Q&A: VP Students Ainsley Carry wants to ‘move the needle’ on student issues

VP Students Ainsley Carry heads the portfolio that impacts students most — but many students know little about him and his office’s work. Who is Ainsley Carry, and how does he want to improve the student experience at UBC?

This summer, The Ubyssey asked students what questions they had for the VP students. Web News Editor Nathan Bawaan and Features Editor Paloma Green sat down with Carry in late August to discuss everything from his dreams for the UBC student experience, to tuition and housing.

Carry, who’s been at UBC since 2019, emphasized four priorities he has for his time at UBC: student health; career development; communications; and equity, diversity and inclusion.

“We're going to continue to hammer at those things and try to move the needle. They are big, hairy, audacious objectives,” Carry said at the end of our interview. “But we've got to move forward on all of those things.”

Read the full transcription of our 45-minute conversation with Carry below.

The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

The Ubyssey: First things first, an easy question: what is the VP students? What do you do?

Ainsley Carry (AC): The VP Students Office is primarily responsible for the student experience outside the classroom. Faculty members and deans oversee what happens inside the classroom: the curriculum, courses you study, units earned. And outside the classroom, there's housing, dining, recreation, student health, campus life, athletics, all of those things are overseen by the VP students. My work largely is the student experience in the broad sense.

The Ubyssey: I think a lot of students don't necessarily know what you do in a day. How would you describe what you do in the day-to-day?

AC: So multiply this [conversation] by every 30 minutes in a day. I’m meeting with small groups of people, whether it is students or staff, and we're talking about a different student issue every time. So we may be talking about housing and what are we going to do about the students who are on the waiting list looking for housing. We may talk about athletics and student-athletes and where they're competing. We will talk about student health and what's the infrastructure for student health. Sometimes that's a group of students who want to talk about harm reduction strategies, sometimes that's the chief student health officer sitting here with me talking about what we're doing with harm reduction strategies. It's always about students. Sometimes it's in my office; most of the time, I'm somewhere else on campus having those discussions.

The Ubyssey: What are a few things you've done to advocate for students in your last three years?

AC: My first year here, my real focus was doing student listening sessions. I joined UBC from the United States. So I'm here in Canada, and I want to make sure I understand what's important here, rather than copy and paste what I knew from the US. We conducted 15 listening sessions with over 400 students, and I asked them five questions: what's working, what's not working, what must we change, what must we retain, and what question am I not asking you? Out of that came a couple of major themes.

One: student health care. Navigating student health at UBC was complicated, especially for students coming from foreign countries. And our student health facilities were located in multiple locations.

The second thing students brought up was career services. [For] many students, the biggest complaint I've heard was, ‘I'm in my third year, and I just learned about the internship that I wish I knew about in the first year.’ Navigating career services was very much focused on involved students, whereas the average non-involved student didn't know they should have started that internship, that Work Learn, that study abroad. They didn't know how to navigate that.

Another big topic was issues of communication. ‘So here I am, I landed at University of British Columbia, where do I start? My source of information is my RA [residence advisor], who is a 19-year-old student telling me what to do — or my roommate who's an 18-year-old student, telling me where to go, where to start.’ We say often, go to the website. Nobody searches websites to find out what to do, where to go, what classes to take, academic advising, how to live off campus, what to eat, how to shop, et cetera, et cetera.

Students expressed concerns about issues of equity, diversity and inclusion. Feeling [when they’re] accessing health care, that [there] wasn't a diverse body of physicians, doctors and nurses. Anything they were accessing, it was lacking diversity, and they felt like, ‘There's no one here who understands my uniqueness.’ So whether it's international diversity, domestic diversity, Black, Indigenous, people of colour.

Those were the four major themes that I heard about in my first year. My major focus was how do we address those things? So student health was key. We tackled student health immediately. Brought in consultants and listened to students, we hired a chief student health officer who has now pulled that entire enterprise together.

Right now, we're working on career development and building out a new infrastructure for career development. We're searching right now for an associate vice-president for career development. We've elevated career services, and when that person comes on board, they're going to build a whole new team and build out a whole new curriculum.

