Communication problems underlie the Leacock space debate

a/Editorial/Opinion by

For context, please read “Proposed Leacock reconfiguration incites controversy.”

 

The Mar. 18 Town Hall regarding a proposed reallocation of space in the Leacock building played out in a scene that’s become increasingly familiar—both students and faculty turned up to voice their opposition to a proposal from the administration. The plan in question involves a restructuring of Leacock, in which all administrative officers (AOs) would be grouped together on one floor, and be cross-trained to help students from other departments. While there is merit to the debate itself, this issue comes back to the administration’s lack of communication.

Students’ opposition to the proposal stems mainly from the fear that a group of interdepartmental AOs will lack the specialized knowledge and authority to help them in the same way they are able to now. It is unrealistic to expect AOs to gain the level of expertise in every department that each currently holds in their own—for students, this could mean a decreased quality of service, even if that service is more easily accessible and centralized.

Professors, for their part, take issue with the fact that the reallocation will split up departments across different floors, with chairs potentially being completely separated from their departments. This, they fear, will damage their departmental cultures, fostering a more corporate, impersonal, and disjointed atmosphere. Among the professors who showed up to speak against the plan was Amelia Jones, who claimed to have left the University of Manchester as a result of restructurings similar to these.

As a reaction to McGill’s voluntary retirement policy, which will reduce the number of AOs on staff, and to Bill 100, which will limit the faculty’s ability to hire more in their place, this move makes sense. Spreading out the workload amongst all of the remaining AOs will effectively minimize the impact that a reduced number of administrators will have, ensuring that students always have quick and easy access to somebody who can help them. We are in a period of financial strain, and the university is going to have to undergo numerous cost-cutting measures. Compared to other cuts that could be made, this is far from the worst option for students and professors.

The criticism of the administration’s proposal speaks more to the way that it has handled this process than to the severity of the issues at hand. The matter was apparently initially brought forward in previous faculty meetings, which Manfredi claimed at the Town Hall suffer from notoriously poor attendance. As a result, the faculty members feel that they were not consulted, while the administration claims to have done due diligence. Meanwhile, departmental students’ associations, whose office space stands to be affected by these changes, expressed outrage at not having even received a formal invitation to the Town Hall.

The criticism of the administration’s proposal speaks more to the way that it has handled this process than to the severity of the issues being brought forward.

Clearly, the issue here is communication. The administration seems unwilling to properly inform the community when these issues are at play, and yet, continues to appear genuinely puzzled when students or faculty claim not to have been consulted. The issue is certainly not capacity—we constantly receive emails informing us of on-campus events and initiatives much of which is entirely trivial. We want to see this same level of communicative initiative being used in the planning of these Consultative Fairs and Town Halls. The overwhelming attendance at last Winter’s Arts Undergraduate Society (AUS) General Assembly (GA) proved that when people are given context for the issues at stake and the options available, they will show up. Consultation is only of any use when people know that it’s happening.

Beyond the method of communication, timing is also a critical element. Rather than being held in the Gall, when there could have been a full discussion of options, the Town Hall was only put together once the administration had narrowed its options down to two very similar scenarios. A discussion that takes place once the majority of options have been taken off the table looks very different to one which is unreservedly trying to arrive at the best solution. Once again, this is not true consultation.

There must be a better way to engage the community than we are seeing right now. Town halls should be held as an actual step in the decision-making process, not just a retroactive measure. Raising awareness should be a priority in this process, not as an afterthought. With ongoing uncertainty regarding its budget, McGill is going to have to make a number of unpopular decisions; for these decisions to be informed and respected by the community, the administration should be making every effort to hear what its stakeholders have to say.