Winds of Change: An Interview with the New Dean of Students Jason Last

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Dr Jason Last was recently appointed to a new role in UCD’s management, the Dean of Students. There was a similar previous role, the ‘vice-President for Students’, which was abolished from the college management structure for the last number of years. The Tribune editor Jack Power sat down with Jason Last, who was previously an associate dean of Medicine in UCD, to talk about his hopes for the role, and how UCD can change for the better.

Dr Last started off his undergraduate degree in UCD studying medicine, upon graduating he worked in medical practice, before returning to the college as a lecturer later. Dr Last said working within the School of Medicine he’s always had a passion for institutional change and reform. ‘I have an ambition within this organisation that we find ways of collaborating within students to make what we do better’ he says.

As the new Dean of Students Last will work within the college Registry and management. ‘I think the Dean of Students has an implicit mandate to making sure that we as an institution to harness the power that students bring, and to do so to their benefit’ he said.

‘I think the Dean of Students has an implicit mandate to making sure that we as an institution to harness the power that students bring, and to do so to their benefit’ he said.

Last feels that UCD has a natural advantage over most colleges due to the size of its student body and academic staff. He cites innovative scheme like the Peer Mentor programme as a simple way UCD management can empower students and support staff to make the college a better place. ‘It is a very simple kind of idea, we were one of the first universities to do that. It’s a really positive contribution that a group of students make, that doesn’t require resources, it just about them wanting to help and us finding an opportunity to enable it. We could use our other resources better as well’.

His background in medical patient service provision feeds into Dr Last’s ideas for how student’s experience using UCD supports could be improved. ‘I was at a presentation of the Irish Medical Association, and this guy from Queens College was showing us a video of himself walking from student Res into ICU (Intensive Care Unit), and then introducing the various people in ICU. Because what he found was medical students were very anxious about going into ICU for the first time. Just that simple thing of walking in the student’s shoes, for maybe things like the first time you consider going to see a counsellor, and showing how do you go about that. Sometimes an email or button on a webpage isn’t enough, if it’s your first time doing something like that. We [UCD] can say – how can we help do that better’.

The Dean of Students is conscious that the geography of UCD’s campus and scale of many programmes means students can find it difficult to settle into college life in Belfield. ‘I think a lot of it is about identity formation. If you are in a very defined discipline, and a very defined location, you can begin to feel at home very very quickly. If you’re in a programme that expects you to be in multiple different buildings in a day, and where you’re not sitting next to the next person, because you’ve so many different modules and options, that discovery of what you are within a university context is just going to take a little bit more time’.

Last seems to be genuinely passionate about not just improving how UCD can better provide services to students, but he has a strong belief that students can be empowered to make the college a better place themselves. He states that different forms of participatory involvement in the college community is an important part of a student settling in. ‘Self-actualisation is another piece of identity formation, which is about finding your place, and about understanding what you can achieve from that position. Once you start serving a community, something happens where you start to understand your role in that community’.

‘And that’s something we could all help with, we could find more roles for people to be involved. It doesn’t always have to be a club, or a society, or a peer mentorship, or an ambassador. You don’t have to be the most vocal person in the class, you can just be you, and still have a role – if I could find a way to create that, that would be great’. The participatory element of Last’s approach to figuring out how best to change or improve the college places students at the heart of the process. This more consultative decision-making style has been criticised as absent from the traditional relationship between the college management and the student body in UCD.

Sexual Assault in College

Two sources within the university’s internal committee structure say Jason Last has been a driver of a new initiative UCD have recently agreed to sign up to, the ESHTE ‘It Stops Now’ campaign. The ‘End Sexual Harassment in Third-Level Education’ is a campaign run by the National Women’s Council of Ireland, alongside other universities and Student Unions.  The campaign, which launched last week, will look to identify and promote best practice for how universities can support victims needs, as well as how colleges can help create a zero-tolerance culture around sexual harassment.

Dr Last doesn’t shy away from the fact that UCD has a responsibility to tackle sexual harassment in its own campus environment. ‘Nobody can pretend it isn’t happening. But what I would be careful to say that UCD can’t take the blame for what is happening across wider society, but neither can we say that there is nothing for us to do. Part of that is to recognise that if it’s happening, the students who it is happening to need support. And recognising what supports we can give, and what supports have to be given by experts or or authorities. We need to be even clearer about that than we have been up to now’ Last claims.

‘My personal reflection is if it happens once to a student in this community or in town or at home, wherever it happens, I just feel that at least they need to know that when they’re in this university they are in a safe protected environment, where we will support them. That kind of culture is really important’ Last affirms. ‘I have some very deliberate ideas that I’d like to see achieved … I’m looking forward to being part of the solution’ Jason Last concludes.

‘My personal reflection is if it happens once to a student in this community or in town or at home, wherever it happens, I just feel that at least they need to know that when they’re in this university they are in a safe protected environment’.

The new Dean of Students Jason Last comes across as genuine. Dr Last’s mind-set that function should direct form rather than vice versa is refreshing, and one that seeks to be more innovative in how UCD provides services to students. His ideology seems to be that students should be substantive participants in the UCD community rather than bystanders or just a revenue stream of fee payers. And his ambition to tackle the issue of sexual harassment on campus and combat the permeating societal culture that enables harassment seems like it will be a real catalyst for change within the university. His success or failure in the role will depend on how well he can bring the rest of the university management along with him.

Jason Last takes up the role of the Dean of Students relatively unknown to most students, but you feel he certainly won’t finish it that way.

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Jack Power  Editor 

 

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