Entre Nous with Morton Mendelson, Deputy Provost (Student Life and Learning)

Entre Nous Mendelson
Mendelson on new semesters:"Everyone is hopeful, everyone is committed, and I like to think that everyone has made a resolution to do the best they can." / Photo: Vince D'Alto

On student services, sustenance and September excitement

By Neale McDevitt

September is one of the busiest times of year at McGill for staff, students and faculty, but few people are busier than Morton Mendelson, Deputy Provost (Student Life and Learning). Serving as a central liaison among the University’s senior administration, faculties, student organizations and Senate, he is the point man for many issues regarding students, both in and outside the classroom. Recently, Mendelson spoke to the McGill Reporter about two crucial issues: McGill’s new Service Point and the University’s new food provider.

What was the impetus behind the creation of Service Point?

Service Point (SP) was a response to complaints we had had from students about what some people were calling the classic McGill runaround. In the past, students might have to go to one office for one procedure, take their documents to another office to get them signed, and bring them back to the first office – they were rightfully irritated by this, especially when they had to wait in long lines at each office.

In response to the recommendations of the Principal’s Task Force on Student Life and Learning, I was committed to seeing this project through by amalgamating a range of services.

How has SP changed the way we serve students?

Prior to SP, many of the administrative procedures were created for the convenience of the offices and people providing the services and not for the convenience of the students. Our goal was to put the students at the centre of the service they will receive.

To do this, we took services that were provided in six different locations spread out in four buildings and brought them into the ground floor of the McLennan Library.

Is it simply a case of putting these services under the same roof?

Not at all. The real success of this project is that we undertook a complete revamping of our processes.

How so?

Our frontline staff was cross-trained so that they could handle a wide range of student requests ranging from academic records to student accounts. Now students can talk to someone who understands the breadth of a number of processes and not just a single slice of one of them.

Tell us about the SP space.

An incredible amount of planning around restructuring the space that had been used by Archives and the School of Information Sciences went into this. Of course, we needed to house back-office functions, but – more important – we needed to have a place that was open, welcoming and modern. A place where students felt they were being treated respectfully.

How are the early reviews?

SP has just been implemented, so we’re not yet operating at 100 per cent. But we’re learning as we go along, making changes in real time and monitoring very carefully how effective we are.

Over the weekend when residence students were coming in, we know that the average wait from the time they entered the building to the time they saw somebody was 4 ½ minutes and less than 10 minutes from entering building to leaving the building with all their work done. This is a huge step forward in comparison to the same period last year when we served 20-25 per cent fewer  students over the move-in weekend.

Tell us how Aramark Canada became McGill’s new food provider.

We had an excellent open process for putting the account up for tender. A range of individuals, including students, were involved in the tender process with folks from McGill Food and Dining Services and from Procurement Services. We received three bids, which we evaluated carefully, and, in the end, the committee was unanimous in awarding the contract to Aramark.

What made their bid stand out?

It was felt that Aramark’s bid was superior in terms of business arrangements, including their investment back into food operations at McGill, in terms of what they could deliver as far as dining experience, and in terms of sustainability.

It was a business decision, but we wanted to make sure that social needs and sustainability needs would also be met.

How has the transition been?

It has been a good transition. Aramark came in a few days before the end of the Chartwells contract and that helped. Of course no transition is without its glitches. People feel very strongly about food, they feel particularly strongly about the particular sandwich they buy at the particular location.

McGill Food and Dining Services and Aramark are really committed to the McGill community and to making sure that the needs of our community are met.

Any other changes on the food front?

We have put a new meal plan program in place. Students now have a choice of a range of meal plans because one size doesn’t fit all. The varsity football player in training is probably going to eat more than many other students do.

What is happening with the Architecture Café?

I know many members of the community are going to be disappointed that we have decided to close the Architecture Café.

Why is it closing?

Originally, the café was student-run. A number of years ago we became aware of some serious problems in the way it was being operated, so McGill joined with the students and started managing the café with the aim of making it financially sustainable. Now, two years later, we know those efforts have not produced the result we’d hoped for and are unlikely to ever produce a financially viable operation. The café is still losing money and the University cannot afford to subsidize anyone’s lunch.

But, in addition to that the School of Architecture and the Faculty of Engineering need the space for student study spaces and other student-oriented uses. Together, those two facts left us with absolutely no choice: the café, unfortunately, would have to close.

How will the students benefit?

It is going to be used in part as study space for students in the Faculty of Engineering, particularly those in the School of Architecture. And, in truth, it is space that is sorely needed.

So it has nothing to do with Aramark’s taking over as food provider?

Absolutely not.  The two are not connected in any way.

How is work on the various residences going?

The construction in Carrefour Sherbrooke in areas related to service to students was completed last week. Next summer there may be ongoing work but nothing related to students (e.g., storage areas, the garage, etc.). As far as students are concerned, Carrefour Sherbrooke is fully functional.

A new building at 410 Sherbrooke is undergoing construction that will take the better part of the year to complete. The residence will be completely operational in the fall of 2011.

In addition, we’ve made other changes in residence programming that should benefit students. We have two Living – Learning communities – one of the upper residences is a Green Community, focusing on environmental issues, and the Roscoe Tower of RVC is focusing on fine arts.

Does September fill you with excitement or dread?

There are two times of year that I really like. September is great because the new students arrive and other students return with a little more experience under their belts. Everyone is hopeful, everyone is committed, and I like to think that everyone has made a resolution to do the best they can. It is really an uplifting time of year.

The other uplifting time is Convocation, because students have achieved their goals and we are congratulating them for their accomplishments.