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Mendelson’s contentious tenure comes to a close

The end of the school year also marks the end of the tenure of Morton Mendelson as McGill’s Deputy Provost (Student Life and Learning). Of all the administrators working at McGill, Morton Mendelson’s name has been in the pages of this newspaper and in other campus media more than any other, except possibly Principal Heather Munroe-Blum. After seven years in the position, The Daily sat down with Mendelson for an hour-long interview to put together an overarching picture of his time here, and the ways in which the position has changed McGill.

The position itself was created as a result of Munroe-Blum’s Spring 2005 “Task Force on Student Life and Learning.” The task force’s mandate was to “broadly examine and enhance the student experience at McGill.” Mendelson joined the task force in the fall of 2005, replacing Martha Crago, also an administrator.

Mendelson was appointed to the newly-created position in July 2006. The task force’s final report, submitted to the principal in December of that year, said that the brand-new Deputy Provost would “champion the development of a greater sense of belonging for McGill students.”

Did he? Do students have a greater sense of belonging here?

We may never know, four-year undergraduate degrees being what they are. There are, to be sure, different schools of thought on that question, but it is undeniable that Mendelson has left his mark on university life at McGill. His office was occupied last year for nearly a week, with students demanding his resignation, among other things.

That occupation, he said, had an “awful impact on this office.”

“People in my office are still rattled,” he said, bemoaning what he called the necessity of increased security in the James building.

Indeed, the James building is now a remarkably different place than it was a few years ago. The interview that constitutes much of this story was months in the making, Mendelson only agreeing to it after seeing a list of topics. The door to his office on the sixth floor is now locked, a development Mendelson says he hates.

In addition to demanding his resignation, the occupiers of Mendelson’s office were protesting his refusal to recognize the element of a CKUT and QPIRG referendum question that sought to make both their student fees non-opt-outable.

Speaking of the occupation, Mendelson said: “there was a lack of empathy for the effect that this would have. The irony is the event did not change or did not achieve the goal” that the occupiers sought. Mendelson is finishing his term and the fees for CKUT and QPIRG remain opt-outable. The administration did agree to recognize the vote as a referendum on existence – though not on the issue of online opt-outs – an agreement Mendelson said was reached before the occupation.

Over the years, campus groups such as CKUT, QPIRG, and – in the interest of full disclosure – this newspaper have decried the mandated existence referenda as an attack on independent student life at the university. Mendelson, however, views the existence referenda as crucial to maintaining the “accountability” of the student groups.

“If the students say [a particular student group] shouldn’t be operating, then they shouldn’t be operating,” he said. The principle, for Mendelson, is that the University administration is charged with “putting our hand into student pockets and taking money and handing it over to a third party.” He disagreed with the suggestion that the same logic could be applied to other functionings of the University that involved third parties, such as construction companies, functionings that don’t require the student body to vote. Mendelson pointed out that as of yet, there has not been an existence referendum question that has failed.

Another of the high profile developments involving Mendelson’s office during his tenure is the authoring of a protocol governing future protest on campus. Flowing out of the occupation, the administration established a new set of rules by which protests could take place on campus, along with guidelines for security services to police them. The initial version of the protocol drew fierce opposition from campus activists and unions, and even drew a condemnation from the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. The administration eventually split the protocol into two parts: a set of operating procedures and a statement of values, with only the second part to be voted on by Senate, which approved the statement last month.

Mendelson said he was pleased with how the process surrounding the protocol ultimately went. “I think the university engaged in a very serious conversation about a very serious issue,” he said.

Referencing a particularly heated 2009 confrontation between Canadian Minister of Citizenship, Immigration, and Multiculturalism Jason Kenney and protesters from the group No One Is Illegal, Mendelson said that over the course of his tenure he has “been surprised…about the degree to which some students are very intolerant of what is being expressed, but extremely tolerant about how opinions are expressed.”

Expression of student opinion is certainly a topic Mendelson is familiar with. He has been one of the primary targets of student anger over the years, consistently bearing the brunt of criticism for various administrative decisions. From the repeated attempts to close the Architecture Café, to student referenda, to the protest protocol, it has most often been Mendelson that is seen by student activist circles as the villain.

“That was the part of this job that was the most surprising,” Mendelson said, adding that he felt as though he was the lightning rod for all administrative decisions that were disliked by students.

Of all his accomplishments during his tenure, Mendelson said he was most proud of connections he established between various previously independently operating units on campus, and the team he built to do it. The more streamlined approach, Mendelson said, is consistent with the task force’s recommendations on the fostering of a “student-centric” university.

The most visible manifestation of the streamlining of bureaucracy is, of course, Service Point. According to Mendelson, the Service Point combines services for students that were previously dispersed across seven offices in four buildings into a single location.

Does Mendelson have any regrets?

“We were not as successful in getting that across to students, I think, as we should have been. Maybe part of that was issues of communication and consultation,” he said. He stressed though that he feels communication from students to the University has improved from a decade ago, pointing to the forthcoming implementation of a student co-chair on the Senate committee on student services.

It hasn’t yet been announced who will fill Mendelson’s shoes, but they will be walking into one of the most watched positions in the McGill administration.