FASS, 50th Anniversary

Interview with John Craig, FASS Dean: 2010-2015

December 15, 2015

In a January 1977 edition of SFU’s student paper, The Peak, reporter and editor, Marc Edge (who was then a student in Economics and Commerce in the 1970s) interviewed Dr. John H. "Jock" Munro, Professor of Economics and Dean of Arts from 1977-78. The interview provides a glimpse into past challenges that faced SFU administrators. In it, Munro addresses such issues as departmental reorganization, over-enrollment, and differential fees for international students.

As we celebrate SFU’s 50th Anniversary, the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences is reflecting on challenges that still face university administrators today, so we spoke with outgoing Dean Dr. John Craig. Craig is Professor of History and FASS Dean from 2010-15; in January 2016, Sociology Professor Dr. Jane Pulkingham will become FASS Dean.

Discussing the broad responsibilities of the Dean and the shifting landscape of post-secondary education in Canada, Craig stresses that the role of FASS Dean is a part of a larger team effort to manage what was, and still is, the largest faculty at the University. He says issues like department and discipline re-organization are recurring for the contemporary university administrator, and the real challenge of the future will be to highlight how SFU’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences stands out amidst other exceptional colleges and universities in today’s competitive market of post-secondary institutions. 

FASS:  Dr. Craig, you’ve been Dean of Arts and Social Sciences since 2010. What does it take to successfully lead a faculty of this size? What are you most proud of accomplishing in FASS during your leadership?

I remember talking to someone in Strand Hall, before I became Dean, perhaps it was Jan Sanderson and she said, you need to love administration. I don’t love administration but I also don’t think of things in terms of distinct achievements. I do believe the importance of this role is about relationships: relationships with chairs and directors who do a lot of heavy lifting at the unit-level and the relationships with President’s Office, the Vice-Presidents of Academics and Research, respectively. These are a series of very important relationships. I think a successful relationship is not one that sees constant agreement on issues but one that has the ability to work effectively together. That is something that I’m proud of: over the last five years, in the main, we’ve worked effectively within the faculty not necessarily to “get a lot done”—there’s always a lot that gets done just at the running of the university, like ensuring tenure and promotion cases are handled well, that salary reviews are handled well, that budgets are prepared effectively. I’m proud that we are making sensible provisions in the budget. And that we’re making sensible decisions about faculty hiring. 

I think our office plays a very important role in working either effectively or adversarially with our departments, schools, and programs. One thing I’m very proud of is that the relationship between our office and all of our units within Arts and Social Sciences, is largely positive, productive and mutually supportive. We’ve been successful to have very good people to serve as chairs of Departments and Directors of Schools. The Dean’s Advisory Council is a group of over twenty individuals, including the dean, chairs, directors, and other members of the Dean’s Office who meet regularly. Those meetings are, in the main, quite joyful meetings, not because we aren’t facing challenging issues, but because I genuinely believe there is a high level of respect and trust among us, even though we don’t always agree about how we should proceed on a given issue.  

I’m also particularly pleased that colleagues of the caliber like Jane Pulkingham, Rob Gordon, and  Lisa Shapiro, have been prepared to put aside their research and teaching in their respective units and taken on roles as Associate Deans in the Dean’s Office. They’re outstanding individuals and experienced administrators. 

FASS: Munro remarked that the Faculty of Arts in 1977 was the largest faculty at SFU. The same is true today.  While the Peak’s questions about possible departmental reorganization suggest a lot of anxiety around the value, survival, and future of “the Arts,” it seems to me departments and disciplines have always had to adapt and evolve. Can you comment on these concerns from a contemporary administrator’s point of view?

I find it very striking that the question of anxiety around the Arts was posed in the late 70s. Amidst my colleagues in History, there was concern in the early 80s over low enrolment. Perhaps that was just the beginning of the softening of enrolments in disciplines like History, English, or Philosophy. FASS has been watching this with interest and it’s true that we remain one of the largest Faculties, even among the creation of other faculties and disciplines, or with the removal of units that used to be a part of us. Things change at the University. It’s instructive.  Contemporary Arts (for example) was never originally a part of the faculty of Arts, many people don’t realize that it was actually a part of the faculty of Education. That’s where it originated.

