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Frémont wrapped up the year in an exclusive interview with the Fulcrum. Photo: Parker Townes.

U of O president reflects on 2018-19 year, discusses plans for future

On April 17 2019, the Fulcrum interviewed Jacques Frémont for his thoughts on an unprecedented year at the University of Ottawa. Frémont shared the decision behind terminating the university’s contract with the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa (SFUO), touched on the Student Choice Initiative, discussed the university’s plan to tackle the provincial government’s 10 per cent tuition cut, and answered the question — Are we doing better?

Answers have been edited for length and clarity.

The Fulcrum: It’s been it’s been a crazy year for news. It’s been crazy for the U of O. What are your thoughts on the year so far?

Jacques Frémont: On the year so far? Well, it was a rough year. It was cold, windy, with lots of snow.

Lots of action as far as student associations are concerned. The place of student affairs on the campus, of course, I mean, there were all sorts of pains. It was a long year, certainly for us.

It was quite a challenge, because we were on uncharted waters, (and) I think students were also wondering how it would all end.

I think that the end of the year looking back … I’m quite satisfied with how it turned out.

Student governance is too important to be left out or to be neglected … but we could have done without that. That’s just not the way it happened.

F: How did the university decide to terminate their contract with the SFUO?

JF: It was just that we couldn’t go on like that. I mean, the relationship was getting more and more difficult. There were lots of problems popping up all the time. And there was a crisis of confidence, I guess, between the university and the SFUO. We didn’t think we had the intimate conviction that it would not — that the changes would be too little too late.

So when we decided to terminate the contract, it was not an easy decision to take, because basically, the student body is suffering. Decisions concerning students should be taken by students, but this time around, it went a bit too far.

F: I noticed there were some fail safes in the contract that the university negotiated with the University of Ottawa Students’ Union (UOSU). Can you tell me a little bit about the stricter rules for termination that are mentioned in the contract? Are you more confident about the UOSU than you were with the SFUO?

JF: I don’t know, I have not seen the details of the new contract. My people tell me that it is very satisfactory.

The relationship, I’m informed, is very good between the people and the student union and us. We’ve really taken all the measures possible to make sure that there is money on the table, that the financial relationship is stable.

And we have heard — that’s very important to us — that governance issues will be well taken care of. So far the relationship has been excellent.

I think that we made sure … that the new student union can start on some financial footing, so that they can pass the summer and fall and especially that they’re — you’re probably going to ask the question — (able to navigate) their challenges coming from the Ontario government, and the way student affairs will be financed.

F: How will the university navigate the coming year under the Ford government’s changes? So for example, the 10 per cent loss of revenue from the tuition cuts —is there a plan in place to subsidize that loss of revenue?

JF: The tuition cuts certainly came as a surprise when nobody had seen it coming on the radar. The figure is minus $33 million — it is a lot of money to swallow.

It is a bit difficult to close the budget now, we might have to go into a deficit. But we’ll see. It’s being examined now.

The relationship with the Ford government is alright, but for us, the main file will be what we call the strategic mandate agreement, which is a sort of contract between the Ontario government and each of the universities in order to get the money to grant — we’re entitled for each student, as you know, you pay tuition and there’s a grant coming. But in order to get that grant money, there were a certain number of conditions, and now (the Ford government) will be changing most of these conditions.

As early as in 18 months time, 25 per cent of the funding will be what we call at risk, and this will go up to 60 per cent, which means that we could lose eventually 60 per cent of the grant, if we don’t achieve the metrics.

So this year, most of the year will be spent negotiating that with the Ontario government …  because of course we couldn’t do without 60 per cent of the funding. So this will be quite a long year in terms of negotiating this, but we’re confident that we will reach a good deal for the government and for the University of Ottawa.

One of the concerns, of course, was the opting out of student fees.

This has no financial impact, no direct impact on the University of Ottawa. But it might have an impact over student activities and what students choose to do as a community, and that is a concern.

The rules are being hardened now. We know sports, health, mental health will be protected, but then I get nervous for other activities. (For) some of them it’s so little money, and they’re the life and soul of the campus.

If we were in a better financial situation, we could say “listen, we’ll give a hand, and (we will) try to support,” I don’t know, “student refugees and student newspapers.” But then everybody’s sort of cornered in that story. So we’ll have to see how it turns out.

