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U of O president Jacques Frémont in an interview with the Fulcrum in April. Photo: Parker Townes/Fulcrum

Frémont discusses discrimination on campus, mental health in the community, potential impacts of Student Choice Initiative

The Fulcrum sat down with University of Ottawa president Jacques Frémont on Tuesday to get a sense of his goals for the year ahead and to discuss some of the challenges facing the university that have recently come to the forefront. 

Frémont touched on the U of O’s response to allegations of racism and racial profiling levelled at Protection Services, the impacts of the Student Choice Initiative, 10 per cent domestic tuition cut and changes to OSAP on the campus community, and what’s being done after a string of student deaths in residence last year.

Answers have been edited for length and clarity. 

The Fulcrum: What are some of your major goals for the year ahead, a year that feels like a deciding one for the university? 

Jacques Frémont: There are many things in mind. Every year is a challenge, every year is different. But this year there are a couple of question marks about opting out of fees and the impact of OSAP changes for students. These are question marks that are perturbations for us. We have to understand what’s going on. 

We don’t want students to drop out and leave university, we don’t want the sort of social integration of students to disappear. We will not be a richer place if the student media is affected, if the social implications of students are affected. That is certainly something important for the year to come. We’ll also talk about discrimination on campus, we’ll talk about mental health and student satisfaction. These are recurring issues, but priorities for us.

F: Speaking of OSAP changes, there’s actually a protest happening on Tabaret Lawn right now. Have you heard anything about how the opting in numbers look, and how that might impact student life?

JF: Even though students have paid, they can still opt out right until the end of September (Sept 27). So my understanding is it’s just in the first days of October where we will have a clear idea of where we stand. And it’s clear from the preliminary figures that there is some opting out going on and it’s in the double digits. So it is a concern for us, but we’ll have a better idea in October (of the numbers) and then we’ll have to see if something can be done to try to standardize, stabilize things. 

We didn’t choose that system, we have to make the most of it. We’re analyzing everything and we’re looking at what other institutions have done too. This is a delicate situation and we’ll know a little more about student behaviour. We’d certainly be willing to work with the student union and student associations to educate students about the importance of not opting out in many cases. The student union has not had a great amount of time to educate people and we have to educate people.

F: Can you share any of those early numbers with us?

JF: I wouldn’t share because it’s misleading. I don’t want to raise the hopes or lower the hopes because it all depends. There can be a wave of opting out at the last moment. I can promise you in the very end, in the hours following the cut-off date, we’ll have the exact numbers and we’ll share them with you.

F: Do you see the Student Choice Initiative as a threat to student life on campus? 

JF: That’s the way it is. Of course, if I had to design the system, that’s not the way I would have designed it. The campus has to be a place with all sorts of opinions and student involvement. If you don’t get involved when you’re a student in things you believe in, whether it’s the environment, whether its refugees, whether it’s big business, if you don’t get involved when you’re young, you’ll never get involved later. It’s part of the university experience to have clubs, to have activities, to have a vibrant campus. 

F: Let’s talk a bit about the new student union (University of Ottawa Students’ Union). How has the transition gone from your perspective, and what have you heard from other parts of the university in terms of how they’re working with the new union?

JF: I can tell you for the last few months, we’ve made the utmost effort to make sure the student union would be successful. They’re a legitimate union, they received wide support from the student community, so for us, it’s very important that it’s successful. 

The elements of good governance were important parts of the agreement signed with the union to make sure that some events (with the now-defunct Student Federation of the University of Ottawa) will not happen again. The union’s success will be our success. We really need a strong student union to be part of this community. In the past, the SFUO was sometimes so tangled in their problems that they didn’t have time to come visit me or to come and exchange with university administration or to discuss student matters. I mean, we’re all sort of stuck together. So we do hope that students are represented in our committees and that student voices are heard.

F: How has the university managed the 10 per cent tuition decrease for domestic students and the loss of funding caused by that?