And next, we're looking at student communication. How do we communicate with students more successfully, get students to facts about things that they need to know about. So many times, we hear students say, ‘Hey, you know, I don't know about housing. I don't know about food services. I don't know about food insecurity. I don't know about housing insecurity,’ and then our response is ‘Go to the website.’ But that’s not a response. We have to do a much better job of making sure students have access to accurate information because there's a lot of misinformation out there about what's true, and that's a disservice to the student who's seeking help in a sincere, earnest way. Improving communication is critically important. And to me, equity, diversity and inclusion is always an important point. But in terms of things we've done, the Student Affordability Task Force, the Anti-Racism Task Force, expanding career services. We ended up spending a lot more time on COVID than we had expected.

Isabella Falsetti / The Ubyssey

The Ubyssey: When you came in in 2019, you had no idea that there would be a pandemic. How has the surprise pandemic shaped how you've approached each of these four things?

AC: I had one year on the ground in 2019, and then 11 months into my term, boom: we get into COVID. And we had started this plan of, we're going to tackle student health first, and the next thing we're going to do is jump into career development. And then COVID hit. Everyone stayed home, we’re thinking, ‘Ok, this will be over in a couple of months, everyone will be back.’ Two years later, we’re kind of just returning. We needed to figure out what's the new way of engaging students, how do students still have access to the VP students, and how do we listen to what students’ major concerns were. All the things that we had listened to the year before, to help career development, EDI and communication almost took a back burner to them saying, ‘I need to log in and access my classes. I am in a foreign country and this country won't allow the data to come through.’

We had to completely set aside what we were working on with regard to our Student Strategic Plan and listen to what students were concerned about now in a pandemic environment and respond to that. Much of our response was not a strategic plan, it was an ‘international students can't leave India to get to UBC, alright, what’s the plan? Masks are needed, no one has masks. Okay, let's order a shipment of masks. We were very reactionary to whatever the new pandemic needs were. And not just the VP Students Office, this was the entire university.

The Ubyssey: We’ll get more into policy-specific questions now. Ideally, what should the relationship between the university and the fraternities look like? And do you think the current relationship with the frats prioritizes student safety, and how would you change it?

AC: I think about this a lot. Fraternities and sororities are independent student organizations, not dissimilar from the AMS or the student newspaper. We try not to overly manage what should be independent thinkers. They should be able to be critical about our work and things they like and don't like. My focus, since I've been here, has been really focusing on [the] health, wellness and safety of all students, regardless of their organizational affiliation. Let me give you an example specific to the pandemic. There was a period of time when we were getting ready to return, and other universities' fraternities and sororities were gathering in large groups, having large parties. So, we communicated to our Greek letter organizations … [to say,] ‘Hey, you cannot get together … [due to] public health orders. Last week, some of you did. We're saying do not do this again, and we'll provide hand sanitizer, masks and instructions on what to do.’ So that was our relationship with them at that time. Some made mistakes and did get together, but to the degree possible, they abided by that. One of the things that we've been asked is to unrecognize the fraternities and sororities. We don't have that authority. We don't formally recognize them in any sensible way. They have property near the university, and it's leased by the university. We understand that those are students and their health, wellness and safety is our number one concern, but we haven't gone in and said, ‘We're going unrecognize you.’ That would be meaningless because we don't hold the charter.

The Ubyssey: You mentioned COVID safety in Greek life. Another safety point is sexual assault and harassment. How does UBC ensure student health, wellness and safety in these spaces?

AC: If it's Joe and Sally, those are two students. Whether they are in a fraternity or a sorority or the AMS or The Ubyssey or an athletic team, it doesn't matter their organizational affiliation. These are two students. Sometimes one of them is not a student, but if a student is involved, we follow our procedure. So regardless of whether we recognize them or not, whether they are affiliated with us or not, we're not hands-off with regard to sexual violence with any student. Even if they're in a fraternity or sorority, we still respond to the incident. Organizational affiliation is less important than the fact that they are two students.

The Ubyssey: One more follow up question and then I think we'll move away from fraternities and sororities. I know that the frats and sororities do consent and sexual violence awareness workshops. Have you been involved in any of the set up with that?

AC: I have not been involved directly, but the SVPRO office does training for the fraternities and sororities at the beginning of the year. They do it with all athletic teams, they also do it with the faculties — many of the student societies within the faculties also request sexual violence education. Each year we get better and better, and more groups are requesting these workshops and educational seminars. Right now, the SVPRO office is heavy into their educational period and that will continue throughout the year.

