Leaving university stresses students more than starting it, Dean of Students says

Posted on Wednesday, September 3, 2014
Andre Costopoulos notes parents are more involved with their children's university lives than was the case a generation ago, sometimes to an extreme extent. / Photo: Owen Egan

Andre Costopoulos notes parents are more involved with their children’s university lives than was the case a generation ago, sometimes to an extreme extent. / Photo: Owen Egan

It’s a busy time of the year for Dean of Students Andre Costopoulos, who is also a Professor of Anthropology, as students flood back for another fall term. Dean Costopoulos found a few minutes to sit down with The Reporter to discuss his role as Dean and a wide variety of issues confronting students and administrators, including sexual assault, drugs and alcohol, student discipline and the changing relationship parents have with the University.

What does a Dean of Students do?

A Dean of Students is responsible for a number of areas. There’s the Student Rights and Responsibilities – so Charter of Student Rights, Code of Student Conduct – that’s one big area. The Dean is responsible for co-ordinating advising across campus, not just academic advising, but all advising. And I am also responsible for relations with the community – neighbours, Frosh, Milton Park community, etc., etc. The Dean is also responsible for diversity, including aboriginal students on campus, general diversity, the makeup of the community and, finally, for students who are at risk. In addition, the Dean of Students has a role to play in ensuring student concerns are raised with the senior administration.

One simple message I’d have for students is this: If you don’t know where to start, start here, at the Dean of Students office, and we’ll set you up and we’ll get you to the right place. If you know where to start, go there!

When it comes to violations of academic rules, for example, plagiarism, has there been an increase, given the growing ease with which you can cut and paste from a document on the Internet?

Surprisingly, there hasn’t been. You can find those numbers if you can go to the website of the Secretariat office, or just Google “McGill University Report of CSD to Senate.” CSD is the Committee on Student Discipline. And that gives you how many offences there were over the past few years, what Articles of the Code and what sanctions were imposed as a result of those violations. That’s very helpful to get a sense of what the standards of the community are, to get a sense, also, of how many violations we have. Given that the population of the University has been growing, the numbers are actually stable. The numbers are only growing in proportion to the population. In fact, with plagiarism itself, there’s been a slight drop in the past five years or so.

And how would McGill compare with peer universities?

That’s always a very difficult question to answer because universities vary greatly in the way that they report discipline numbers, the degree to which they report them, and the way they classify them. There’s a working group of all Quebec universities on academic integrity and one of the things we’re working on is how universities report this. Some universities report nothing at all and some universities report everything, except for names of students. McGill is also part of a North America-wide academic integrity organization. Through my discussions in both those organizations, my sense is that McGill is no different from any other institution in terms of plagiarism and cheating, in terms of the number of cases reported, and in terms of the kind of sanctions that are imposed when a student is found responsible. We’re in the ballpark.

Do see variations by faculty?

The nature of discipline offences varies from faculty to faculty. The numbers are about the same, in proportion to the size of the faculty of course, but, for example, in a faculty like Arts, you would have more plagiarism, less cheating, whereas in Science and Engineering, you have more cheating and less plagiarism. But the numbers are about the same and the numbers are very small. The vast majority of McGill students really want to do good work. They’re here to learn and they know that they get the most out of their education by working hard and by doing their own work. They realize that the only person they’re cheating if they don’t do their own work is themselves. They’re cheating themselves out of an education. Our students are also very much concerned with establishing a level playing field, to allow the University to evaluate their performance and to give them meaningful credentials.

Do parents drive you crazy?

Parents are an important part of McGill. They’re an important part of the lives of the students and we try to be sensitive to parents’ needs, although it can be very frustrating for them because we can’t actually disclose specific information about students to parents. But we try to meet their needs; we try to answer their questions as best we can. And we can always listen to parents. Confidentiality rules say that I can’t tell them some things, but they don’t say that I can’t listen to whatever they have to tell me, and sometimes parents are an important part of helping us care for a student.

Have you noticed a change in the nature of the relationship between the University and parents over the years?

There has been an evolution. At the macro scale, if I compare today with the 1980s when I was a student, parents were generally uninvolved in their children’s university studies. My parents never would have come down to campus, nor would I have wanted them to. Starting in the late ’90s, I saw more and more involvement by parents. I would say now that many parents are very involved – sometimes too involved. One of the challenges for parents nowadays seems to be letting go and letting students have their own experiences and their own education. We try to create an environment at McGill in which students can safely make mistakes, and learn from those mistakes, in a safer environment than what they will find when they graduate from here. If they make their mistakes here, that’s an advantage for them. I would tell parents, ‘Let them make their mistakes here, let them learn.’ We’re here to help them, we’re here to support them. McGill is a very, very challenging environment, but it’s also a supportive environment. I think both components are very important for students. … And parents should let students face those challenges.