JF: This is a loss of $33 million for this year, $45 million for next year. So this is substantial, but that’s the way it is. We’re trying to realign things, be more productive. We’re not looking at cuts, per se, in terms of services. We really want to keep things as they are or even improve things as far as we can. If we had to design that we would have preferred not to have these cuts. It’s a lot of money we manage. Day in day out, year in and year out, it costs three per cent for heating, for maintenance, for salaries, for pay increases for all sorts of expenses. So this three per cent has been frozen by government grants for the last five years and now the costs keep going up and the government grants are stable and now the tuition fees are going down, so the curves are crossing each other and it gets a little difficult at times.

We’re trying to make gains in productivity, for instance. When I arrived three years ago, we were just starting to implement the Student Information System. Right now, my understanding is it runs fairly smoothly, people can register during the summer, they can switch their courses, but before it was all done on paper and forms. This is a huge productivity gain at the same time and the system now is paid for. So this productivity gain will try to compensate for the 10 per cent tuition decrease.

F: Is the 12 per cent tuition increase for international students a result of the 10 per cent tuition decrease for domestic students?

JF: Partly, but tuition fees for international students have been going up regularly in the last many years. Clearly, universities and Canada have become dependent on international students. So yes it was a part, but the raises for this year were not above the average raise in previous years. What is important and in all fairness for international students is when they sign up that they know what to expect from the following years (in terms of tuition fees). That is something we changed, I think last year, in response to student pressures. 

We are reaching this year, for the first time, the 20 per cent threshold of international students (out of the total student population). Some universities in Canada have well above 25 per cent of international students (out of their total student population), so there’s a heavy dependence on international students. Right now Canada is successful with foreign students for all sorts of reasons, geopolitical reasons, economic reasons. In the long term, foreign students are extremely important and we enjoy their presence, but we must not be dependent on them, they must be a terrific asset we have.

F: Let’s talk now about what happened in June when a Black student was carded and handcuffed by campus security. We’ve heard from many students that the incident left a lot of people feeling unsafe on campus, especially students of colour. Do you feel that the four measures that were put in place last week did enough, or would you like more work to be done?

JF: No, that’s not enough, and I was clear about that. It’s the first set of immediate measures to be taken following the incident. There are things we could not have in place when students came back to school without changing. For instance, the rules concerning carding, we understood that the complaint mechanism was non-existent or that people would complain and no follow-up would be done. This could not be going on. I needed the (President’s Committee for a Discrimination-Free Campus), it was an interim committee to help me on that and we badly needed to train the security officers and they’ve been trained (unconscious bias training). 

But this is just a first step. It’s a sort of patch on an immediate crisis. We we will follow a medium- and long-term agenda and we will stabilize the committee, we will certainly go and meet with the representatives of minority groups, all sorts of minorities, not just racialized communities, to hear what they have to say, to hear about the microaggressions, to hear about what could be done to make the university a better place. We will need to expand the (unconscious bias) training. So there’s a whole agenda ahead. 

The next step is to wait for the report about the investigation (forthcoming from human rights expert Esi Codjoe). I hope that we will get it at any moment. We’ll see where we have to go from there. The second part of the report, which will come later, will be about the systemic thresholds and the systemic problems we might have. So we will listen to the community, we will listen to the report and we will come up with an action plan. Sadly, it will probably take some time. I mean, we can’t flip the place around in two weeks. But believe me, I’m determined and this place will be a better place.

F: How were the 12 interim members selected for the President’s Committee for a Discrimination-Free Campus? 

JF: We had to go quickly. I needed some student representatives. There were three, all racialized (students). I wanted to have (Board of Governors) members because the board was very concerned with what was going on. So two board members and three faculty members who have a specialty on these matters (were included). People suggested a further name, the former attorney general for Ontario Yasir Naqvi who is, we were told, widely recognized by racialized communities and minority communities as being very able and very wise. 