The Ubyssey: You were on the SC17 policy review committee in 2019. What's an important change that emerged from that process? As the VP who oversees SVPRO, are there any additional changes you would like to see when the next review comes up?

AC: During the review in 2019, there were 150 submissions from the community. [Something] that was very important to me was our attention to survivor-centredness — to the degree that we looked at it and said, ‘Is this fair to the survivor?’ We had a chance to re-examine everything, and now we had survivor testimonies, survivor experiences, about how we communicate, how they are informed about the process. I thought every addition that made the survivor feel more comfortable coming forward, every addition that made the survivor feel more informed and brought the survivor closure was critically important. There's always more than we can do.

One of the changes that I would hope for — but provincially there are some issues of privacy [law] — survivors don't know the outcome of the respondent. They don't see that information. What happened, was he or she suspended? Expelled? Removed? They don't get that level of detail because it's an issue of privacy. They can't know what happened to the other student, although the student allegedly, perpetrated an act against them individually. I came from the United States and in the US, the survivor would know what the outcome was. Here in Canada, in British Columbia, that's a violation of the Privacy Act. That's one of the things that I feel like doesn't get the survivor closure. I will continue to advocate for this — I know as a university we have advocated for this — but it's embedded in provincial guidance right now. Maybe someday in the future, we can get there and perhaps the next review will do that. But it's not a university decision. This decision is part of BC laws. But more disclosure for survivors, to me, I think, helps them get closer to closure.

The Ubyssey: A majority of your time as VP students has been when classes have either been entirely or partially online. How have you been able to connect with students while many have been online or not on campus?

AC: When things got shut down, I still had office hours, and I still have office hours for students. We were in the midst of closing out the Student Strategic Plan — a plan completely focused on the student experience at UBC. UBC has a lot of strategic plans — but we noticed there was no student plan. There wasn't a plan that said, ‘Dear students, we promise…’ So we started that plan pre-COVID, then COVID hit but we still needed student input. We hosted a number of town halls with students via Zoom. I still continued my meetings with AMS, SUO [Students’ Union Okanagan] and GSS. My team built orientation and Jump Start videos, and I did a video welcoming new students. I meet students today who say, ‘Oh, I saw you in that video! Or I got your email, or I got your letter.’

As soon as we could get back, I opened my office for people to come. But that first year, students were still real hesitant. You're probably the third group of students to come physically into my office. People have been a bit weary about being in an enclosed space and to which I understand — but I'm on campus. Most days, I eat in the Nest and try to connect with students there, but it's been hard. My hope is that reopening school, Jump Start, Imagine Day, all of those things, allow us to get back to the relationship that we had. with students. One year on the ground, two years of COVID and this upcoming academic year feels like my first year all over again.

The Ubyssey: As you mentioned earlier, you were on the Anti-Racism Task Force. Which recommendations within the Anti-Racism Task Force do you think are the most important to support BIPOC on campus?

AC: It's hard for me to pick just one. There are 54 recommendations, with over 300 pages, all of them are solid. What we are doing as the VP Students Office, [is] there are recommendations specifically for students. That section, all those recommendations, are our responsibility and we feel personally engaged with them. Of course, some of them are academic. Some of them belong to the deans. Some of them belong to admissions and enrolment, which is not overseen by the VP students, but everything in the student section, that's our commitment to moving it forward. I wouldn't dare pick one of those and say this is the only one, but I'm telling you, all of them we want to get done.

The Ubyssey: Do you have an estimated timeline of when you hope to get all those recommendations completed by?

AC: Out of the 54 recommendations, some of them are things that will be done immediately. In fact, some of them are things that we have already been working on. The Beyond Tomorrow Scholars program — that's about the recruitment of Black students coming to UBC — we’ve already started that. There's a commitment there for anti-racism workshops and seminars. A number of students were trying to host events for Black History Month and Asian Heritage Month, and they were going around, asking for money, raising money from the deans from the faculties and individuals to host an event. We said, ‘You're spending 40 hours to raise $5,000?’ We're going to create a sum of money that you can apply to and get that $5,000 easily. We've secured $100,000 for the Vancouver campus and $100,000 for the Okanagan campus, and students have applied to that for the past two years to host cultural programming. For the past few years, we've distributed the entire $100,000. But then there's a recommendation to increase the enrolment of BIPOC students. That takes time. It's hard to put a timeline on it to say all of this will be done by 2025, when there's some things that we did last year, and there's some things that will be part of the university's evolution over the next 10 years. It's hard to say, ‘Mission accomplished! We are now diverse,’ right?