TF: Has there been any word from the provincial government on what the opt-out process will look like?

F: The students will be presented with with boxes to tick, and this is quite complicated to organize as a system, because there’s a long list of fees which have been approved over the years.

So now we have to work through that list and to see what comes out — because it will be automatic — and how much it costs. The rest of the billing as you know, will be done … according to the choices students (make), but we’ll have to see. My understanding is that things are falling into place on that.

TF: Two years ago, you stressed the importance of food security among students. With the Student Choice Initiative, do you think that’s something that can be impacted as well — for example, the food bank?

F: That is the sort of student activity where, I do hope that students will make the right choices when they tick the boxes — not to tick these boxes — and we’ll have to see where it leaves us, once we have the score.

In solidarity, we’ll have to see what to do, and we will certainly sit down with the student union and look at what can be done.

The other night I was with students and, every year, they take care of a few student refugees on campus, and that’s also the sort of activity where it’s probably $100.22, it’s like nothing, but it makes a huge difference on the other end.

So for me, that’s where I hope that we won’t have to face Sophie’s choice.

But we’ll see. We’ll see.

TF: Are there plans on the university’s part right now to deem certain services currently deemed “non-essential,” “essential?” Does the university have any say in that, or is that entirely up to the government?

F: Well, I mean, the matrix is imposed by the Ford government. It’s a political choice for them, it’s an ideological choice, that students should be able to choose what they want to pay for. So that’s a given that we have no control over.

My understanding is that very little discretion will be left to universities … we cannot say that, I don’t know, “student newspapers should be compulsory.”

It will fly in the face of the Ford government’s policy. So my understanding is that we have very little leeway there.

TF: Some other universities are looking at increasing tuition for international students in order to make up for the loss of revenue that they’ll be getting from domestic students. Do you think that’s something that the University of Ottawa is considering as well?

F: Well, for the last few years, we have increased the fees for international students. Since last year, you might remember that when a student gets in, he or she knows what fees he or she will have for the following year. So for students getting in year two and three and eventually staying, the fees are already set up. For new students, they will very likely be increased.

It is clearly a policy of the Ontario government, it has been a policy of the previous government also to say to universities, “will I go and get more international students?”

Universities will have to question themselves as to what is the limit, in terms of percentage (of international students), for instance, and we have a specific challenge here (at the U of O).

What is the limit in terms of Francophone and Anglophone students, because of course, there is more student mobility for Anglophone students, so we could drown the campus under Anglophone students, but then it would disservice Francophone students.

Also, Australian universities, a few years ago went well over 25 per cent of international students, mostly Chinese. At some point, the Chinese students or Chinese parents were told that the quality (of education) there was subpar for international students. So overnight, students decided not to go. That created a huge financial crisis for Australian universities and I don’t think that Canadian universities want to go down that road.

So we have to be careful about where students come from, and the number of international students (we admit).

International students have to be members of the community, they have to be integrated. You cannot cynically just go and say “I will have more international students so that I don’t make a deficit.” It’s more complicated than that, and we have to have a concern for their integration.

TF: We’ve also heard in some interviews with professors, that they’re facing less frequent classes and also smaller class sizes, as a result of the cuts. Can you speak to that a little bit? Is that true? Is it a rumor?

F: There are lots of rumors. I can assure you that it is never a decision of the central administration and rarely of the faculties themselves — faculties and departments take the decisions.

Of course, the budgets do (have an influence),  and there’s a tendency in hard times to maybe have more students in the classroom, or fewer options. But this being said, what is crucial is the quality of the students’ experience in the classroom, outside the classroom, so on and so forth.

So we’re extremely careful not to threaten the quality of the training, which is provided.

This might happen, but it varies widely. In many programs, you have very large classes in first year, for instance, and much smaller classes in subsequent years, so it’s difficult to say there will be fewer classes or more students, this requires a very fine analysis.

On average we’re trying to make sure that the cuts have as little impact as possible over our teaching programs (on students).

TF: How do you think that these cuts might impact professors, faculty, and part-time professors?

F: There might be marginal impact for part-time professors. For faculty members, we’re really doing our utmost to renew the faculty at the shoulder of normal speed, which is, when one faculty member leaves, we do hope that a new faculty member arrives.

