The associate dean beat

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McGill Reporter
April 3, 2003 - Volume 35 Number 13
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Home > McGill Reporter > Volume 35: 2002-2003 > April 3, 2003 > The associate dean beat
Illustration of dean running to a committee meeeting
Illustration: Tzigane

The associate dean beat

It was July 1, 2000, and Jim Nicell couldn't sleep. The engineering professor had just taken on the position of associate dean of student affairs for his faculty, but it wasn't new job nerves that were keeping him up. The next day, he had an appointment with a student -- his first in his new office.

"In my first half hour I had to tell a student to leave school permanently," he said, "I couldn't believe the turmoil I went through."

Associate deans are like a distributor cap in a car engine: you don't know it's there, but you won't get far without it. From faculty to faculty, ADs do the sort of work that is indispensable to the running of the university, but they are largely unseen. None could do their job without the work of their staff and colleagues (ADs interviewed for this article referred to their staff as "marvelous," "dedicated," "super" and "wonderful.") In the end though, the buck stops with them.

As associate dean of student affairs it is Nicell's job to uphold the regulations of his faculty. Exam deferrals, academic probation, accusations of plagiarism -- all of these cross his desk. And although the regulation in the calendar that stipulates "Students who have been placed on Unsatisfactory Standing will be asked to withdraw from the faculty of engineering for a minimum of one semester" sounds pretty dry, the emotional costs of enforcing it are high.

"They are pleading with you that this is their hope, their dream, that their father is an engineer and their family is relying on them to take over the family business. At some point you have to say, 'we've given you a number of chances. You can move on and find an alternative route.' I've found there's a lot of pressure -- my own personal pressure -- to give this person another chance," said Nicell.

On the other hand, Nicell said that nothing gives him more satisfaction then having parents of students he's had to ask to leave arrive at the university demanding to see him "to thank the person who put their son or daughter's life back on track."

Morton Mendelson is associate dean of student affairs in the faculty of science. He's also associate dean, academic, and, as with all the other associate deans, a half-time professor. Despite the number and variety of tasks he's involved in, Mendelson aspires to be more Invisible Man than Superman.

"If the job is done properly it should be transparent. If I'm doing it right then nobody knows about it," he said.

As Mendelson is wearing two hats, the list of his responsibilities is daunting. He oversees the student advisory staff, acts as the disciplinary officer for his faculty, is the liaison officer for the undergraduate student society, speaks at McGill's Open House, does a lot of "ribbon-cutting stuff "and sits on a number of committees. And that's just as dean of student affairs.

"As associate dean, academic, I am the vice-chair of the academic committee in the faculty of science, which is our curriculum committee. I also sit on the chairs council to the dean. I'm involved in a number of other activities regarding curriculum development: I'm involved in the freshman science program committee; I'm on the joint arts/science committee that's looking at a new bachelor of arts and science... I could keep on going. I could give you list of the committees I sit on but it would make you choke."

So, assuming that associate deans exist in the same space-time continuum as the rest of us, there have to be sacrifices. ADs get a bit of a break in that they only have to teach half a course load.

"In theory I'm half time in psychology and half time in Dawson Hall. That's in theory -- but in reality it depends on how long your week is. In reality I spend far more than 20 hours in both," said Mendelson, while hastening to add that most professors and administrators work long hours as well. There's a difference, however, between coming in weekends to work on a potentially breakthrough experiment, and coming in to review meeting minutes.

"People in administration jobs believe that they'll be able to do everything, but when they find they can't do everything there's a certain amount of frustration. Something has to give."

On the other hand, there's nothing like sitting on two-dozen or so committees to broaden your knowledge of the university. Or even, surprisingly, your own field.

Sam Benaroya is the associate dean, interhospital affairs, faculty of medicine. This means he is the liaison between McGill and its network of teaching hospitals -- the MUHC, St Mary's, the Douglas and the Jewish General. He's also the faculty representative on the regional health board for Montreal, a body that has responsibility for local budgetary and personnel issues.

"It broadens your horizons. You're seeing how the larger world works, outside of the McGill system. You also see how other health-care networks are functioning. We can contribute in terms of our own expertise and, of course, learn from other networks," he said.