Isabella Falsetti / The Ubyssey

The Ubyssey: Are there a couple of the recommendations that you feel like you're working towards in the next couple of years, that are doable goals that your office currently has a plan for?

AC: Beyond Tomorrow is an important one. Another important one is what we do with education and training. We're building out an equity, diversity and inclusion [EDI] strategy team that will focus on the delivery of EDI education and training not only to students, but also to our staff — where staff members will increase their cultural competency about how to work in a more diverse environment and how to help students from different cultural backgrounds feel accepted. What does a bias statement look like? What do anti-racism issues look like? How do we acknowledge issues of antisemitism on campus and how do we communicate that? How do we prevent those issues from happening? So to me, education and training is an immediate ‘Let's do it right now, let's start building out the infrastructure’ so over time, we can build a more competent community. This is not only the work of students, this is also the work of staff.

Another topic related to this is hiring: how we hire new members into the portfolio and how we conduct a search process. Sometimes the search process unknowingly includes bias — people make certain decisions and ask certain questions unknowingly, or sometimes knowingly, that are offensive, that are biased, that are not inclusive. How do we make sure that people are aware of these and educated and trained with that?

There's a request for space and funding for space. We've talked to some student organizations who want a collegia … Black students have said they want a space. We continue to meet with them and some of them said ‘Well, we don't want it to be exclusive. We still want to be in the heart of campus near the Nest or the Life Building.’ So we are continuing to evolve the concept of space, because there's this tension between an exclusive space and a multicultural space where we make sure that multiple people can gather. Prayer space has been critically important.

We have some Muslim students on campus who would like to be able to stop for prayer at the appropriate time during the day, but we have very few prayer spaces where those people can gather. There will be a space in the multifaith space in the new Brock renovation. We have an existing space on campus, but they don't have the ablution stations nearby where they can wash their hands and wash their feet and prepare for prayer. We are adding those slowly but surely, in the years to come.

Although there are 50 recommendations in there, there are probably 150 initiatives that need to happen to really make it happen. Some of them small, some of them large.

The Ubyssey: The toxic drug crisis on campus has been identified as a priority for UBC. What are some positive steps that you think have been taken within your portfolio to address this issue, and what do you think still needs to be done?

AC: I asked my Student Health team because they've been working on this with representatives from the AMS and the Senate for some time. I asked them to pull together their list. It's almost a two-page list. Some of the highlights: Student Health Services has been working with naloxone kits and training on how to use those kits. That's been one. The Student Health Services has partnered with the AMS on [distributing] drug testing strips. So last year, as soon as we broke from COVID and people were coming back, the AMS and other student organizations were giving out drug testing strips, and that was in part a partnership with the Student Health Services. There is a request for a drug testing space — a space where people can go and have their drugs tested. UBC Okanagan has a similar operation. We're looking at what it would take to build that infrastructure and make that happen here, where would happen, how close to campus et cetera, et cetera.

We have naloxone kits in the residence halls, those have been there for a while. There's a residence advisor [RA] training that's focused on how to use it. Anywhere you see a defibrillator in a residence hall, there's also a naloxone kit stand that you can open up just like anyone else and use that. Peer health educators are doing safe partying and harm reduction workshops. Three years ago we established the UBC Student Recovery Community that talks about harm reduction and recovery ally training. This has been really important before I even arrived about building our recovery team supporting, funding … Now we're in year three and it's a thriving community of individuals interested in students who are here attempting to recover.

The Ubyssey: At the beginning of last academic year, we reported on drug testing resources on campus and RA we spoke to said that they didn't think there was adequate training on naloxone use and responding to overdoses. How long has RA training on naloxone been happening?

AC: It is supposed to be part of RA training. They have assured me that this remains part of RA training. I don't know how rigorously remembered it is. I know RA training is a two-week long activity where they learn a whole bunch of stuff. [Associate Vice-President Student Housing] Andrew Parr would be a good person to bounce that off of, how rigorous naloxone training is. But I think it's a fair statement that any RA could say, ‘I don't remember this training at all.’

