Vaughan Dowie, Executive Head of Public Affairs

Vaughan Dowie: "Is it a frill to be giving legal aid advice? Is it a frill to be working with Inuit communities? I don’t think anyone at the University thinks it is… It’s a core, a part of what we are.” / Photo: Owen Egan

“It’s hard to tell where the campus ends and the community begins.”

By Neale McDevitt

Talk to Vaughan Dowie about the importance of community and he’ll tell you about his childhood. Growing up in Montreal’s Park Extension neighbourhood, Dowie remembers spending a lot of his summers going to the local Dairy Queen owned and operated by Habs great and Park-Ex hero, Dickie Moore. “It was back in the day when Montreal Canadiens players still had to work to supplement their income,” Dowie said with a laugh. “At first it was pretty thrilling to see Dickie, but, you know how kids are, eventually the novelty wore off.”

Now the Executive Head of Public Affairs, Dowie is mandated to oversee the University’s communications and government-relations apparatus. Intimately connected with the public face of McGill, Dowie has some interesting views on McGill’s engagement with the community – at local, provincial, national and global levels.

Why should universities be involved in outreach?

For various reasons. First of all, universities are the crossroads of society – the meeting point for different kinds of professions, different kinds of people, people from around the world. Because of that, it just seems quite normal that universities have an obligation to serve the communities around them and to learn from those communities.

Second, a lot of the outreach we do is to prepare students for their careers, whether they are training to be dentists, lawyers, engineers, urban planners, social workers or anything else.  This type of outreach is intimately linked to the student experience as they prepare for the next phase of their lives.

Finally, it’s just the nature of what universities are supposed to do. In the mission statement of McGill there is, of course, mention of being student-centred and research-oriented, but there is also a part that is focused on service. We have so much talent, so much information and so much expertise – not to share that with the people around us, whether that means people in the city or in this province or in this country or around the world, would be terribly selfish.

That certainly flies in the face of the image of the ivory tower.

Absolutely. Universities are much more practical now then they were centuries ago. Now they are living organisms that are integral parts of the community they serve. You look at a university like ours and in the two places we are situated – Montreal and Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue – and we are an extension of both our communities. There are no walls, people come in, walk around – it’s hard to tell where the campus ends and the community begins. And vice versa. So we are not apart from the world any more – especially this university. We are very much a part of the communities in which we are situated.

In tough economic times like these, shouldn’t we be cutting these kinds of programs to save money and manpower?

I would say that it is exactly in these kinds of times that philanthropy and giving back is more important than ever. Is it a frill to try to interest kids in science? Is it a frill to hold free dental clinics for underprivileged people? Is it a frill to be giving legal aid advice? Is it a frill to be working with Inuit communities? I don’t think anyone at the University thinks it is – if it’s part of our mission, it’s no longer a frill. It’s a core, a part of what we are.

Look at the WOW lab trying to get young students excited about science in the context of some of the problems we’re facing in Quebec – the unacceptably high dropout rate in high schools. Trying to turn people on to knowledge and learning is probably more important here than anywhere else in North America.

But in a place where we measure success all the time, how do we gauge whether these initiatives work?

If you talk to anybody who is successful they will almost always relate their success back to ‘That Moment,’ right? That Grade Four teacher who made an impression on them or that encounter with that hockey player or something that turned on a switch. That’s not measurable, it’s all anecdotal. But there’s no doubt switches are being turned on and one day we’ll hear from these people and they’ll say, “It all started when I did this or that that I really got interested in science or geology or math or literature because somebody made it real for me.’ Sometimes it’s a volunteer or student or a teacher. I like to think that we’re turning on switches all the time.

Where are we strongest in terms of outreach?

I don’t really know the answer to that one because I just keep finding out more and more about the things that are going on here. Part of what we are trying to do in Public Affairs is to assemble all of these stories. But the more people you talk to, the more things you discover that are going on.

There is the University outreach – generally things that are associated with a program. But there is an enormous number of student organizations doing lots of wonderful things as well. Undergraduate students, graduate students and their associations are involved in a myriad of great projects – in neighborhoods in Montreal, in northern Quebec or in Africa or South America. For example, I hear stories about what people from McGill did in New Orleans after Katrina, helping people building homes. Where are we strongest in outreach?  I think we’re really strong in a whole bunch of areas and probably really strong in a whole bunch of areas that people don’t even know about.

Why are there so many untold outreach stories?

Volunteerism doesn’t get as much of a spotlight shone on it as it should, not just in the university context, but everywhere.

The things we hear about and the things that grab our attention are generally bad news stories. Those of us in communications probably understand this better than most. McGill communications is very little about issues management. It is very much about celebrating good news. We have a lot of good news here, but sometimes it’s a struggle to get people to pay attention to good news because what sells is bad news.

It used to be the news slogan was “if it bleeds, it leads.” Now it’s almost “if it isn’t bleeding we have to puncture it to make it bleed.”

How to we increase our engagement with the community?

I don’t know to what extent you organize it. The Principal has a task force looking in part at community engagement, so I’m looking to see what sort of recommendations they will have.

But community service is a cultural thing, so it’s about working on that culture. If you’re in an organization where it is part of the culture then you will be swayed by that culture. We just have to keep making it a part of our culture.

Just look at the Roddick Gates on any given day and you’ll see somebody collecting money for something – Engineers for Breast Cancer or any number of worthy causes. It really seems to be part of who we are at McGill.

Vaughan Dowie’s first job

Once I was having trouble finding work and I ended up being employed by something that was called then the Local Initiatives Programs – a federal program that paid people to work.

I ended up working for an organization called Citizens’ Rights Against Bailiff Seizures that had the great acronym of CRABS [laughing]

I worked with people who were in the midst of having all their possessions seized helping them understand the laws regarding consumer protection. It taught me some of the basic skills of community organization and how to work with people to empower them. In the end, the goal is to have people solve their own problems as opposed to solving those problems. To do this, you have to give them the right tools and information.