Queen's University — Since 1873
3rd April 2014

Trust at risk

The outgoing AMS executive share their thoughts on the road future student leaders must take

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Eril Berkok, CompSci ’12, Nicola Plummer, Comm ’13, Thomas Pritchard, ArtSci ’12

Our Queen’s experience begins with an orientation week planned and run by students — we’re immediately greeted with the message that students are the movers and shapers of this institution.

This theme underpins our entire Queen’s experience, and manifests itself through the programs and services students provide for one another.

While our University once embraced the idea of genuine student autonomy, the current administration is not only losing trust in student leadership, but is actively working to curtail this proud tradition.

Queen’s has built a brand and enjoyed particular success through enabling the students that took a risk and dared to move and shape. We’re simultaneously the professors and the students of the “Faculty of Broader Learning.”

The university benefits from this spirit of student initiative in multiple ways. They recruit applicants on the basis of this student involvement, and named their most recent capital fundraising campaign — the Initiative Campaign — after it.

With the rise of social media and a growing scrutiny from traditional media, all eyes are on Queen’s. We have entered an era where the threat of reputational damage is more prevalent, and where parents are acutely concerned with what their sons and daughters are doing at university. This changing mentality is pushing Queen’s away from the culture of student engagement that enabled the growth of our unique broader learning environment.

The University administration had a choice, but instead of resisting these pressures in order to preserve our distinguishing factor, they’ve submitted to them. This has manifested itself in an institutional preoccupation with risk — not necessarily risk to student health, wellness and safety — but rather risk to the university’s reputation or the risk of not fulfilling legal obligations. A type of aversion that is better characterized as being liability averse.

In an increasingly litigious environment it’s understandable that the University places a growing focus on mitigating liabilities. Student leaders across the university have consistently met this charge with strategies that reduce liabilities while preserving the student experience through specific training, policies and services. We ask that administration recognize these actions, and adopt a similar approach. However, the University’s preoccupation with liability has bordered on obsession, as evidenced on a large scale by challenges to our non-academic discipline system, our orientation week and our campus bars, percolating all the way down to something as trivial as the use of coloured powder in events.

Earlier this year, the Division of Student Affairs contacted a number of students to arrange for interviews with University staff members as part of a “fact-finding mission” to gather information on alleged hazing incidents. The students weren’t informed of their rights, as enshrined in the Student Code of Conduct. Moreover, this constituted a circumvention of due process and the role that students play in holding each other accountable, a role we’ve played since 1898 through our non-academic discipline (NAD) system. This “fact-finding mission” should have been referred to the student-run NAD system as it was outside of the jurisdiction of Student Affairs. This represented the latest of several challenges to student-run discipline since the release of the Coroner’s Report in 2011.

Throughout the year, this administration has continued to encroach on the student autonomy of Orientation Week planning. This year saw subtle but far-reaching attempts of administrative members of the Senate Orientation Activities Review Board (SOARB) to expand and elevate the authority of deans in the orientation planning process. This is coupled with these members’ frequent attempts to be in control of the risk management process, despite the fact that students have developed a comprehensive risk analysis strategy.

This level of encroachment is particularly alarming given the University’s philosophy towards student events and programming: if given the option between cancelling an event or looking to mitigate liability, it appears that they’ll always choose to cancel. We owe a great deal to the student members of SOARB for consistently advocating against the efforts of administrators to erode student autonomy over Orientation Week.

Two years ago, the campus alcohol policy review sought to introduce significant restrictions to how on-campus licensed establishments could serve alcohol. While these changes would have reduced the liability to the University, our venues — which were and continue to be the safest places in the city to consume alcohol thanks to our harm reduction strategies — would have been unable to compete with downtown establishments, resulting in students drinking in less safe environments. With a review of the policy upcoming, we must once again prepare to defend our student-run bars.

If we aren’t trusting students to hold each other accountable or to provide each other with a safe and enjoyable campus experience, are we adequately preparing them for life after graduation? Are we providing an environment where students grow as individuals, connect with their campus experience and become passionately involved alumni? At what point will we start to see student leaders and students who simply cease to care about this place?

Trust in students is being lost. Our ability to offer programming and services to one another and to act as stewards for the broader learning environment is increasingly burdened. We believe this trust is what has allowed us to thrive until now. What happens when that trust disappears?

In spite of this changing environment, you’ll still find students engaged on campus. They are serving each other coffee or tea, providing enjoyable and safe drinking establishments or getting each other home safely. Students are responsible for keeping the University District clean, broadcasting athletic games to proud parents, volunteering time to serve the greater Kingston community and so much more.

However, this culture of liability aversion isn’t going away, and there are likely more examples to come. Now, we wonder how future generations of students can reconcile this reality with our unique broader learning environment. This year we have committed to engaging those who disagree with us, researching our solutions and striving to take into account both financial and risk impacts of our stances. This level of engagement must continue through future student leaders.

You don’t have to bleed tricolour, know all the words to the Oil Thigh or proudly wear your tam to be a true Gael. What makes us Gaels is our unrelenting attempts to challenge this institution to be better for us — to make it our own. However, as student leaders, we have seen that the challenges are far greater than they used to be, and the sense of ownership we once enjoyed is being threatened.

What we do next is critical. Students must continue asking our administration to remember what makes us special and to incorporate it into their everyday decision-making. So here’s our call to action to you, to all students, to all alumni, to all in the Queen’s community: get involved in university governance or join the discussion on student autonomy on campus. Reach out to the current administration: our Principal, our Provost, our Dean of Student Affairs and our Chair of the Board of Trustees.

We proudly sing this battle cry all the time, but now is the time to impress it — cha gheill, no surrender. Let’s not surrender this student autonomy, this defining characteristic that makes this university the quintessential balanced academy. We cannot surrender it because it’s the best thing we do.

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