Entre nous: Tearing down the ivory tower

Entre nous: Tearing down the ivory tower McGill University

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McGill Reporter
November 24, 2005 - Volume 38 Number 07
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Home > McGill Reporter > Volume 38: 2005-2006 > November 24, 2005 > Entre nous: Tearing down the ivory tower

Entre nous with Registrar Sylvia Franke

Tearing down the ivory tower

Caption follows
Sylvia Franke once did a three-month stint as a bike courier in Toronto. Little did she know that would be a precursor to the chaotic pace of academic administration.
Owen Egan

Sylvia Franke has served as Registrar and Executive Director for the Admissions, Recruitment and Registrar's Office since summer 2003, after beginning as Interim Registrar in late 2002. Given that McGill receives about 30,000 undergraduate applications each year, and at any time there are over 30,000 students enrolled (most of whom pass through ARR) the responsibilities that descend on the office are significant.

Q: When does ARR first get involved with all those applicants, and what happens to them?

If you look at the A, the R and the other R, we deal with students right from their high school days as prospective applicants through to their graduation from the university. As for the 30,000 who apply, about half receive an offer to register, and about half of those actually choose McGill.

What are the demographics of the McGill undergraduate population?

We have approximately half our incoming students coming from Quebec, a little more than a quarter from the rest of Canada, and the remaining are international. As across the developed world, more women than men are applying: the ratio is something like 60/40, and our admission and retention statistics mirror this incoming population. McGill always has to try a bit harder locally, which isn't surprising for an anglophone institution in Quebec. We travel to every single CEGEP in the province, as part of a tournée with other Quebec universities, so that students are aware of their education options, and we make additional visits to CEGEPs where we have a good chance of attracting students. Sometimes we're just dispelling myths - for instance, reiterating that there are no tests of English ability when Quebec students enter McGill, and that although you will need English to do well, we offer lots of help to francophone students who take on the challenge. At the same time, we actively recruit in the rest of Canada, the U.S. and overseas - including onsite visits, and special receptions for accepted students to give them a chance to meet alumni and ask us questions to help them make their choice.

Technology has revolutionized the ARR Office - gone are the days of lining up to get into courses, or waiting on the phone for touch-tone registration. What else is new?

The most obvious change, to the naked eye, happened with the 2002 launch of Minerva, enabling students to register, view courses and transcripts, apply to graduate and to order official transcripts online. But that was only the beginning. Our "front-counter" group in charge of communicating with applicants and students - by phone and email, and in person - has doubled in size since I've been here. We're constantly improving our response rate: for instance, tracking our average queue lengths for email and putting on an extra shift if it looks like we're falling behind. A lot of prospective students are trying to decide if they want to come to McGill, so a prompt response is important for both recruitment and public relations. By addressing the needs of people interested in enrolling, we are letting them know that McGill is not a remote ivory tower.

We are also streamlining how we evaluate transfer credits, so students will know what they can expect when they apply to McGill and what kind of advanced standing they will receive. And we're improving access to information about study abroad options. This year we held our first annual Exchange Fair, where we invited international students to speak to students interested in studying abroad. Students were shoulder-to-shoulder at the event, which shows there is a lot of pent-up interest in studying abroad. But in all these initiatives, we never ever act alone - for instance, we're part of the Subcommittee on Student Records, which connects us with our counterparts in faculty and student affairs offices and has a big impact on how we function; probably 99 percent of the issues we discuss have a direct impact on our services.

The ARR Office is really the front line for much of the university's student contact. What do students think of the services they receive at McGill?

Students are concerned about red tape - they have to go to too many counters to get the answers to their questions. For instance, if you have a problem with your bill, should you go to the Student Accounts Office, or the Registrar's Office or the Student Aid Office? Another example: McGill has done a great job of developing interdisciplinary studies, encouraging students to take courses from more than one department or faculty. But we need an infrastructure that allows students to find answers to their questions about these programs - they sometimes find they must ask around numerous departments for curriculum information. And, on a very practical level, we are looking at ways of better constructing class schedules - the goal is to optimize student chances of actually following the interdisciplinary curriculum we have promised in the program calendar.

We occasionally hear of a new "air of entitlement" - students have paid for an education and adopt something of a consumer approach, demanding results. Do you see any of this?

There is no question that this generation has different expectations, perhaps fuelled partly by information technology. They expect a quicker answer and are willing to second-guess procedures and demand explanations for them. However, I never use the terms "customer service" or "clients" because I don't think they represent the kind of relationship we have with students, who, like professors and staff, are members of the university community. We're trying to provide services to students, but also to professors and to faculty and student affairs offices, and other groups we deal with. And in the same way that I have a responsibility to ensure that we deliver these services, students need to get involved and to give us feedback. And they have - I think McGill students are wonderfully engaged.

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