A recent news article by local Montreal radio station CJAD exposed deterrence tactics at Concordia University in Montreal, delaying students’ graduation dates and potentially ruining their chances at graduate and professional schools. The university has been purposely pushing students to delay graduation, although a report just emerged this was hardly new, Concordia has been doing this for years. The revelation of Concordia’s deterrence methods came close to home. I was a graduate student at Concordia’s Religion Department for three years working on Master’s in Arts in Judaic Studies on a road to nowhere. My department and advisors did everything to delay my progress despite being an almost straight A student. The department’s policies ended up ruining my future academic plans and left me years of explaining why I did not complete the degree.
An April 9, 2017, article by local Montreal radio station CJAD entitled “Over Enrollment Blamed for Class Crunch at Concordia” exposed that the university has over enrollment issues in key requirement courses. Instead of dealing with the longtime issue, undergraduate advisors are convincing students to delay graduation by taking a reduced course load, which ruins the students’ graduate school prospects if they look to go outside of Concordia. The psychology department is not the only department experiencing these types of problems they happen elsewhere within the university. The issue is also not exclusively a problem plaguing undergraduate students, deterrence tactics also common at the graduate level.
The report by CJAD and authored by reporter Shuyee Lee delved into some of the reasons there are problems with Concordia graduation rates, over enrollment in courses and advisors telling students to take lighter course loads. In what has been going on “for years” unreported, students face problems enrolling in popular courses that are also part of the major or specialization requirements to graduate or even proceed to next level courses. The courses often offered once a year do not have enough space, filled up quickly, and have long waitlists, in the end, many students are shut out. Students have to take longer to graduate and fulfill their requirements. The even problem, the university’s cover-up, many academic advisors are trying to convince students to take lighter course loads, make the students believe it is better for their academic future to do so.
One of Concordia’s most popular majors, Psychology was highlighted in CJAD’s report. Concordia might be able to keep students enrolled longer and garner additional fees, but it is to the academic detriment of its students. Delays in graduation, taking longer than the average time to complete a degree and taking lighter course loads are frowned at in graduate and professional applications. Students trying to be admitted into law, medicine, and graduate programs at other universities are having problems being admitted and the explanation, they were only listening to the advisor’s does not work.
Instead of finding solutions, the university’s faculty and administration are denying that there are even any problems. Concordia spokesperson Chris Mota denied there are any over enrollment issues. Mota said, “There are a few programs where opening extra sections of a course is a challenge.” Still, the university plans to increase the minimum average for acceptance to their psychology program, and increase course sizes for the popular required courses. Nevertheless, what about the great problems in other programs that were not part of CJAD’s report?
When I applied to Concordia, I had two degrees from the neighboring McGill University before entering Concordia University. I had a BA in History and Art History and a Masters in Library and Information Studies before starting a second Masters degree in Judaic Studies with a thesis, at Concordia’s Religion Department. My dream was to work in Jewish education, at one of the educational levels, to dedicate my career to the continuance of Jewish education to the next generation. Graduate degrees in Jewish Studies would have opened vistas and opportunities in the field.
Although I did not have a Jewish Studies major as part of my Bachelor’s degree my whole life’s education led up to this degree. I was a graduate of Montreal’s Jewish day schools, Hebrew Foundation School, then Herzliah High School. At Vanier College, I completed a major in Jewish Studies, upon graduation; I received a scholarship for my high marks. I originally applied and then I was accepted to the Bachelor of Education program at McGill in Jewish studies, part of their Jewish teaching training program. Instead, I decided to go an academic route by taking a history major, but still took some Jewish history courses. Even during the Masters in Library and Information Studies, where I was one of only five Jewish students I emphasized Judaica Librarianship. Whether it was in course projects, a summer internship at the Jewish Public Library cataloging their Canadian Judaica Collection or the job I had in McGill’s Archives where I cataloged their Abraham de Sola Collection culminating in an exhibition at Redpath Museum.