It was not systematic. For me, what was important was to have students and faculty members and to be able to rely on their expertise and their reading of what the situation was. It’s an interim advisory committee and we will have to turn it into a committee which will be more permanent for the next phases and then there are different visions about who should be or who could be members. 

A majority of the (interim) members are racialized or members of minorities. That was important to me, and also to listen. We had three or four meetings and it was an eye-opening experience and the committee worked remarkably well.

F: Why were those meetings held privately and not open to the rest of the community? We’ve heard from some students that they wish they could have gone and heard what was going on in those meetings or had access to the minutes of the meetings.

JF: There were no minutes from the meeting. We all took notes, we exchanged, it was relatively easy going. Of course, in such meetings or advisory committees, we have to be able to say stupid things, to make mistakes, to test things, to start with hypotheses and to verify them and contradict them. So this is not like the (University) Senate or the Board of Governors, where there is a public session, and we were in a hurry, to put it frankly.

For the next step, what is important for me will be to have a committee that is as representative as possible, but also within a reasonable size. I mean, you can’t have 50 people around the table. But to be able to listen will be very important, and listen not just among ourselves but listen to the community. I don’t know what form it will take: town halls, meeting with the associations or all of the above or none of the above. We’ll need to listen to the community because we got messages from people saying, ‘Yes, I’ve suffered this,’ ‘Yes, I reacted to that,’ ‘There was an incident in my classroom.’ That’s what we want to hear, the real experiences on our campus. We can’t sleepwalk through these experiences.

F: We saw at the end of last year a string of student deaths in residence. The cause of death wasn’t released in these cases, but I think some people assumed there was some kind of mental health link there. Could you tell us more about what’s being done this year to hopefully prevent the same kind of trend from taking place this year?

JF: For the last two years, we’ve invested a great deal of effort into mental health issues. I think we’re not as bad as we used to be. I think that there’s much more sensitivity on campus and people are more willing — that being a professor, faculty member, a staff member or a student — to say they’re in distress, to listen, to go and consult. Access to the (mental health) system, we’re told, is easier. You don’t have to find the right door to knock on. Knock on any door and the system will orient you squarely where you have to go.

This being said, we’re trying this year to come up with a sort of integrated plan. In the last two years, we’ve taken many initiatives left and right and it’s quite impressive the number of things we’ve done, but now we want people to understand the body of where we’re going and what we hope to achieve.

Part of the challenge I think the government understands well is where does the responsibility of the university stop and the responsibility of society and the health care system start? In the same bag of mental health, we have from minor anxieties to huge problems leading to sort of siloed and extreme cases and so on and so forth. We have the whole spectrum and it’s important to cover that spectrum, but at some time, the health care system has to be there to take people and accompany them, so it is difficult. 

The government cannot say it’s all the responsibility of universities and we cannot say it’s all the responsibility of government. We’re in that gray zone and there’s much pressure: A little more than 15 per cent of our students and community members have mental health issues. That’s a lot of people: There are 42,000 students, 5,000 staff (on campus), so it’s a great many people suffering. What’s important is to take a coherent approach, and also to have as much support as possible from the government. I mean, there are counsellors on every floor in the residences. These are little pieces which might make a difference in a few places for the university.

You are a young, you’re at the age in life where the passions are there, the new experiences, you’re growing into adults, that’s where many (mental health) issues arise. We are there, we will be there, we’re trying to be better, but it’s like sexual violence. I mean, there’s no way we can suppress sexual violence. I’d love to, if I could, I’d do it, but it will probably stay around. We have to be as good as possible at preventing these things.

F: We’ve heard from some people around campus that there might be a push to make campus car-free in the next few years. Is that something on the horizon?

JF: If you’ve walked on the campus recently, across from Montpetit Hall is now car-free. Around the tent (in University Square) is car-free. So we’ve increased the pedestrian area, we will very likely, along with the faculty of music, shut down that street along Montpetit Hall. So we’re getting there. I’d love to have a car-free campus, but more than that I’d love to have a campus full of trees, lawns and parks. We’re working on that, it’s certainly an ambition. 

