and challenges.
In your opinion, what are the main challenges for the University?
Universities everywhere are facing the most challenging financial environment that I can remember in my 45 years as a faculty member and administrator. They face stern challenges in trying to accommodate the growing number of students with legitimate aspirations to a university degree, while trying to create the conditions that will enable them to attract and retain faculty members of the highest possible ability as teachers and scholars.
We are also at an interesting time where the respect for experts has never been more fragile. There is a deep rooted and growing suspicion of experts of all kinds. These are enormous challenges and they are not likely to go away any time soon.
How can we improve the student experience in 2017?
Students value responsiveness and humanity on the part of institutions. Their complaints tend to focus on the facelessness of large bureaucracies, slow response to problems and lack of pathways to finding solutions to common problems. There are also those more obvious matters such as financial support. But academic and psychosocial support structures have grown vastly in importance. Universities wanting to improve the student experience need to think not just in academic terms, but also in terms of listening to students to identify their priorities and their needs and actually do something to meet those needs as much as possible.
How did you get to be perfectly bilingual?
I was born in Ontario but I grew up in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. When I was little, my parents enrolled me in additional French courses that were offered to students after classes. For my parents, this was just an opportunity for their children to be enriched. Later, I entered university intending to study chemistry. But I quickly understood that this path wasn’t for me. In second year, I was fortunate to take a French course that I passed easily. So I switched from chemistry to French language and literature.
What do you think of Ottawa?
I first discovered this bilingual city when I came to study at Carleton University. Then, years later, when I was involved with the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, I had to travel to Ottawa many times. It’s a city that I really love for its natural and architectural beauty, its rich museums and its cultural life.
Ottawa is well known for its bike paths and museums. Where are we most likely to run into you?
On a bike path heading to a museum!