"University is not too hard," says Andre Costopoulos. "Certainly at McGill, if you look at our retention and graduation rates, which are north of 90 per cent, it’s quite clear that the vast majority of our students can face the challenges with which we present them, and they can succeed, because they have a supportive environment. Some would say that things could be more difficult, that university could be more difficult still. As long as the support is there, our students can hack some serious challenges."

“University is not too hard,” says Andre Costopoulos. “Certainly at McGill, if you look at our retention and graduation rates, which are north of 90 per cent, it’s quite clear that the vast majority of our students can face the challenges with which we present them, and they can succeed, because they have a supportive environment.” / Photo: Owen Egan

Is university too hard today?

University is not too hard. Certainly at McGill, if you look at our retention and graduation rates, which are north of 90 per cent, it’s quite clear that the vast majority of our students can face the challenges with which we present them, and they can succeed, because they have a supportive environment. Some would say that things could be more difficult, that university could be more difficult still. As long as the support is there, our students can hack some serious challenges.

Because you hear a lot these Mental health has been a growing concern on campuses across North America, if not around the world…

McGill is a very challenging environment. Our peer institutions are very challenging environments. There is high stress. Our students are very demanding of themselves and of others around them. They’re very demanding of us as instructors, of us as an institution. So it’s an environment in which there is a significant level of stress. And we have to help students cope with that stress; we have to help staff cope with that stress as well. But what I’ve noticed over the past six or seven years is that students are responding more to external stresses. And I notice that they become more and more stressed out as they progress in their studies and as they get near graduation. This wasn’t true 10 years ago. But I would say that the most challenging period is no longer the transition to university, although that’s very challenging and stressful because there’s a lot of adjustment to do and they should get help doing that.

But the transition out of university seems to have become more stressful and even more of a concern for students. They’re very uneasy about the future beyond the institution, about the world beyond the institution. They’re fearful of what happens when they’re done here, and I can’t say that I blame them because it is an uncertain world out there. But we try to equip them to face the challenges that they’ll encounter once they leave the institution, try to give them some solid critical thinking skills, and we train them to evaluate information. So we produce people who can adapt. That’s our goal. But I’m noticing that it is becoming more and more difficult for students to transition out of university.

Nowadays we get more and more cases of students who have done very well and are successful and then, in their last semester or their last year, start having very significant stress-related issues and mental health problems. We try to give them the support they need through counseling and mental health and peer advising and things like that.

My advice to students would be, ‘If you’re starting to feel overwhelmed, if your instinct is telling you there’s something wrong, probably you’re right, probably there is something wrong. Come and see us and we’ll help you identify what the issue is and we’ll help you identify what resources there are within the University that can help you to manage that issue.’

Another of the areas in which your office gets involved would be the matter of sexual assault. Again, it’s an issue that appears to be getting more attention on many campuses, whether there are statistics to indicate that there’s been any increase of assaults or not. Do we have a so-called ‘rape culture’ on our campus?

No. The standard definition of rape culture is that rape is tolerated, normalized and endemic. The first two there – tolerated and normalized – are certainly false. Sexual assault is not tolerated at McGill in any form. It’s not normalized, certainly not.

But it happens. And our first thoughts are, of course, for the survivors of sexual assault. We want to make sure they are safe and that we can support them following what is a terrible ordeal.

We’re a big community, a community of 40,000, a small town. And in a small town you have a full-time police force and you have a full-time courthouse and so on. And things are going to happen in a community of 40,000. And we’re a community of 40,000 with a very unusual demographic profile. The overwhelming majority of our community members are young adults. So we have some challenges equivalent-sized small towns don’t have.

Sexual assault is perpetrated by a very, very small number of predators and we have measures to deal with predators in our community; we have a Code of Student Conduct, we have a Sexual Harassment policy, and we’re not afraid to use them. The police are there to help us. Again, we’re not afraid to reach out to external authorities to help us handle criminal problems like sexual assault. There are excellent student-run services on campus and the students are very involved in this.

It’s a good thing there’s more attention on the issue of sexual assault because it’s an issue that needs a lot of attention. It needs sensitization. We have to sensitize students to what it means to live in a safe, respectful community and respectful interactions are key to the fabric of the University. Healthy sexual relations are just one aspect of that.

