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University presidents need to pay attention to undergrads

When undergraduate students look at a university president (or at some schools what is known as the principal), what do they see? What do they want to see? And perhaps most importantly and difficult to answer: What do they need to see? To me the last question is the hardest to answer because the first two questions are hard to align. Why? Because I think very few students actually understand what the president of a university does or is supposed to do, so what they see might not be what they want to see.

We can probably all agree that we want the president to be the chief advocate for all members of the university community. But in reality, what we actually mean is that we want the president to be the chief advocate for our particular constituency. In my case, that would be undergraduate students. However, faculty members want the president to be their chief advocate, and the administrators want her to be their chief advocate. So what happens when you combine all of this advocacy? Unhappy people, and hence my point regarding the three framing questions. If you ask one person to represent a diverse selection of constituencies, you will inherently find that "the best decision" does not necessarily align with what every constituency wanted to see but will hopefully align with what they need to see.

So what do undergraduate students need to see in a president and in a university that is different from other members of the community? Well, to me, at research-intensive universities like the University of British Columbia, the University of Toronto and McGill (the latter two of which announced new presidents this week), undergraduate students want and need to be included in the big picture. Many of the faculty at those schools are primarily concerned with graduate-level research and many of the administrators are concerned with facilitating this research, so oftentimes undergraduate education takes a back burner.

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Research and graduate studies take the spotlight far too often at these schools, leaving undergraduate education underdeveloped. In my mind, this approach to priorities at research-intensive universities is allowing other schools, like the University of Waterloo, to climb the rankings ladder in far more meaningful ways than big name schools in Canada. Other schools have taken undergraduate education seriously, and they are creating dynamic, applied programs that meet the needs of today's world far better than the aging undergraduate programs at research-intensive, graduate-heavy universities. A president must be able to understand that undergraduate students need their university to do more than be No.1 on a ranking chart in some magazine; they need their university to rank high because it has innovative programs today, not 10 years ago.

What else? Going back to the framing questions and the point that many students do not understand what a president does, it is evident that undergraduate students need a president who can communicate effectively, efficiently, and empathetically. We need a president who can pre-empt issues before they become problems. The best way to do that is to understand the people you are working for. For undergraduate students, it means being able to constantly adapt. The population of students at a university changes every single year, bringing in new generations of thought and culture with each class. As such, a president must be able to evolve alongside these new students and must never fall into a routine of working or communicating in one particular way with a body of undergrads. When we look at the difference between what students want and what students need, the president must be able to explain the difference between the two and why decisions made are in fact the best decisions for the university community at large. In this same light, the president must ensure that decisions are made through never-ending, iterative consultation and communication (thus reflecting the constantly evolving population of a university).

In short? Undergraduate students really need a president who honestly cares about their unique needs and perhaps is willing to admit that he or she will never truly understand exactly what an undergraduate student really wants (but at the very least who will attempt to do so). Yes, undergrads are young, but a president needs to trust our intellect. The rest will follow.

Josh Redel is president of the Students' Society of McGill University.

Campus Life looks at issues affecting students, teachers and faculty in the education system.

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