Doing his part for the “great undertaking”
By Neale McDevitt
Although he grew up just outside of Halifax, N.S., and only assumed his new job as McGill’s Secretary-General on Nov.1, 2009, Stephen Strople was very familiar with Montreal before making a move from the Maritimes. “I had aunts who were living here when I was younger so I spent a lot of summers in Montreal,” said Strople. “You can imagine what it was like for me to visit this wonderful city – it was magical. And it still is. Montreal has a special quality that I’ve only found elsewhere in Manhattan.”
Strople spent the last 18 years as the University Secretary of the University of New Brunswick. There, he played a pivotal role in all aspects of governance and senior-level decision-making including developing and interpreting university policy, regulations and procedure; instructing legal counsel on behalf of the university; overseeing the records management program; organizing and supporting executive-level searches; and the administration of student discipline. As Strople told the McGill Reporter in a recent interview, he regards his new job at McGill as a natural evolution of his professional life.
As Secretary-General, what is your mandate?
My office has several areas of responsibility. First is the governance function, in which I co-ordinate and facilitate the effective operations of both Senate and the Board of Governors and their various committees.
The Secretary-General is also responsible for responding to access-to-information requests and discharging McGill’s obligations under the Quebec legislation.
As well, this office coordinates both the processes for the assessment of candidates for tenure and promotion and those involving faculty appeals or grievances. And, of course, our office is responsible for Convocation and related ceremonial events of the University.
That’s a very wide-reaching job description. Are there certain aspects you enjoy more than
Actually, I’m looking forward to working at all of them. At UNB, I did not have responsibility for access to information because the provincial government has only recently amended its legislation to include universities. So this will be fairly new for me.
Having full responsibility for Convocation is really an expansion of my role at UNB where I had responsibility for Honorary Degrees and some aspects of the ceremony but not the whole thing.
It feels to me like a progression from what I have been doing for the last 18 years. Of course, now I am doing it at a new university, in a new culture and certainly on a much larger, grander scale.
How did you get started in administration?
My initial experience in university administration was in the area of labour relations, specifically as negotiator and manager of academic staff relations. When I first went to UNB, my role was to help with the negotiation of a collective agreement with the faculty association and to help administer that agreement. From there, to be honest, it was somewhat accidental that I found myself in the role of University Secretary. UNB needed a University Secretary and I thought I would give it a whirl. I wasn’t thinking 20 years down the road… but here I am today. [laughing].
What do you enjoy about university administration?
Universities play a very important part in our society. They are part of the DNA of what I call the civilizing quest and what represents the best of human endeavour. As such, I’ve always aspired to work within the university milieu.
I do believe that universities exist to search for truth, beauty, peace and justice. Some people may question whether these qualities are real and if they can even be defined. But I think we do strive toward those kinds of ideals. That is terribly important in the world and no less in Canadian society and no less in Quebec society.
It really is an ideal within our society – the pursuit of learning and knowledge, the dissemination of that knowledge, the preservation of knowledge. It’s just such an extremely important part of humanity’s progress and of our social and intellectual evolution and the betterment of humankind. I feel extremely privileged to be part of what I see as a great undertaking.
A grand ideal, for sure, but how do we achieve it?
Behind that grand ideal, there are many, many people at the University who play an important role. And I would make no distinction within the University because I believe it takes a community to help realize these ideals. You can distinguish the roles as staff, administration and faculty – but they are all equally important in helping McGill realize its full potential.
What have you been up to since starting on Nov. 1?
I’ve had to learn a lot, for sure [laughing]. On top of meeting people I have been familiarizing myself with the statutes and regulations that govern our internal operations. As well, McGill has its distinct culture and although I’ve worked at other Canadian universities there’s quite a bit about this place that is entirely new.
And because I’m new and am trying to learn, I’m probably engaged initially in issues that I may not be as engaged with in the future. At the moment I am much more hands-on than I expect to be in the next year or so.
What is the difference in culture between McGill and UNB?
Probably the pace. Not that it’s a faster pace, but in any day I think there is a greater diversity of issues, a greater range of issues that I have to deal with.
For example, UNB doesn’t have a medical school, so there is a whole additional layer which has a very significant impact on McGill’s identity but also on the way we have to think about daily operations for the University.
What are your priorities for 2010?
My number one priority is to get myself fully up to speed so that I can make the maximum contribution to the University.
Beyond that, I want to look at where this office is; how it is fulfilling its mandate in the broader McGill framework; and to begin to look at ways in which we can do things better.
I believe that whatever worked well yesterday is not necessarily going to be good enough tomorrow. We have to be continually examining what it is we’re doing, how we’re doing it, and looking for ways to do it better.
Stephen Strople’s first job
After my first year of university, I got my first job as a busboy in a restaurant. The major lesson I learned at that job was that in serving people, one should present oneself as fully and as best as one can. In whatever field of endeavour you’re in, it is about serving and doing your best.
I had another job that summer as a letter carrier for Canada Post – and this was far more formative in my career. I guess the most important lesson I learned at that job was that it takes a team effort to be effective and to accomplish the mission. A lot of people – some you know about and many others whom you never hear of – have to work together, cooperate and be entirely committed to a collective outcome. That is vital to the success of any organization.