If you think about it, the core mission of the University is to push knowledge, which means that we have to have very difficult conversations that normally don’t happen elsewhere in society. We have to tackle some really difficult topics. And we have to challenge each other in ways that most people don’t challenge each other outside the walls of the University.

The only way we can do that in the University is by being respectful of one another, by challenging the ideas, not the people. And so respect and safety is a necessary condition for the mission of the University, and that extends to all aspects of University life. So it’s natural for us to want to have a healthy, safe environment in all kinds of ways, including being tough on sexual assault and sensitizing people to what it is to live in a safe, healthy community.

So when we have the forum on consent, in October… 

Last year, we had a forum on consent for the whole community. This year, in October, what we’d like to do is invite incoming students, all first-year students, no matter where they’re from, to a conversation on consent, on what it means to create and live in and maintain a safe, respectful environment, a healthy community. And that includes of course talking about sexual assault and talking about healthy sexual relations and healthy interpersonal relations in general.

The forum on consent last spring drew a lot of people, but there were comparatively few men at the event and a number of observers said the speakers were speaking to the converted. How do you encourage people who need to hear the message to be there?

The forum on consent was the beginning of a conversation. I think it’s normal that at least at first when you have an event like that, there’ll be a self-selection in the attendees; the people who will go there are people who are already sensitized to some extent, who are interested, who are committed. The challenge is always to reach beyond that circle, or to help that circle to widen its reach, to include others. We invited people from a wide cross-section of the University – we had representatives from staff, from Athletics, from residences and so on.

We tried to make sure that there were potential ambassadors to all segments of the community present at that forum and it’s an approach that’s working. I think it works well when we invite people personally. They go back to their constituents, they go back to their segment of the community and they can be ambassadors for the message we’re trying to convey.

The goal this year is to include all incoming students in some form or other. Obviously, we’re not going to get the entire entering class into a room for a panel discussion. I’m not sure exactly what form it’s going to take yet, but students will soon get an invitation to some form of process, the goal of which is to sensitize them to what it means to live in a safe, respectful, healthy community, how they can participate in that and why they should.

"I keep one course per year [while serving as Dean of Students] because I think it’s important," says Andre Costopoulos." I have this crazy notion that a Dean of Students should somehow be in touch with students and one of the best ways I know to be in touch with students is to be in the classroom, to be teaching." / Photo: Owen Egan

“I keep one course per year [while serving as Dean of Students],” says Andre Costopoulos.” I have this crazy notion that a Dean of Students should somehow be in touch with students and one of the best ways I know to be in touch with students is to be in the classroom, to be teaching.” / Photo: Owen Egan

Let’s change gears a bit. Tell me a little bit about your background and what you do when you’re not here.

I’m from Montreal North. I grew up in Montreal North and did my undergrad here at McGill back in the dark ages, then did grad school at Université de Montréal and in northern Finland. I’m an archaeologist. I study human evolution. I wonder how society came to be the way it is, which is why I’m interested in all this policy stuff, I guess. I ask myself how did we get to be us, and it’s a fairly compelling question, because some of the ways we are don’t immediately intuitively make sense – some of the ways in which we behave toward each other, for example, or some of the ways that we organize ourselves. So I’m interested in how that happened, over time, and how we deal with environmental challenges over time, and by environment I include other people, so the social environment as well.

I keep one course per year [while serving as Dean of Students] because I think it’s important. I have this crazy notion that a Dean of Students should somehow be in touch with students and one of the best ways I know to be in touch with students is to be in the classroom, to be teaching. I have a wonderful group of grad student in my lab; I’m very lucky.

I heard you’re a pilot. What made you want to become a pilot?

A pilot! Yeah, well that’s … who doesn’t want to be a pilot? It’s the most amazing thing I can imagine, to fly an airplane. I guess my hobbies tend to be things that have to monopolize 100 per cent of my attention. Because I tend to have a lot going on in my head and I have a hard time turning it off when I leave work, it takes me a while to turn things off. … And the only way that I really get down time is if I’m doing something where I have to concentrate 100 per cent.

And flying and taking aerial pictures demands 100 per cent of my attention and if ever I get distracted in that, I won’t be here to talk to you so, yes, I think that’s one of the reasons that I pursued flying because I found that it really allowed me to turn off everything else in my brain. I go for a nice little flight and then I land and I’m refreshed and I feel I can start thinking about things fresh. Yeah, it’s my downtime.

 

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