Marie Dagenais is associate dean, academic affairs, for the faculty of dentistry, which she balances with her teaching and research responsibilities, as well as a private practice. Time management is a challenge: "That's why I hesitated when you asked if I had a few minutes," she said when contacted by the Reporter.

Part of her job is to chair the promotions and curriculum committees. The latter committee means that Dagenais needs to stay current with her field.

"In dentistry there are a lot of technical improvements that are taking place and we have to make sure that our program adapts to these changes. We do literature reviews to look at certain topics. For example, implants is an area of dentistry that is fairly recent, so in dentistry a few years ago we had to add a course on implantology. But the field is changing, so that course has to evolve."

Dagenais is also a de facto associate dean of student affairs, and so deals with the same kinds of issues as Nicell and Mendelson. For the most part, Dagenais sees her job as ensuring students receive the best possible education.

"Between the university and the teaching staff, I'm the one who knows the university regulations, and who knows what resources are available. I'm like an intermediate between the university and the professors."

Macdonald campus has an intermediate of their own, but Marcel Couture plays on a slightly larger stage. Couture is the faculty of agricultural and environmental sciences associate dean of community relations. He is his faculty's point man with the provincial government and Quebec's agricultural industry.

"Over the years as an agrologist and an agricultural economist I have helped to design agricultural policies, and served on many committees to design policies for the agri-food industry, including the design of the marketing boards," said Couture. He's also worked with the 4H and Young Farmers of Quebec to help coordinate policies. His work as a neutral "honest broker" means that Couture has real-world credibility in Quebec City.

"That's where I work on the grassroots level and build my network. And then I can operate on behalf of McGill and be welcomed when I go to Quebec. I remind people to think of McGill and Macdonald," he said.

"I love it. As long as you feel it makes a difference, it's fun doing it."

Yvonne Steinert has a similar passion for her work. She is the faculty of medicine's associate dean for faculty development. She defines faculty development as those activities designed to improve the faculty members' abilities in teaching, research and administration.

"We put on a series of faculty-wide workshops. For example, our popular workshops include small group teaching, giving feedback and evaluation, teaching technical and procedural skills. We have a long list of different topics."

The workshops have been remarkably successful -- over1,500 medical teaching staff have attended them over the last few years. Giving her audience what they want is part of the program's success, said Steinert. The faculty is constantly conducting "needs assessments" and offering workshops in those areas where staff can benefit. This requires that Steinert keep up with the latest advances in medical education and do follow-up research on the effectiveness of the development programs.

Steinert is the first AD in her position, which is a step up from her faculty development work in the department of family medicine. There are 2,000 medical professionals who contribute to the McGill faculty of medicine, and their specialties vary from pediatrics to psychiatry.

"The best part about doing this is that you learn by teaching. For me, the best way to keep up to date is to develop new programs and new content areas."

Steinert's passion for her work is obvious -- she describes it as "exciting and creative." She proudly points to the medical faculty's excellence in teaching awards -- which preceded the institution of the Principal's Teaching Awards -- as a university-leading program.

"I see faculty development as a way of keeping us skilled and focused and enthusiastic about what we do as faculty members," she said. "The biggest challenge is keeping what I know about teaching and learning practical and relevant to medical professionals."

Enrica Quaroni has been the associate dean of student affairs for the arts faculty for the last six years, a position she took after 23 years of teaching.

"I got a call from the Dean when I was in Florence -- I bring students there to learn Italian -- I had no idea what the job entailed, but it sounded like a great change."

As with her fellow student affairs ADs, Quaroni's big challenge is trying to apply rules fairly to students. Sometimes, she said, the problem isn't with the students.

"If you have to make an exception for a lot of students then there's a problem with the rules. That's one of the things I did when I first became associate dean. I got together with the advisors and reviewed all the regulations."

One such rule was the credits students were allowed to take outside of their faculty. The rules governing this were inconsistent: so-called 'how-to' classes were not allowed, for instance, which disallowed (among others) the machine tool lab course in engineering, but for some reason the faculty of education's ceramics course was kosher. The rule was spiked.

"We figured if a course is offered at McGill then it's gone through the approval process and should be allowed to any student," she said.

She said that even after six years, "it's still great to get up and go to work in the morning." That said, Quaroni had one understandable condition before taking the job.

"I asked if I could still take the students to Florence and he said yes. So I said I would be the associate dean."

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