A student writes: “My sister is in the hospital—I’m going to miss a week of class, I have assignments due and I’m really struggling with my own mental health because of this. A friend told me that the Dean of Students can help—is this true?”
While a core mandate of the Office of the Dean of Students (ODoS) in “helping students in difficulty,” that’s a broad statement, and so it’s understandable that there’s some confusion about what it really means. Many students struggle, and in so many different ways. Among the other administration units that are here to help students—such as advising and counselling services—the ODoS’ role is to help students, across academic and personal spheres, by listening, supporting, offering guidance, and facilitating connections to campus partners.
Whenever possible, the ODoS advises students to first seek solutions to academic problems within their home Faculty. Normally, this is done by discussing the issues with an instructor, the Chair of a Department or unit, an advising office, or Service Point. Our office gets involved when a conflictual situation isn’t resolved locally, or when there might be a broad suite of issues affecting students. If there are extenuating circumstances and the struggles go beyond academics, we can help with referrals to resources such as the Peer Support Centre, or Counselling Services. We make connections across the university, and facilitate some accommodations, especially when a student can’t advocate for themselves, perhaps due to severe illness or if a family member is sick. Our office can work with student affairs offices to ensure things are looked after in a student’s absence.
We also help students when they believe their rights may have been violated. The guiding document for this is McGill’s Charter of Students’ Rights. ODoS can talk to a student about their case and provide some options for moving forward, whether by coming to an informal resolution, or through a formal process such as the Grievance Procedures. If a student has a complaint against another student, our office can be consulted as to whether a resolution under the Code of Student Conduct and Disciplinary Process is possible. Similarly, anyone accused of a violation in the Code can discuss the situation with our office, and we work to ensure the disciplinary process is fair for all those involved.
Further, we aim to help professors help students, and respond when an instructor raises concerns about someone in their class. This is done through education and outreach with instructors, such as disseminating the ‘Helping Students in Difficulty’ guide. Our office also implements McGill’s “early alert” tool. A recent commentary in the Tribune provided an overview of the tool and also included some criticism, but our considerable experience suggests that it helps students in overwhelmingly positive ways: The early alert system allows instructors to signal to our office that they are concerned about a student, perhaps due to sudden lapse in attendance or a significant drop in grades. Our Student Affairs Case Manager then reaches out to the student with a discrete and general ‘expression of concern.’ Confidentiality is assured, and there is never any public record of these early alerts. We handle about 50 to 60 Early Alerts each term, and students are responsive and happy that we reached out.
The Dean of Students’ work is fundamentally collaborative—because our office is not based in any one Faculty, we can offer University-wide perspectives when students might be struggling, especially when multiple life events collide. We want students to succeed in all parts of their journey at McGill, and it’s the ODoS’s job is to make that happen.
Students can stop by 2100 Brown Building, call (514-398-4990) or email us at [email protected] The office also has an open house from 9-10 AM on the first Monday of each month, and some drop-in hours.