Still, I regretted not taking Jewish Studies and was resolved to take a degree in it. Therefore, as I was completing the MLIS, I looked into graduate school options in Jewish Studies. McGill required a qualifying year, but Concordia was welcoming me with open arms and with promises of a fellowship. It was easy to be taken in, but everything looks better before it is a reality. From the start of my degree at Concordia, I was pushed to relax my course load. I came with plans to move full speed ahead and finish the program in two years and then on for a doctorate, but at every turn, there were obstacles that slowed me down.
At McGill, I completed a Masters degree by course and finishing the 48-credit degree in two years by taking a full load of four courses each semester. In Concordia, I was cautioned to take only two courses a required seminar and independent course in my first semester. In my first semester, I tried to stay strict with deadlines, but saw professors being lax about deadlines as if it was not unusual, and it was not. For final research papers in seminars and independent courses my professors routinely recommended continuances that lasted up to two months into the next semester. With weekly readings and some short writing assignments throughout the semester it becomes easy to need the extra time a complete a research paper for a course, and if you start down that path, you continually need the extra time.
The research papers I completed for each course were sometimes upward to 50 pages in final presentation form. With the sheer amount of research for the papers plus reading throughout the semester, it is easy to take advantage of light course loads and extensions because they are approved and even advised by the faculty and your program advisor. Students fall into the trap, made so easy by your department, but it ends up being destructive to graduating on time and realizing your academic goals.
Another unreported problem in Concordia is the amount of time it takes graduate students to complete their degree. A warning sign was hearing how long some of the students in the Religion Department were taking for their degrees, an average four years for the masters and upward to ten years for the doctorate. Concordia gives longer maximums for completing a graduate degree than neighboring McGill. The longer maximum time for full-time students is a leading indicator is would take longer to complete the degrees. The masters’ degree I was enrolled in the Religion Department resembled more of a mini-doctorate program at that time, with not only a thesis but also two comprehensive exams, it was impossible to complete it in the usual two years a Master’s degree should take. The degree has now been curtailed with the comprehensive exams removed as a requirement.
Concordia’s graduate programs have students paying a set schedule of fees regardless of the number of credits a student takes each semester. Therefore, one can take two courses and still be a full-time student. After the degree is paid, and if a student has not completed their degree they pay continuance fees. In comparison to Concordia’s, fee schedule, at McGill even in graduate study students pay by the number of credits per semester. In the end, after the three years, I completely paid off my degree plus three semesters of continuance fees, but with only 18 credits completed on my transcript.
Another way to deter students was making them repeat courses they had previously received credit for at another university. I faced another added burden, unlike the majority of students in my program I came with a Masters degree already under my belt, something the department repeatedly tried to forget. Whereas in McGill if a student already completed a research methods course, they were exempted from the requirement, it was the opposite in Concordia. I had taken an entire degree on research methodology, librarians are expert researchers, the ones helping students conduct research and find sources in the academic libraries, but the department was insistent I take a repetitive course or would not graduate.
The research methods course consisted of visits to the libraries and archives to hear about how to research. During my MLIS programs, I worked in libraries and archives. The department ignored that I completed a degree in research at the nation’s preeminent university. My previous degree and even that I was an editor at the online history magazine the History News Network (HNN), a feat for my age was not considered an advantage. Whereas other schools celebrate students’ academic and publishing achievements, at Concordia it was frowned upon because it was not within “their” department.
Like CJAD’s report on the psychology department’s deterrence methods, my experience was more the fault of the Religion Department than the university’s policies although they did facilitate them since departments have more control over graduate students and programs. As I observed a majority of the graduate students accepted to the Masters and even the Doctorate program came from different disciplines. I came from a related one history and was focusing on American Jewish history, but did not have Judaic or Jewish studies major beforehand. Other students came from even more different degrees and disciplines. Sometimes the students were required to take extra courses to obtain a background other times not, like me.