The Ubyssey: As someone who worked on the Student Affordability Plan and is involved in student consultation on tuition — I do want to make it clear that we're not asking you why tuition is increased, we know you don't have authority over that [that’s the Board of Governors] — what is your personal philosophy around post-secondary tuition?

AC: I do believe that as a student who went to school on aid from the state and aid from the university, I do believe that universities have an obligation [that] once we admit students, our goal is to help them graduate. Universities should make every effort to ensure that once a student has been admitted, we do everything possible to help them graduate. There are a variety of hardships that a student may face: parents losing their job, financial issues, student loans coming from another country, the value of the dollar fluctuating, so that whole bunch of issues impede graduation. But to the degree that we can help students graduate and make sure finances isn't the main barrier should be something that the university is committed to.

That's why I'm so excited about the work of the Student Affordability Task Force. There are 10 solid recommendations in there and this year, the AMS, GSS and SUO, we have committed to focusing and centring the Student Affordability Task Force report and making sure those 10 items get implemented over the years to come. Some of them will happen immediately. Some of them will take a little bit longer, but we have found that the issues around need-based aid have been critical, and there’s an aggressive fundraising campaign to address need-based aid. We have plenty of merit-based aid, but then we have some domestic and international students that have a need that we would like to fill. This isn't a UBC-only challenge — we need to involve the province in also thinking about student affordability issues, but my personal philosophy is that universities should do everything possible. One of our Board policies [Policy LR4] does address the university's commitment to domestic students. We need to examine that commitment to international students as well.

The Ubyssey: What do you think is the biggest limitation to building a better student experience at UBC?

AC: One of the things that I observed students talk about in a way that they won't voice verbally is that the student community is in some cases very exclusive. You have to join, you have to interview and you have to get selected into a number of things. So not enough things are just, walk into the room, you're a member.

So, many things are an interview process, a selection process and a rejection process. This year as a VP students portfolio, our message around welcome back and Imagine Day and Jump Start is all about community and creating communities where the mere presence of being a student enrolled, you are accepted, you are in. I want to be able to say that but then I need 600 student organizations that also believe that.

Exclusivity is a big barrier, especially [for] the students who are questioning their belonging. Like, ‘I'm not from this country, I don't speak this language, which is my second language. I'm concerned about going into this club or organization because I might get rejected.’ And that's happening too much. I want to start preaching this message of inclusivity and being as welcoming as possible and having open arms.

I also think we have an opportunity to revisit what's in place. UBC is currently designed for students who were here 10, 20 and 30 years ago, and we kept all those structures in place. We haven't paused and said, ‘We have a whole new student body here, coming from different backgrounds, different places, different genders, different identities. How have we pivoted so all of them feel welcome?’ We have academic policies in place that are ancient, student services in place that are ancient, practices in place that are ancient — meaning 20 years old, right? Those students aren't here anymore. When do we reintegrate those policies and imagine who's here right now. Students with disabilities, LGBTQ+, Indigenous students, Black students — have we really thought about how welcoming the university is for all categories of students and made real changes? That's my interest moving forward. I think that's the impediment to me to the UBC student experience for all. It's a student experience, but it's not always for all.

The Ubyssey: Housing is a really big issue. UBC has extensive on-campus housing and has plans for expansion, but many students are still having trouble finding affordable housing, especially this year. What more could be done to help students find housing in Vancouver both in the immediate and long term?

AC: Immediately, the continuation of our plans to build housing. We have Brock Commons Phase 2 coming to the Board that will be more than 600 beds in that facility. Over the past 10 years, UBC has spent more than $630 million in expanding the housing inventory. We will continue to do that. One of our challenges [is] it's hard to build faster than need. Every time we build a new building, and it's a couple hundred beds, we have 6,000 students on a waiting list. We never get to this place where we build a building and the waiting list gets shorter. We build a building and the waiting list gets longer because the price of housing in the market around us is much more expensive, and therefore students are living further away and transportation to campus is harder. So, the SkyTrain [to UBC] is going to make a huge difference. We want to continue to advocate and partner with the provincial government in regard to building additional housing for students and making transportation to campus easier and much more efficient. but we will continue to build in an effort to meet the demand, but we know we can't outbuild demand. We need a provincial partner involved in that.

Charlotte Alden, Nathan Bawaan, Paloma Green, Iman Janmohamed and Anabella McElroy contributed to this piece.