A loud outcry from students swept the University of Alberta in the aftermath of the university’s decision last week to overhaul Lister Residence.
Last Monday, the university went public with its decision to implement major staffing changes in Lister, as well as restricting alcohol to private rooms. Additionally, three of the four Lister towers will be reserved for first-year and transfer students starting September 2013, and a first-year curriculum will be introduced, leaving only Schäffer for other residents. Lister employees, currently jointly employed by the LHSA and Residence Services, will work solely for Residence Services.
Student groups who have been majorly affected by the changes say they received no word of warning from the university and no consultation regarding the changes. However, the university argues that consultation took place, and documented meetings reveal intense discussions concerning Lister issues.
Eric Martin, the president of the Lister Hall Students’ Association (LHSA), said he walked into a meeting with the university shortly before the public announcement of the changes took place, adding that he and his executive team were ‘completely blindsided’ by the news.
“I was informed that I would need to attend a meeting, and my executive was invited, last Friday,” Martin said. “We were just told that we had 46 employees that may no longer be ours ... they’ve been given new positions with Residence Services, and essentially should everyone decide to stay with Residence Services, the LHSA now consists of myself and five staff (as employees).”
However, the university says that there has been extensive consultation on the Lister changes with many student groups, including the LHSA and the Students’ Union.
“Over many years — 2008 and before — there’s been consultation on a lot of these issues,” said Acting Dean of Students Deborah Eerkes.
“Much of the consultation is with the LHSA, (and) the SU has been involved in many, many of those meetings. These are issues that have been discussed over years, and so it’s been ... subsequent executives of the SU and the LHSA. So with this particular group, they’ve just come into office — so you know, here we go with a new round again. But it has been ongoing for years.”
Eerkes clarified that she was speaking as the Acting Dean of Students, and had not been involved in the meetings.
“I think it’s just a mistaken perception that no consultation has taken place,” she said.
“My understanding ... is that consultation has been going on with students, and it seems that things derailed in some January meetings ... which kind of stopped the process, simply because it was stonewalled.”
Documents obtained by The Gateway through the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act validate Eerkes’ statements, showing a number of meetings concerning Lister between the Dean of Students Frank Robinson, Residence Services, and SU and LHSA executives, among other participants.
A meeting on January 24 included both of the current LHSA and SU presidents, and notes that the Dean of Students, Frank Robinson, expressed concerns about the consultation process developed by a Memorandum of Understanding between the LHSA and Residence Services in 2008. According to the meeting’s minutes, both parties were given clear outlines on how to proceed with consultation, but have been slow to follow those outlines.
During this meeting, Residence Services clearly expressed its hope to implement a First Year Curriculum in Classic Lister, starting September 2012, which must be approved quickly to begin on time. The LHSA argued that the time frame was too rushed.
Due to an inability to agree, a second meeting was scheduled the following day, attended by both the former and current LHSA presidents, as well as former SU president Rory Tighe with current President Colten Yamagishi was marked down as an absentee.
During this meeting, Robinson extensively asked both Residence Services and the LHSA for their opinions regarding staffing changes and first-year curriculum for Lister. Due to conflicting opinions, Robinson decided that he would have another meeting with the Director of Residence Services and then-LHSA President Michael McPhillips.
These were only a few of the many meetings held around the implementation of the first year curriculum and the staffing structure attended by student representatives.
Eerkes said that the university has been looking into the reasons why they kept coming to a stalemate with consultation, and realized in that investigation that there were some risks that needed to be handled immediately, having to do with health and safety of students and employees.
“The timing of the changes that we’ve seen actually surprised all of us,” Eerkes explained.
“The intent was to implement over a year and use that year to do all kinds of extra consultation. The message we got from administration was simply we can’t continue to take these risks — we need to make some of these changes effective this year.”
The SU posted a news release shortly after the changes were announced, which agreed with the LHSA’s assertion that no consultation took place.
“The Students’ Union was not consulted on this proposal,” it states.
Yamagishi added that the university does not make an effort to find common ground or come to an agreement on issues.
“Anytime (the university) brings something up to us, they consider that consultation. If they truly cared about the best interest of students, they need to listen to us,” he said.
However, Yamagishi noted that the university has been pushing for changes in Lister for years, although they have never been able to come to an agreement with student groups.
During the January meetings, the university presented a number of possible models for the changes in staffing, but although the student groups involved were consulted frequently few of the concerns they voiced at the meetings made it through to the final decision.
Originally, Residence Services offered four possible staffing models for Lister, before adding a fifth possibility to accommodate the LHSA’s concerns. When the LHSA expressed further concerns, Residence Services noted that it seemed like the LHSA continuously tries to hinder all initiatives that Residence Services tries to implement in Lister.
During the meetings, Residence Services also expressed concerns that they were liable for all incidents in Lister Centre, and that the staffing model they wanted was the one employed by most North American universities as well as the other residences at the University of Alberta. A sixth staffing model was then developed, which was more amenable to the LHSA’s goals. However, they still could not reach an agreement.
Although the university has expressed its intention to continue to consult with student groups like the SU and the LHSA over the next year regarding Lister changes, Yamagishi says that he does not put much merit in that intention.
“If they haven’t done (consulation) up until this point already, I don’t see how we can believe that they’re going to follow up,” he said.
“It’s very evident that they’ve tried to purposefully bypass us in this discussion ... it was made clear to us in the meetings we had (last week) that the reason they didn’t ask us about this was because they knew we were going to oppose it.”
Yamagishi added that, although according to the university the changes are approved and “set in stone,” the SU will be taking a hard-line stance against the university’s decisions and actively fighting to get the changes revoked.
“I’m really upset over it — that they would even think that the Students’ Union would just roll over and die on this issue,” he said.
“The SU will not back down until an agreement is made between all the major stakeholders.”
Eerkes said the university wants to maintain the LHSA and has been meeting with them and the SU to find a way to do that.
“We are very aware of all the great things about Lister — there’s no effort there to quash those. You know, dodgeball — we love it. The philanthropy, the student engagement, all the ways that students help each other out,” Eerkes said.
“We’re absolutely in favour of keeping that going, and all we’re trying to do is ensure that it happens in a safe environment.”
With files from Scott Fenwick.
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