Around 140 first-year students at the University of Alberta were assigned living quarters in Mackenzie Hall despite it being closed for renovations at the start of the fall 2018 term.
The situation arose when fewer students dropped out at the beginning of the semester than the university had planned. The students living in the tower were told their time spent in Mackenzie Hall would be limited to the first few weeks of the semester. In actuality, the last students to move out of the residence did so in the last week of October. Mackenzie Hall was scheduled to be closed as part of a $117 million renovation project of Lister slated to start in September 2018. All students who were placed temporarily in Mackenzie Hall were moved to Schäffer.
In April 2018 at a Board Finance and Property Committee meeting — the board of governors committee that oversees financial matters at the U of A — the renovations to Lister were deemed absolutely necessary or Lister would not be able to operate as a residence.
First-year general sciences student Brendan King said he lived in Mackenzie Hall until the end of October. He first found out about his new living arrangements during move-in day in Lister.
“I would have preferred to live in actual Lister,” King said. “Although, the circumstances proved to be fine, but frustrating, in the end.”
Lack of communication frustrated residents
King said residents living in Mackenzie were told that the university expected 100 students to either drop out or withdraw from living in Lister.
“That quota was never met, so we ended up living there much longer,” he said.
First-year students Grace Seeley, studying psychology, and Sandra Varghese, studying nursing, were also forced to live in Mackenzie Hall. They said an email was sent to all students living in classic Lister a few weeks before the semester began, explaining the situation of overbooking but not saying who would be placed in Mackenzie.
“[The email said] some of us would be overflow,” Varghese said. “They did not account for all of us. That was not the most welcoming first impression to receive from the university.”
Seeley said she was angry to not be living in classic Lister with the rest of the first-year students.
“I was angry to be living in the ‘shutdown’ tower,” Seeley said. “Everyone always said you make your best friends in residence in the first few weeks. To not be part of that hurt.”
Janice Johnson, assistant dean of students for residences, said reduced rates were given to all students affected until they were moved from Mackenzie Hall to Schäffer. Once students were moved, they only had to pay the classic Lister rates of $5,283 (single occupancy) or $3,488 (double occupancy). Normally, living in Schäffer costs $6,385.
“We definitely could improve on our communication,” Johnson said. “We heard that from residents and will work to ensure this is better in the future.”
King said all the students living Mackenzie Hall were put on three floors within the residence. He described it as a “quiet” and “intimate” living situation.
All three students said no construction was occurring while they were living in the residence. There were temporary resident assistants (RA) put in place — employees of Residence Services that reside in the community and help students from emergency to everyday situations — but the students expressed frustration over the quality of service provided to them.
“We never really had a dedicated RA,” King said. “The ones we did have had primary responsibilities in Schäffer Hall. Their main floors were their top priorities.”
Johnson acknowledged that no RAs lived on the floors of Mackenzie. However, she said that a senior RA was assigned specifically to Mackenzie Hall to oversee the concerns of students living there.
All three students added that an additional frustration was the lack of support from the Lister Hall Students’ Association (LHSA). Seeley said she was disappointed the LHSA did not offer any supports or events catered to the residents living in Mackenzie Hall. Further, Seeley said no one in the tower got to participate in Basecamp — the orientation event for students living in Lister.
“We did not get to do the events because no one was really leading us,” she said. “We just kind of got to sit around and learn for ourselves.”
Caspian Teymouri, LHSA vice-president (public relations) acknowledged Mackenzie Hall students were not incorporated into Basecamp and some other events. He said that there was no communication from the university about students needing to live in the shutdown tower.
“We simply had not been told,” Teymouri said. “We found out very last minute. I can imagine how frustrated the students felt because we did too.”
Overbooking residences is a standard policy, university says
Johnson said the U of A has a policy of overbooking its residences to ensure maximum capacity is reached.
“Overbooking is actually a good thing,” Johnson said. “Intentionally overbooking is a common thing for university residences… It is kind of like overbooking on airlines.”
According to Johnson, many people who apply to live in residence change their mind down the line and don’t end up attending the U of A, or simply find other living arrangements.
“To live in temporary accommodations is hard,” Johnson said. “To not be able to unpack or fully make your room your own is not ideal.”
Johnson said residence is a service that requires cost-recovery. All funding needed to sustain the residence system has to be through self-financing, as no funding is provided by the government or other sources. She added that overbooking ensures they will have required occupancy and that the practice will continue in the future.
“As someone who has worked in residence, overbooking will continue,” Johnson said. “We absolutely need to be sure we will be as full as possible.”
But King said if the university continues to have a policy of overbooking residences, better communication should be implemented.
“They should have figured something out right away,” King said. “We should not have been left in the dark, waiting to get moved for two months to get permanent residence.”