A majority in the department were also mature students returning to school after years in other professions. A minority were students continuing through the different academic cycles, I was one of the youngest in the program despite having completed another Masters before. I frequently saw favoritism for the mature students. Favoritism, in general, ran rampant, and it had nothing to do with grades or GPAs, rather personality but also research interests. My research interests were never compatible with the department, an important aspect for success in graduate school. I was interested in Jewish History, and particularly American Jewish History. The Judaic Studies program as part of a Religion Department is not the multidisciplinary approach seen in stand-alone Jewish Studies departments like McGill’s where Jewish history was an integral part. Although the department and program director were aware of my intended research interests when I applied, my interest in history was a point of contention throughout my time there.
Seeing, myself going nowhere quickly after my first year, I considered applying for the department’s doctoral program after seeing another student in the department without any Master’s degree being fast tracked. In fact, after seeing many students enter the doctoral program without a background in the discipline, I regretted being so ill informed of practices at Concordia and not originally applying for the doctoral program since I had the marks and a Masters degree. I even worked on a proposal, but my professors shut down me quickly. My career goals which, were important to me both personally and professionally, in a field that desperately needed a new generation scholars and more Jewish educators was not a moving enough reason for the department to help me succeed. Instead, the mantra of anything to keep a student staying longer in the department was paramount.
In the final course I took in Concordia a summer reading course in my second year, the professor delayed my starting it until July ensuring I could not complete it before the fall semester. Unfortunately, for me, I had applied and was accepted again into McGill’s education program, but could not attend. This avenue was a way to cut my losses and still realize my dream of teaching. I was left with a choice fail the graduate course and start McGill or miss McGill where I knew I could succeed. Unlike Adam Schachner, who attended McGill and Concordia simultaneously and chronicled it in a Maclean’s Magazine article entitled “My secret life attending two universities at the same time,” McGill told me I could not defer and complete my course at Concordia because it was illegal to attend two universities at the same time. In the end, the entire cycle was one I could not escape except leave the program at Concordia without graduating. Therefore, after three years, 18 credits, an unsubmitted completed thesis, and a 3.95 CGPA, I left Concordia’s MA in Judaic Studies program.
Unlike psychology, religion is not usually a popular discipline; especially Judaic studies where there were only a handful of graduate students. University politics plays a factor, allocation of funding from the university depends on departmental enrollment. Promises of fellowships and awards attracted students like me for the money but mostly the prestige and honor. I received two fellowships and one award during my tenure in the department. Keeping students in the department longer makes a larger student population. All these factors and some external ones were a recipe for students to take longer completing their degrees.
The reveal in CJAD’s report just touches on advisors recommending reduced course loads. Unfortunately, the advice is even more detrimental to graduate programs. Concordia’s policies do everything possible to slow down graduate students making them spend double the time and money. Departments are pushing students to take longer to graduate to increase their number of students and make sure the university collects more fees and that they get larger budgets. Instead of finding solutions, the administration chooses to ignore or better yet shut down any report that might indicate a problem at the university.
Although a majority of Concordia University’s students eventually graduates, others are fed up with the high costs, lengthy times and slow career movement. Either way, students are the ones that lose out from the university and department politics and policies. Longer times to graduate at the undergraduate or graduate level give students wishing to continue their studies little options outside of Concordia, which seems an intentional part of the cycle. For those who discontinue their studies, they are left few choices to continue graduate school, except return to Concordia or years of explaining why they did not complete their degree. For me leaving the program meant giving up my dream of a career teaching Jewish studies. Now at least thanks to CJAD’s reporting students and ex-students do not feel alone, it a common unresolved occurrence at Concordia one that desperately needs remedying.
Bonnie K. Goodman BA, MLIS (McGill University), is a journalist, librarian, historian & editor. She is a former Features Editor at the History News Network & reporter at Examiner.com where she covered politics, universities, Judaism, and news. She has a dozen years experience in education & political journalism.