In a recent sit-down with The McGill Tribune and other campus media, McGill Principal and Vice-Chancellor Suzanne Fortier stated that because McGill is a large community, communication will always be a critique of the administration. While this comment should not be taken out of context, it raises questions about what communication at a university entails. The McGill administration is often criticized for a lack of transparency and communication, making it important to distinguish between the two.
Transparency refers to the availability of information regarding university policies, decisions, and procedures. Although related, this is an entirely different grounds for critique than that of communication. Communication itself is a vague concept, and perhaps all members of the McGill community are in part guilty of speaking out against a lack of communication before properly defining what it means. The Tribune acknowledges that it has in the past criticized the university for a lack of communication in regards to specific issues; it is therefore important to clarify the terms involved in these conversations.
The rhetoric surrounding communication must distinguish between the dissemination of and engagement with information. The former is the university’s responsibility, but the latter requires active involvement from students, student leaders, and administrators. The McGill Office of Communications and External Relations addresses five areas of communication. The two of primary concern are Internal Communications and Communications Services. The former refers to “ensuring that members of the community are well-informed of any major University news, events, and announcements.” This includes publishing content on The McGill Reporter. The latter includes the management of McGill’s various websites.
In keeping these aspects of communication in mind, McGill does a reasonable job of communicating information to its students via email. “What’s New” communications emails highlight everything from new policies and services to faculty achievements and external recognition. Principal Fortier sends summary emails to all members of the university community after every Board of Governors meeting.
Inevitably, there is an element of public relations and image management to university communications emails and The McGill Reporter. However, this inclusion of news unrelated to governance waters down communications about important policy decision-making processes, perhaps contributing to student perceptions that the university fails to adequately communicate to them. Furthermore, mass emails can be alienating when they take an official university stance on specific issues without acknowledging student voices—or at least showing a genuine willingness to listen to them. While dissemination falls squarely on the university’s shoulders, engagement is a multifaceted issue that illustrates the two-way street of communication at post-secondary institutions.
At the same time, students must differentiate availability of information from engagement with that information. The administration cannot be expected to anticipate what kinds of issues students want to be communicated with about. If students are dissatisfied with McGill’s communications, they should voice these concerns concretely. Communication is a complex task, and the administration must reflect on why it has been criticized and what can be done to resolve the issue. The university must not resign itself to the inevitability of such issues without actively seeking a solution.
Furthermore, it is in McGill’s best interests for its students to be engaged with administrative decisions and policies. When students become apathetic, they are more likely to jump to uninformed criticism. In this regard, Deputy Provost (Student Life and Learning) Ollivier Dyens’ newly planned Student Life and Learning Liaison Group—which will meet twice a semester “to learn, consult, and collaborate on topics important to students”—has the potential to generate more effective communications strategies that will increase student engagement.
In order to further improve this communication, McGill should consider creating an opt-in checklist of email listservs that students could choose to subscribe to. While university emails regarding important developments to student services or policies should remain mandatory, students would benefit from the ability to choose what information they are interested in receiving. This would help students to feel less inundated and more likely to ingest information that they view as relevant.
Another possibility would be for members of the administration to hold town-hall or question-and-answer sessions on issues that are typically inaccessible to students, such as on policy and governance decisions. As an example, in a “What’s New” communications email sent on Oct. 16, McGill announced that it will be holding a town-hall on the university’s budgeting process on Oct. 24. Students should take advantage of these opportunities to provide direct feedback to the administration.
Ultimately, solving—or at least mitigating—critiques of McGill’s communications requires students and administration to meet in the middle. It is ironic that Principal Fortier chose to lament critiques of communication during an interview with campus media; if communication is criticized, McGill must reflect on why this is the case, and actively seek strategies to combat this issue. Defaulting to the position that communication issues are unavoidable is not productive. Likewise, students cannot blindly criticize the university about its communications if they are not doing their part to engage with the information they do receive.