On December 13, McGill Provost Christopher Manfredi revealed in an email to the McGill community that Professor Ollivier Dyens would not seek a second term as Deputy Provost of Student Life and Learning (DPSLL), with his current term ending July 31, 2018. This came as a relief to many students, following widespread criticism of his response towards mental health and sexual violence on campus, among other concerns (see our October 3, 2017 editorial “Ollivier Dyens has failed you” and Former Director of McGill Mental Health Services Norman Hoffman’s subsequent response). Even now, with Dyens’ departure on the horizon, both he and the administration have failed to acknowledge, respond to, and correct the mistakes made in the last five years. A change in the DPSLL office should not serve as a smokescreen to distract from student unrest. The administration must confront students’ concerns and provide a transparent outline of their plan of action.
Dyens has come under fire for several reasons, including his department’s response to a 2013 sexual assault case involving three McGill students, which failed to be handled in a just and timely manner. Many students were left questioning the accountability measures in place to take disciplinary action against sexual predators on campus. Dyens has also spearheaded the restructuring of McGill’s mental health services into a less accessible system. During his tenure, mental health services (now Counselling and Psychiatric services) were reduced from a specialised resource for student needs to an assessment and redirection center governed by the stepped care model, a system which triages new patients and then aims to provide them with services on the basis of what resources are available and deemed appropriate. However, many students have expressed frustration that their needs are not being met, as they are instead being redirected to hospitals or denied services depending on the university’s evaluation of their condition. Dr. Norman Hoffman declared that the changes have “destroyed mental health services.” Furthermore, in an interview given on November 21, 2017 with the McGill Reporter about the possibility of a Fall Reading Break, Dyens rejected student demands to organise research efforts around the potential benefits of such a week. His response was a complete dismissal of students’ legitimate mental health concerns. Instead, he focused on how students need to develop “hygiene de vie” – essentially espousing a “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” mentality that denies the lived realities of mental illness. His remarks further illustrate the ignorance with which he began the process of dismantling McGill’s Mental Health services.
It is not sufficient for McGill to simply replace Dyens with a new DPSLL, thinking that this will placate students’ indignation over the state of student life. The administration must take accountability for the duties that Dyens could not fulfill, and whoever steps into the role in the coming years must rectify Dyens’ failures. Specifically, the administration must improve the structures in place to respond to cases of sexual violence. In addition, McGill needs to seriously reconsider and reverse the dismantling of the McGill Mental Health services into a redirection office, and instead provide the students with quality service appropriate to student needs. Lastly, the administration ought to launch a task force to consider the possibility of a Fall Reading Week that would respect students’ efforts to find relief from the mounting stress of the Fall semester. This move should be accompanied by consideration for the contemptuous disregard experienced and decried by students during consultations around the Fall Reading Break, and in the poorly- thought-out “hygiene de vie” remarks made in the McGill reporter interview. These measures would hail an administrative “hygiene de vie” — a new DPSSL era of responsiveness and respect McGill owes to its student community.