By Julian Renaud
To call the UNB residence administration a train wreck would be a grave insult to train wrecks. Trains use rails that lead them somewhere useful, if they manage to stay on them. By contrast, residence administration has built itself a set of rails that leads directly into a cliff face, in the tradition of Wile E. Coyote.
The residence administration’s many débacles are not just fascinating because of their frequency and severity—they are fascinating because the administrators responsible have gone to great lengths to insulate themselves from any and all criticism that could steer the residence system in a better direction. Alas, no matter how many people point out that the train tunnel is actually just an ACME sticker with rock behind it, the administrators do not listen.
The most recent case to illustrate this phenomenon is the removal of dons from the residence system.
It was a wildly unpopular move. Virtually everyone who actually lives in residence and understands the dynamics therein opposed it. The Student Union opposed it. The Joint Board/Senate Residence Committee that was established to deal with such issues opposed it. The only people I saw who supported the move with any vigour were the administrators who made the decision in the first place, i.e. Mark Walma, the assistant vice-president of student services and Dean Martin, the director of Residential Life. For brevity, I refer to them as the Dynamic Duo from now on.
I sat on the Joint Board/Senate Residence Committee at the relevant times. The Dynamic Duo made the decision to remove dons from the residence system without first seeking our input. They simply wanted us to rubber-stamp their decision after the fact. The relevant portion of the terms of reference of the Committee illustrates that it is supposed to do much more:
“The Committee may make recommendations to the Board of Governors and to the Fredericton Senate on any matter concerning the residences including, without restricting the generality of the foregoing, the governance, discipline and academic programs of the residence system.”
The Dynamic Duo got a rubber-stamp all right: one that reads “DENIED.” The Committee sent a recommendation to the Board of Governors to delay the removal of dons from the residence system until a comprehensive report was presented that satisfied the Committee that removing dons was in the best interests of the UNB Community. We were presented with significant evidence to the contrary. Many dons, proctors, current students and former students wrote to the Student Union and the Committee and eloquently described the crucial and irreplaceable role of dons in the residence community. The Committee made a decision based on the best evidence available to it, as it should.
The Dynamic Duo was visibly upset by our decision. Having sat on the Board of Governors, I can say without reservation that UNB administrators are accustomed to Committees that approve all of their decisions as little more than a formality. As I noted in a CBC Radio interview with Terry Seguin on May 27, 2016, UNB administrators operate with very little effective oversight.
When our recommendation went to the Board of Governors, the Dynamic Duo argued that the Committee lacked the authority to make its recommendation, even though the Committee’s own terms of reference very clearly indicate that it does have such authority. As the Board of Governors invariably sides with administrators, it accepted their argument and agreed to eliminate dons from the residence system.
The Dynamic Duo did not stop there. They are now trying to ensure that the Committee will never again have the power to foil their plans, even temporarily. Walma, the assistant vice-president of student services, sent an e-mail to all Committee members recently, wherein he proposed that the Committee be disempowered from making any future recommendations to the Senate or Board of Governors. He describes his proposed change to the Committee’s powers in his own words as follows:
“The Joint Committee would have no power beyond providing information and advice. It would not have the power to make decisions nor recommendations.”
In effect, he wants to neuter the Committee that refused to do his bidding. One has to wonder: If the Committee had supported the Dynamic Duo in its quest to eliminate residence dons, would it have likewise argued that the Committee lacked the authority to make recommendations and then moved to strip the Committee of its powers?
Students and professors came together admirably to oppose the ill-advised decision to eliminate residence dons. We only failed to put a halt to the process because we acted too late.
We reacted to a bad situation. In the future, we need to proactively address the rot in our administrative structures that causes Looney Toons scenarios to arise in the first place.
Ensuring that administrators face consistent scrutiny of and accountability for their actions would be a great start.