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It's been a priority for Principal Heather Munroe-Blum since she arrived at McGill in 2003, and now the Principal's Task Force on Student Life and Learning is ready to roll with a clear mandate and timeline, specific terms of reference, 25 task force members and a dedicated website set to launch next month. In a recent interview with the Reporter, the principal talked about the task force, its challenges and ramifications for the future of the university, its students, staff and faculty.
Q: Why is the Task Force on Student Life and Learning so important for McGill at this particular time?
A: It goes hand-in-hand with McGill's overall vision to be recognized as one of the top 10 public research-intensive universities in the world - something I've consistently talked about in my presentations and conversations inside and outside the university. Many factors go into the making of a great university, and the most important are the people that make up the university community. That's why the student experience is critical to McGill and McGill's ambitions. We must provide our students with the best experience possible, within our means. And, as we assess the quality of that experience, we must listen to what McGill students themselves are saying. Feedback from our students consistently emphasizes the need for improved academic services and other administrative support services. Different units within the university have acted on this feedback, and there have been definite improvements in our services and supports. But the key issues can only be fully addressed by taking a look at the big picture of those services. That's where the task force comes in. It's an ambitious mandate and it's an important mandate, and that's why I have decided to chair the task force myself.
Q: What kind of response are you hearing from students with regard to the task force and its objectives? What's the level of interest from students, staff and faculty?
A: It's a topic that has come up many times at Town Hall meetings and in my day-to-day conversations on campus, and I'm truly delighted by the response. Reaction to the task force initiative has been overwhelmingly positive to date -from students, faculty members, deans and chairs, members of Senate and members of the Board of Governors.
Since there has been such enthusiasm for the task force, the only problem we've had so far is selecting members from such a wealth of possible candidates. In order to live up to our "focus on students," the membership has to be roughly half students and recent graduates, and half faculty members and administrative staff. I sought input from student organizations, deans and other colleagues. The members of the task force were selected as individuals, for their experience of, and interest in, student life and learning at McGill. At the same time, I did my best to ensure that the task force as whole represents a broad cross-section of university experiences.
Q: How will the work of the task force make life at McGill a better experience for students, staff and faculty?
A: The task force is an exceptional opportunity to stand back from our day-to-day work and consider how well the entire range of services and supports to students operates. As an example, "bureaucracy and red tape" are consistently mentioned as issues for our students. At a recent Town Hall Meeting, one student said that decreasing bureaucracy and red tape is "the $64,000 question." I think that's a telling comment and it's important to deconstruct it and understand what students mean by this, and also to think about all the ways that we can minimize obstacles to the best possible educational experience for all of our students. The task force will also address the international nature of McGill and how the university can best provide effective and supportive services for students who come from a diversity of backgrounds.
The task force will aim to make three to six overarching recommendations, focusing on the administrative structures needed to best deliver services to students as they enter the university, while they are studying here, and as they graduate and go on to further studies or the professional world. In addition, I hope that the recommendations will enable us to determine the level of financial support qualified students need in order to accept our offers of admission and register here, and to complete their academic programs
Q: Considering the broad terms of reference for the 25 members of this task force, there is a demanding timeline - ending with a final report in fall of 2006. How is the task force proceeding so far and where are we in the process?
A: The terms of reference for the Principal's Task Force on Student Life and Learning at McGill are formulated broadly for two reasons. First, the terms of reference will enable us to take a look at the impact of academic services and other administrative supports from the students' point of view. Second, they will focus our work on overarching recommendations for administrative structures and levels of financial support.
I have tried to set a time frame that is realistic, while making the most of the momentum and enthusiasm generated by the initiative within the McGill community. We are getting underway, with our first meeting scheduled for the beginning of April. At that meeting, we will discuss the division of task force members into working groups, the information we need to carry out our mandate and the individuals we need to hear from.
Q: According to the terms of reference of the task force, there will be opportunities for students and all members of the McGill community to participate in this initiative. How can people best get involved? How can students submit their views and ensure that their voices are heard?
A: A website for Focus on Students: The Principal's Task Force on Student Life and Learning at McGill is under development and will be launched early next month. It will be kept up-to-date as the work of the task force progresses. The website will contain information about how and when individuals and associations within the McGill community can make submissions to the task force and to individual working groups. Those who wish to make submissions may do so electronically, to a dedicated email address, or by submitting documents directly to my office in the James Administration Building. Deadlines established for submission of briefs will be advertised more broadly as well, including in forthcoming editions of the Reporter and the McGill News, so as to alert alumni and friends who may wish to make submissions. We want to really open up all the lines of communication for this task force, so I encourage all members of the McGill community - and especially students - to help us by sharing their views and comments.
Members of the Task Force on Student Life and Learning
Nicole Allard - Lecturer and Academic Advisor, Department of Psychology