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In search of better leadership for Student Life and Learning

Editorial/Opinion by

At the end of the Fall 2017 semester, McGill students learned that Deputy Provost (Student Life and Learning) Ollivier Dyens will not pursue a second term once his current mandate concludes at the end of July 2018. While there will be an interim deputy provost after he departs, the formal appointment process for his successor begins in Fall 2018. In its search for new leadership, McGill has the chance to revitalize and renew student faith in the Office of the Student Life and Learning (OSLL), after several widely-criticized missteps during Dyens’ tenure.

Accordingly, before a candidate is named, Provost and Vice-Principal (Academic) Christopher Manfredi is to review the “scope and orientation” of the OSLL. However, the office’s mandate is already fairly clear, if broadly defined. It’s in its very name—to support McGill student life and learning by providing essential services, raising student concerns to administration, and supporting and communicating with student leadership and student groups. Its units include Student Housing Services, the Office for Students with Disabilities, and Scholarships and Student Aid, to name a few. The deputy provost oversees all of the office’s functions, and acts as the main contact point between students and the administration.

Reviewing the OSLL’s structure and goals is important, but the more relevant and pressing challenge for the administration is to ensure that the next Deputy Provost of Student Life and Learning is what Dyens has largely failed to be: An accessible, visible, and responsive advocate for student interests at the administrative level.

If the deputy provost is meant to improve the quality of student life and learning, then step one of their job should be to consult students on what quality of life and learning at university actually means to them.

The concerns raised throughout Dyens’ term are not new—the OSLL has faced criticism for shoddy communication and consultation, and unresponsiveness to student voices as far back as 2011. Dyens’ tenure in the role, since 2013, deserves the same criticism. Between sidestepping administration responsibility for responding to incidents of sexual and gendered violence between McGill students; overseeing Counselling and Psychiatric Services’ switch to the “Stepped Care” model without adequate staff and student consultations; and, most recently, some stunningly tone-deaf advice on student mental health that launched a thousand memes, the exiting deputy provost has done little to inspire student trust or interest in the OSLL’s Services.

Dyens’ track record doesn’t have to be the norm for the OSLL and its relationship to McGill students, nor should it be. The OSLL exists because it is essential to have an administrative body dedicated to student needs and interests. While the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) provides student leadership and representation independent from the university, as an administrative body, the OSLL has the power and resources to offer ongoing, essential student services.

For the OSLL to fulfill its role as such, and as a reliable source of student support, not frustration, a competent deputy provost is crucial. Competence means visibility and interaction with the student body beyond periodic appearances at SSMU Council meetings or press releases through the McGill Reporter. It means having clear, open channels for communication with students, and using those channels consistently and proactively. Fundamentally, it means understanding that the deputy provost’s role requires actively seeking out student input and genuinely listening to their own needs and interests with regards to the OSLL. If the deputy provost is meant to improve the quality of student life and learning, then step one of their job should be to consult students on what quality of life and learning at university actually means to them.

It is in McGill’s best interests to have a capable student life and learning deputy provost as much as it is in students’. Practically speaking, if current students aren’t being heard when it comes to improving their own McGill experiences, prospective incoming students may go elsewhere. Happy alumni are also generally more generous than bitter and jaded ones. From a principled standpoint, of course, McGill’s interests should align with student interests: A university should care that its students are receiving essential support and services. With capable leadership, the OSLL is the body to make that happen. Students have expressed what they want—and don’t want—in a head of Student Life and Learning. When looking for the next candidate for the job, the administration should listen to them.

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