After a series of failed attempts at compromising, the University of Alberta and the Students’ Union have come to another impasse regarding changes to Lister Residence.
The U of A announced its plans in late July to alter the residential alcohol policy, make three Lister towers into strictly first-year residences, and implement staffing changes that would heavily impact the Lister Hall Students’ Association (LHSA).
These measures provoked outcry from student groups such as the SU and the LHSA. Claiming a lack of student consultation, the SU began a campaign to reverse the changes.
Consultation did take place in late January regarding several Lister changes, but since an agreement couldn’t be made at the time, talks were stalled.
“(The administration) basically said, you know, let’s continue this discussion and rehash it all in the fall when everyone is back, and move on from there. Obviously, that’s not what they’ve done,” said SU President Colten Yamagishi.
“The only thing they talked about (in the January discussions) was the staffing structure. (The LHSA) were upset with the ideas, so the Dean of Students and the Students’ Union got brought in to facilitate the conversation, but it still didn’t really work out, and that’s why they decided to talk about it again in the fall.”
Yamagishi said there had been no further word from the university between that time and the university’s public release of its intentions. Dean of Students Frank Robinson agreed in an email interview that there were no further meetings specifically related to the changes being implemented.
“It was after the very contentious and unproductive meetings in January that the decision was made to take a deeper look and consider the whole situation in order to understand better the nature of the issues,” he said.
“The University is acting on concerns for the entire Lister community, which includes its staff ... as well as student residents.”
Aside from lack of consultation, the Students’ Union claim the university breached three of its own policies in order to push through the changes in Lister. However, Robinson said that nothing in the documents hinders the University’s ability to implement changes as it sees fit.
“In fact, those documents recognize the right of the university to take immediate action when necessary,” he said. “Administration feels it has acted within the terms set out in those documents.”
One of the documents, a 2008 memorandum of agreement with respect to consultation between Residence Services and the LHSA, details how the university should approach issues like the Lister consultations.
“Dialogue will usually begin with a proposal, which will form the basis of discussion,” the document reads.
“The proposal must simultaneously acknowledge the core issues which the group is attempting to address while providing any and all options considered in its effort to do so with the preferred option likely taking a central position in the proposal. At every level, reasons for or against any proposal or option must be given.”
However, the document adds that, unless expressly specified in the document itself, all final decisions will be made by the university.
The document also outlines a policy for consultation regarding health and safety issues.
“Long-term responses to health and safety issues will result in consultation with the LHSA on Lister specific issues and project categories and with the UARHA on system-wide issues and project categories,” it says.
Additionally, an Alcohol Policies and Procedures section reads that all such policies and procedures will be decided by the Alcohol Policy Review Committee, which is expected to consult with Residence Services and the LHSA
Negotiations fired up again last week, resulting in the university offering a number of concessions but refusing to ultimately reverse all Lister changes.
A news release by the university on August 1 stated that after hearing concerns from the LHSA about having enough senior students to keep their programs and organization viable, the university would allow a number of returning students per floor to fill LHSA staff roles.
Regarding staffing changes, the university also offered to allow this year’s elected floor coordinators to continue to take on LHSA responsibilities, as long as they don’t conflict with fulfilling their university job duties should they choose to accept the new RA position..
The university also agreed to assess their change to the alcohol policy if the Students’ Union could provide “compelling evidence” that limiting alcohol consumption to private spaces would be less safe than allowing drinking in student lounges.
“The Students’ Union refuses to consider either the compromise on the alcohol rules or to the current year’s staffing issue if the university will not rescind all five decisions,” the news release added.
Acting provost Martin Ferguson-Pell said in their release that the university cannot reverse their decision.
“It’s really unfortunate that a reasonable compromise that meets the immediate needs of all parties regarding student-staffing is being derailed by the SU’s all-or-nothing position,” he said.
“There is a system and culture in place that fosters and celebrates alcohol abuse and vandalism. That is not acceptable.”
However, Yamagishi said that the description of the SU’s position as “all-or-nothing” is unfair.
“It’s really troubling to us because not only have we told them that we want to work together to find the best solution for students, but we’ve even proposed a framework on how to do so, and yet there’s still really no response from their side to start from square one and find the best solution for students,” he said.
“So what we (are) thinking is that we would bring membership from the Dean’s office, Residence Services, the LHSA and the SU, and really sit down and address what the real issues are and how to best work together to solve them.”
Following the SU’s refusal of proposed concessions, Residence Services terminated 40 of the 46 LHSA staff members who had declined the offer of a university job in place of a joint LHSA-Residence Services position, in accordance with the ten-day deadline given to staff members to either accept or reject the offer.
The SU responded late last week by holding a press conference outside Lister Hall. During the conference, the SU displayed letters and postcards submitted by Albertans affected by the Lister changes, with the intention of sending the letters to U of A President Indira Samarasekera in an appeal to get the changes reversed.
Shortly after, the SU, the LHSA and university administration began discussions again.
“All parties have the best interests of the University of Alberta and the (university) community at heart,” said an SU news release last Friday. “We expect that we will arrive at a resolution early next week.”
SU Vice-President (Student Life) Saadiq Sumar said the SU developed a set of points for every proposed change to Lister and sent it to the provost on Friday in anticipation of a collective meeting on Monday.
“We were working on basically creating a ... letter of understanding,” Sumar said.
“They sent (back) a response which looked very similar to the document that they sent us about a week and a half ago. ... It just seems like the university has almost gone backwards, because with the proposal they made, it really reflected what they had originally proposed. And it seems like we were moving in the right direction with us starting to develop soft ground with the university, and (Monday) was just a real reflection that unfortunately, the university is not really willing to discuss the matter with the students’ associations.”
Sumar added that the university’s reply did not reflect any of the points developed by the SU.
Following the latest meeting, the SU released a statement that the administration “appears to have retracted any effort at compromise.”
“The Students’ Union is proposing solutions that will protect all that is good about Lister’s heritage while proposing positive solutions to address any concerns,” it said. “The Administration, on the other hand, is preparing to further tarnish the University of Alberta by prolonging this dispute and painting all residents of Lister with a negative stereotype.”
Yamagishi said that he has contacted the Board of Governors and the Alberta Minister of Enterprise and Advanced Education regarding the dispute.
“I think it’s very important to set the precedent that they’re in error, and we need to correct the error before moving forward,” he said.
“We’ve yet to ask (the minister) to step in, but hopefully the university will come around and join us in the request we made for these changes to be reverted. I hate to have to escalate the situation, but if that’s the case then that’s what we’ll have to do.”
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