Of course there are difficulties in accessibility and security. Emergency vehicles have to be able to move in between the buildings. But this being said, if you look at the pedestrian areas now it’s more secure now than it was when we had that incident in the spring (when a van drove through campus in March). Along the Social Sciences Building, I think these things could not happen now, but we will never be fully secure. But it goes together: car-free campus, secure campus.

F: Are there any other major projects on the agenda this year?

JF: There are many major projects this year. One of the major projects will be around the residences, we will need to move ahead. We don’t have enough beds and we will need more beds on campus. So the area around Brooks Residence (which closed last September), we will have to move. It’s a terrific location, actually, at the heart of the campus, so we have many projects in that respect, but the main project will be to finalize the action plan for 2030 (Imagine 2030) and then move forward.

F: Where do you want to see the university in 10 years? 

JF: Imagine 2030 shows where I want the university to be. But ultimately do you know how many universities there are around the world? Between 15,000 and 20,000, so it’s quite a lot of universities. And as technology and information technology progress, what is appearing now is that you will have universities which count, and local universities. Local universities are important for the education environment too, but we want to remain in the top 200 universities in the world. I think we’re improving in that respect. But we want to be a university where people say, ‘Ah, yes, the U of O, good university in Canada, great degrees, their alumni are great people, they’ve been well trained.’ 

Of course, we don’t have the reputation that some of Canada’s other universities have, like McGill University, the University of British Columbia or the University of Toronto. We will have to work on that so that people realize that the U of O is of the highest quality: the research is smashing, their students are extremely good, and when they register here they have a smashing experience. Student experience will be at the heart of our reputation and it is at the heart of our reputation and we have many ambitions with regards to Imagine 2030. So in 10 years time, I won’t be here, but I won’t be far I hope! I’ll watch with much interest.

F: What are your thoughts on the U of O’s global rankings? (A poll released on Sept. 11 put the U of O at 141st in the world and seventh in Canada)

JF: There are many rankings and globally we’ve maintained our rankings, despite the newcomers. What’s important to understand is the Japanese, the Koreans and the Chinese are getting into the rankings. And now the French are getting into the rankings because they’ve merged many universities. All these universities have joined the rankings in the top 200, so this is pushing the traditional universities like us down, even though we look at our performance and it’s the same or sometimes better. 

The main challenge for us is not the quality of what we do, because our rankings testify to that, it’s reputation. The reputation does not come with the quality. Our challenge for the next few years, for me as president, is to work on the university’s reputation. 

F: How do you translate that high level of quality to a high reputation level? 

JF: If there was an easy answer to your question, we would have found it. It’s a little of everything. Of course, if we had a couple of Nobel Prize winners it would do the job. We’re not there so far, some of our colleagues have been shortlisted. But the rankings testify to our excellence, notably in research. There’s not necessarily a relationship between the quality of education you get for an undergraduate program, and the quality of the research being conducted in labs. So there’s a certain irony with rankings but we can’t dismiss them and they’re part of our image. Some of the rankings have to do with the placement of students, with the satisfaction of students five years, 10 years down the line. And that is also very important that you as alumni, feel that you’ve had a good deal and that the university prepared you well for what you’re doing now. It’s a very complex set of factors.

F: Last question from us: What message do you want to send out to students?

JF: I’d say be students. Work hard, play hard, but also get involved. Get involved in your community, get involved in society and don’t shy away. I mean, if you have strong views, let them know. And I would say this year is a special year, it’s an electoral year. Elections are sort of a little passe for many people of your generation, but don’t give up on democracy. Do go out and vote, do get involved. Get involved with political parties, organize votes on campus. That’s very, very important because I don’t want old people like me to decide for your future. Your future is too important.