At the time that Munro was answering these questions, departments such as the Department of Humanities didn’t exist yet, and other departments, like English and Philosophy, had been a part of the university since its beginning.  

Munro quoted in The Peak, 1977.
John "Jock" Munro, Dean of Arts, 1977-78.

FASS: What’s interesting is that Munro is speaking in a context before Economics and Commerce split to form Economics and Business. So there was clearly a lot of concern but things turned out alright in the end.

That’s interesting for our present anxieties. There’s no question that all Faculties and Faculty Deans are looking to make sure we’re making the most effective and sufficient use of our resources. It’s true that a lot of our activity now involves making difficult decisions.

I am convinced that students’ interest in Arts and Social Science disciplines will remain. The challenge will be to make sure all our programs are resourced adequately, to ensure that small, strong programs like International Studies, Humanities, or World Literature are resourced adequately. While we’re facing financial constraints, we have got to be thinking creatively on how best to share resources; that has been a bit of a mantra in the past few years. In a constrained situation, such as this, how best can units share and cooperate for mutual benefit?  

Our units have well-understood the sharing principle. We have a few large units with very strong programs and credentials; the funding that comes to us from those units has always helped to subsidize smaller programs within Arts and Social Sciences.

Interestingly, the same is true if you look at student enrollment in Arts and Social Sciences: enrolments from Arts and Social Sciences help to subsidize a number of the university’s other faculties. Perhaps our students are not a third of the student population anymore but we’re a very significant part of the university, and I think senior university administrators are very well aware of that.  

We actually have some better opportunities in these fiscally constrained times to ensure that we’re having good conversations—by that I mean substantive conversations at the level of Deans and at the level of individual faculty members—about why the Sciences need Arts and Social Sciences to succeed, or how arts disciplines can be more cognizant of the needs of the hard sciences so that we can succeed together.

Sometimes we can be far too introspective. There is no crisis at this University. There are fiscal challenges of the past 5 years and longer that have had us doing some hard looking at ourselves.  I suppose it’s also growing up and now that you’re turning 50, you realize that you’re middle-aged and it’s time to get some psychotherapy (laughs). 

Craig speaking at FASS Welcome Day, Sept 2015
Welcoming FASS Students, Sept 2015

FASS: The Peak also questioned Munro about over-enrolment, tuition increases, and a large influx of international students. Concern over tuition increases is understandably a recurring issue; what about that challenge of a growing international student population and building programming that meets the needs of both domestic and international students?

The burden of this does seem to really fall upon Student Services and while we do have great faculty advisors who do admirable work, it is a real challenge to ensure that our office and Student Services are actually supported. Anecdotally, we know that a number of international students, although they pass the language tests, still struggle to read, converse and write in English effectively. I do think there are particular challenges for some of our units and I think students are right to ask what kind of services we’re offering them when they are admitted to our programs. There is support for those who have English as an Additional Language through the Student Learning Commons, through Graduate Studies and there are resources for students, staff and faculty through the newly established Centre for English Language, Learning, Teaching and Research.

FASS: In 1977, the university (and Arts in particular) was growing rapidly to meet the post-secondary educational demands of the province. Thus over-enrolment was a primary challenge for FASS at that time. What would you say is the main challenge facing FASS today?

Well, the context of post-secondary education has fundamentally changed. In the 1970s, colleges existed but they weren’t conceived of as “feeder” colleges as we have with something like Fraser International College and SFU. It is a much more competitive market place right now.

Here in BC, in 2008, the Gordon Campbell government decision to enable a number of the colleges to become degree-granting institutions lead to a particular challenge for SFU—for UBC as well, but UBC could distinguish itself through its size, its law school, and its medical school. For SFU, there was particular challenge to figure out what distinguished it from places like Capilano or Kwantlen. We’re very proud of the fact that we were among the top fifty universities under fifty years old in 2014. We’ve come out on top in Maclean’s comprehensive university rankings in both 2015 and 2016. Our ongoing challenge is to see that students continue to have access to research faculty, to maintain our research-intensive focus and success, and to ensure that our programs in both Arts and Social Sciences remain attractive pursuits for students overall.