On Aug. 1, Chris Buddle officially began his five-year term as the University’s Dean of Students. On the surface, the move from award-winning teacher and researcher, who has spent much of his time high above the ground in trees studying canopy ecology or on his knees on the Yukon tundra hunting spiders and pseudoscorpions, to university administrator may seem an unlikely stretch. But, as Buddle recently told the Reporter, the move fulfills his long-standing interest in student affairs.
By Neale McDevitt
How long ago did you develop an interest in insects?
Specifically spiders, actually. My background is in spiders which, face it, is just weird [laughing]. There are not a lot of people in Canada who work on spiders.
It really came out of curiosity about nature which I’ve had since I was a kid. Definitely it was a part of my upbringing in a small town in Ontario. I spent a lot of time in a canoe, fishing and being outside. That definitely shaped my academic interests.
When I was in undergraduate at the University of Guelph I had the opportunity to work with the research group looking at trees on the Niagara escarpment. I was hanging off ropes coring trees and there were spiders everywhere on the cliff face. And I thought this was kind of cool. So I asked the professor if I could do an undergrad research project on it thinking naïvely that it would be easy to do and fun to do.
Once you get a little bit of knowledge it feeds on itself and you start to develop more interest and expertise. So I went on to do grad work on spiders because that really piqued my interest. It really started with curiosity and fascination and evolved into a career studying arachnids.
The move from entomologist to Dean of Students is probably not a standard career path for many people. Have you awakened in the middle of the night saying, ‘What have I done?’
Not yet, although there certainly have been some anxiety-ridden moments [laughing]. But I think that is to be expected – it certainly is a big portfolio.
Why the interest in student affairs?
Early on in my time at Macdonald Campus I was involved in a lot of curriculum development and a lot of work with Teaching and Learning Services, on teaching innovation. Once you start to think about the academic experience of students, it very quickly intersects with the broader portfolio. Wellness and academics connect so intimately and student affairs is really the place where that connection happens.
In short, it involved a very natural progression from interests in curriculum and teaching to recognizing that, as an institution, we need to be thinking about issues like academic integrity, classroom and research environments, wellness and the over-all student experience.
How does being an academic and a researcher inform your new role as Dean of Students?
While we typically think of science in terms of its objectivity, it’s the people who make all the difference. We are about the community we live in and the people with whom we interact every day, virtually and in person. So whether it’s in a research lab or the Student Affairs portfolio, the richest elements are the connections and interactions we have with people.
While the framework is different, the important pieces are still the same – healthy and productive interactions, good communication and clarity of thought.
Some people don’t understand why an academic would move into administration.
[Laughing] Some of my colleagues might see it as a move to the Dark Side.
I think we are very fortunate at McGill where the model is to bring people with diverse backgrounds into administration. I believe these portfolios are enriched by including administrators who have experience in a research lab and the classroom.
I have some skill sets and interests that align with the Dean of Students position and I would like to use them and serve McGill in that way.
It’s a great challenge and I think a challenge should be looked at as an opportunity.
Speaking of challenges, what are some of the major issues immediately facing you?
The revision of the sexual violence policy will remain a challenge as the consultations are continuing; the policy will be an important step, but we also need to look at implementation of the policy: we have to look at how our office co-ordinates with other offices in looking at procedures related to sexual violence from reporting through to follow-up. We need to think not only at the policy level but also at the ground level. How do we build in proper framework for survivors of sexual violence; and how do we bring in proper communications to navigate the policies?
What about contentious issues like the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement and Divest McGill?
The students at McGill are tremendously bright and articulate, and they push the envelope all the time. Certainly there will be ongoing pressures related to issues like BDS and Divest McGill. These are issues that are not going away – nor should they since a University is a place for (respectful) debate and discussion. One of the challenges facing us is how to maintain a peaceful academic environment where the rights of all students are respected – ensuring students have access to their classroom and labs, but also respecting the rights of those involved with protests. We have shown we can do this at McGill, and we will continue to navigate this going forward.
Where are we with mental health?
One of the issues at McGill is trying to understand how our academic expectations are playing a role in the student experience. We are a very rigorous institution – we know that. We place very high expectations on our students and our students place very high expectations on themselves.
So how do we best understand the policies we have, such as the Student Assessment Policy, and how do we find ways to ensure that we are maintaining academic rigour but not at the cost of wellness?
We must work with Teaching and Learning Services, get into classrooms, and work with instructors to see if we can continue to address how we modify the ways we assess students without compromising existing standards.
This is a long-term project because this is a real shift in philosophy and I think the Dean of Students is just one voice of many at the University. But I think the tide is shifting and people are starting to realize that we can do both as an institution – it’s not one or the other.
And, we need to proactively look at ways to better help students in crisis, recognizing that wellbeing is multifaceted, so our various offices need to continue to work collaboratively.
What are your short-term goals?
I need to clarify the mandate of the Office of the Dean of Students – and we have to communicate that. Communication is very important to me. We have to be very clear on what we are doing and why we are doing it. We also need to clarify how this Office can serve students, as compared to Student Services, the Ombudsperson and other units.
I’ll be working to modernize the Charter of Student Rights this coming year, and as mentioned, our Office has an important role to play in implantation of the upcoming sexual violence policy. Given the University-level commitment to Indigenous Affairs, I also see that our Office has a big role to play, notably as ensuring the Indigenous Affairs Work Group’s priorities effectively complement the work unfolding with the Provost’s Task Force.
And long term?
I mentioned some short-term communications goals, but it there is also a long-term communications project.
I think the administration and the institution can sometimes appear cold or remote to students. I think that’s where our office can play a role along with Student Services and other places to break that down a little bit and put that human face on McGill.
We are an amazing institution with amazing people and most people have the same goals and objectives around creating a student experience that is very positive.
So let’s tell our story. Working with internal and external communications, let’s highlight the compassionate side of McGill, from students to administrators.
It’s a bit early for me to point to other long-term goals, but I do already recognize a suite of priorities ahead, from improving the advising landscape for students, through to continuing to develop and support the MasterCard Foundation Scholars Program.
What kind of message do you have for incoming students?
First, I would say have fun but be safe. We talk about ‘students’ rights and responsibilities’ and the responsibility part can’t be overlooked. Everyone has a responsibility to be a good citizen of McGill. We want people to have fun and enjoy the experience, but keep in mind your own well-being and how your behaviour affects other people. All students will have ups and downs as they move through their programs: it’s important to pace yourself, and I want students to be aware of the support systems that are available; ideally, learning of available help before its needed is a good idea.
So then, if I am a student who needs help, who should I contact?
In many cases if it’s an academic issue related to a program, an academic advisor is the place to start.
If a student is struggling, whether it’s mental health and physical health, Student Services is a key resource.
If students are concerned about their own well-being or safety in a particular circumstance, they should contact Security Services at Campus Public Safety. But Security does more than dealing with disruptive behaviour, they are also first responders and are able to help in many different situations.
For broader issues, say related to harassment, academic integrity or any worrisome behaviour that does not pose an immediate threat, the Office of the Dean of Students can be your point of contact
Students shouldn’t hesitate to reach out should they need help – there is a whole range of people and services out there to support them.