Following the inaugural seven-year term of Morton J. Mendelson, Ollivier Dyens has been appointed as the new Deputy Provost (Student Life and Learning) (DPSLL). Dyens, the former Vice-Provost for Teaching and Learning at Concordia University, will begin a renewable five-year term on September 1.
The DPSLL has a broad portfolio that integrates both student life and student learning in areas such as Student Services, Teaching and Learning Services, Athletics and Recreation, Enrolment Services, and others.
The DPSLL also oversees International Education (including Exchanges and Study Abroad) and the University-level quality control for academic programs and courses.
According to McGill’s website, the DPSLL “serves as a central liaison” between the University’s administration and students, “with a view to ensuring that impact on student life and learning is factored into decision-making.”
It is this broad and integrated scope that Dyens appreciates most about the position. “Bringing [student life and learning] together, to me, is very, very forward looking. Learning is closely intertwined with the life the student leads in a university. So I think it’s an amazing opportunity to actually do something that most universities need to do more of: extend the classroom.”
Learning and a rich academic experience, Dyens said, only happen in conjunction with a healthy living situation. He noted a problem with the visibility of support services in many universities. “Universities have a whole slew of support structures for students. The issue is that students don’t even know this structure exists.”
Since its creation in 2006 by outgoing Principal Heather Munroe-Blum’s “Task Force on Student Life and Learning”, the position of DPSLL has attracted controversy. Mendelson’s seven-year term saw the occupation of his office, a battle over student referenda, and the authorship of a new protocol governing future protest on campus.
In 2011, a letter recommending improvements to the position of DPSLL was signed by a variety of student leaders, including Katie Larson, this year’s incoming SSMU President (at that time, the president of the Music Undergraduate Students’ Association).
Larson was one of two student representatives on the Advisory Committee for the Selection of a DPSLL. The committee – which convened in Autumn 2012 – was chaired by Provost Anthony Masi and also included two special advisors from student associations, four Senate representatives, and four Board of Governors representatives.
Although most of the details of what the committee actually discussed are bound by confidentiality, Larson explained that the committee approved and recommended the way the job was advertised to potential candidates.
According to Larson, the committee did consider the concerns about the DPSLL position raised over the years by students, and by the aforementioned letter. “For student associations, the biggest issue is that the DPSLL plays a double role as advocate and communicator,” Larson told The Daily in an email. “This was not changed, and is still a lingering concern.”
Dyens described this double role to the McGill Reporter as “being the voice of the students but also in support of the faculties.”
“[I want to] work with students as intellectual partners,” Dyens explained. “There will be disagreements, we’re not always going to be looking eye to eye on some things, but you need to talk to students to know what the issues are.”
Dyens also expressed a wish to solve past problems as quickly as possible come September. “What we need to do [is] start talking,” Dyens said. “I know it sounds a bit corny, but there’s nothing else to do at the moment for me.”
Although he would not comment on specifics at McGill, Dyens is coming in at a time of budget cuts at McGill, a challenge he acknowledged. “Now, budget cuts are budget cuts, it’s never easy, it’s not easy for anyone, but it’s the case for the whole [system]. … So we have to do better with what we have.”
In his former position at Concordia, Dyens oversaw curriculum development, the promotion of outstanding teaching and learning, and program appraisal.
He also brings experience in the area of technology and learning to the position, an area important to the University in its upcoming projects. In February, McGill announced that it had joined the “edX” consortium, which offers massive open online courses. The University plans to begin offering some of its classes entirely online as early as 2014.
Acknowledging that online course development was “a big challenge for universities because it’s a shifting landscape,” Dyens spoke in support of online courses. “There’s thousands of studies … saying a well-developed online course is actually a little bit better than in-class instruction,” he said, while adding that “extremely strict” quality control was crucial to maintaining online courses.
Dyens highlighted the accessibility of online courses for atypical students – those who work, live at a distance, or are otherwise unable or unwilling to attend physical classes – and for students with different learning styles.
“[I intend to] build a strong pedagogy, one that’s adapted to [online learning], and that will have as good, if not better, results learning-wise for students.