For us, it’s absolutely crucial that we maintain the numbers. And ideally … one of the things I’d like to do is to increase the number of faculty members.

TF: This year, the University of Ottawa implemented some new mental health services. Do you think that students have benefited from them? Have you heard any feedback on the new mental health services?

F: Well, my understanding, and you tell me if I’m wrong, is that we’re we’re moving in the right direction, that the situation is improving.

One thing is that the plan regarding mental health, it’s not one thing, it’s a constellation of little initiatives left and right on campus. The signs are encouraging, however, there’s still a lot to be done.

Some of the budgets we were using were dedicated budgets coming from the government. We have not heard yet from the new government as to whether these amounts would be replicated, or if they will be renewed.

So we’ll have to see, but it remains a huge challenge. I’m afraid that in five years time, in 10 years time, it will still be a challenge. I just hope that we will be better in facing that challenge.

I think we’re better than last year, we’re substantially better than the year before. So it’s heading in the right direction, but means and money do make a difference.

One of the differences I think this year, is that there’s more awareness about mental health and the stigma around mental health is diminishing. I think now, many faculty members, part-timers, members of the staff and students, if they see panic, anxiety, or if they see mental health problems, they will know (what to do). (Professors will tell students), “don’t you think you should see someone?” and when (students) call whoever they call on this system, they will be aligned with the right resources more quickly.

So for me, it’s reassuring that we’re moving in the right direction. But I agree that … the wait time is far too long. No question about that.

TF: Let’s talk about the Imagine 2030 plan. How did the consultations with students go? Do you think that the plan is on the right track?

F: I was kept far from the consultation, they didn’t want the president to influence things. So it was a genuine consultation, we had no ideas from the start. We wanted to hear people, (but) we could have done with more students. I think the crisis in the student federation didn’t help, for those students who are active politically, their minds were elsewhere.

This being said, we’ve had students participating in the exercise, we’ve had many members of the community, with thousands of interventions. We will publish shortly, a summary of what we’ve heard.

We’re working very actively in the next phase, which is to determine what our objectives will be (for Imagine 2030) and what our action plan will be for 2025.

TF: At the beginning of this academic year there was a $15 million surplus remaining from the previous budget. How has that been used? Or what are the plans for that money?

F: We did have, at the end of last year, a $15 million surplus, while we were supposed to barely balance the budget. I don’t think we’ll have one this year, I think we’re barely balancing (the budget) or maybe short a couple million dollars.The money (from the $15 million surplus) has been reinvested for student scholarships, and all sorts of expenses you see left and right on the campus, things that need renovating, so we’ve used the money for those purposes.

TF: Last year we interviewed you, and you told us to come back and ask you, “are we doing better?” Would you say that we are?

F: (Laughs). I don’t know. It’s difficult to say for me … I’m in this nice office, I’m isolated. I always see the same 40 people, I rarely see students except in the corridors here.

I like to believe we’re doing better. That’s what I fight for. That’s why we take up these jobs.

In many, many respects, I think we’re doing better on this campus. In many, many respects, I think we ought to do better still, and we will progress year after year.

But if you look at the the new buildings on campus — STEM buildings, the learning crossroads —  spaces are higher quality and better quality.

So we’re trying to do better. I’d love to do much, much better. We’re trying to secure land now to build substantive, big sporting and wellness places. So there’s lots of room to improve.

But I think the university is a better place, yes.

I look at the Indigenous file, I think we’re doing better. It doesn’t show too much now, but we’ve really progressed in our understanding and our recognition of each other with the community. So I think we’re doing a little better.

TF: Is there anything else that you want students to know?

F: What I want students to know is, of course, you are the heart and soul of our business. No students, no research.

You asked me if we’re doing better. I think as a community we will do better if we have a student union doing its job to represent students, and to push and shout and be unhappy, and maybe have a demonstration in front of my office.

That’s what student unions are for. Certainly for the last couple of years, there was so much infighting that it was difficult to work with the SFUO, they were elsewhere. Now, I hope that we will have a genuine student union (because) it is a very important part of the dynamic of the university campus.

Your involvement in the past, in terms of responsible investment, climate change, for instance, student rights, sexual violence, mental health — we’ve been pushed around by students, and it’s a very positive thing.

I do hope that students, politically, will be back on campus.