Interviewing Deborah Eerkes, Acting Dean of Students | By Sansitny Ruth

This week, a slew of changes were announced to Lister residence life at the University of Alberta. Among the changes are restructuring to the floor coordinator positions, with these representatives no longer reporting to the Lister Hall Students’ Association; the creation of a first-year residence beginning in September 2013, where the “classic Lister” towers are comprised almost uniquely of first-year students (with the exception of several upper-year resident assistants); removing Lister floor lounges as areas for the consumption of alcohol.

The Wanderer Online’s Sansitny Ruth led an interview (with Jason Cobb of the Office of the Dean of Students present as well) on Wednesday July 25, with Acting Dean of Students, Deborah Eerkes. The goal of this interview, as well as the additional interview with the Students’ Union and LHSA, is to provide a meaningful contribution to the public discussion regarding the Lister issue.

Sansitny: I guess to be a bit more up-to-date, what were the regulations that were passed in regards to our Lister residences?

Deborah: Well management decisions were made, I wouldn’t say regulations were passed. But what was decided was that Lister in 2013 would become a first-year residence and that the staffing structure would change so that we would separate the student advocacy piece from the student staff piece. We would have a community resource team in Lister that would consist of the faculty in residence (the person that is already there), a social worker in residence, and a community liaison officer from the UAPS. As well as the existing res-life staff. They are going to form a support team for residents there.

Also, there’s the first-year curriculum, which has been batted around for quite some time. Lots of consultations have been done on that already, and while it will be implemented in full once we are a first-year residence in 2013, elements of it will come in this year for the first-year residents. And finally, specialty areas are going to be expanded. So, things like quiet floors, if students demand them. Or if they have special interests – for example, sustainability – we could set up a floor if people are interested in that. Or academic cohorts: you know “We’re all in engineering, we all want to live in one place.” Great, we could set that up, too. So that’s going to be more on-demand.

But as part of that is the issue on changing where alcohol can be used, across Edmonton campuses and not just Lister. Alcohol consumption is going to be restricted to private areas. That might mean a room in Lister, that might mean an apartment in HUB. The different residences have various designated private areas. Any parties or alcohol events happening in the more public areas are just going to have to get a license just like any other area would have to. It’s not becoming a dry residence by any stretch. But where people can drink is going to change.

Sansitny: Before these decision were made, what problems were the university trying to deal with? What are the changes targeted at?

Deb: It isn’t any individual problem. What we were seeing was a structure that was giving rise to issues that had to do with management [of residence issues], that had to do with risk management, that had to do with misconduct in some cases. The other thing we found is that the staff position was giving rise to conflict for the students in those positions, because sometimes the LHSA doesn’t agree with what the university wants to do and that staff person is supposed to uphold both. How do you do that? We’re separating those two functions so that we have two student leaders on the floor instead of one. So one is the university staff person responsible for health, safety and well-being of the students. And the other is what we hope will remain the LHSA representative who will be responsible for student advocacy and social planning and things like that. And hopefully they will work closely together so that we actually have more student leadership opportunities and more student mentoring for the first-year students coming up.

Sansitny: Could you tell me more about the consultation process that happened before these decisions were made?

Deb: These are a lot of different decisions here so there were a number of different consultation processes. What sort of gave rise to this is that I think they were discussing the staffing issue in January, and that consultation had been going on for quite some time. I think what happened – I was not at these meetings, so I want to be clear that this is all second-hand information from me – but what happened is that things went off the rails in those meetings and there were bad feelings, misunderstandings, miscommunications, arising from that.

It was clear that there were some structural problems getting in the way of any kind of positive change in Lister. It was almost like an internal review to say “why were we running into this” and “why do we have these problems.” And as part of that review, other things were identified: alcohol can be a real problem in these public areas. We were seeing that staff are at risk because they were cleaning up that broken glass all the time, or they have to clean up bio-hazards, that kind of thing. We have staff risk problems. We have staff morale problems, we have students who are in conflict because they have to represent views.

When LHSA and residence services are in agreement it’s no problem, but when they don’t hold the same view on an issue it makes it almost impossible to hold that position. And also the workload for that one person, the floor coordinator who was doing those two jobs, it was just too much. We also had feedback from students who were moving out saying Lister was “really noisy, really dirty, it’s really hard to study here, it’s not an academic environment.” There was a whole series of information that came together to form this big picture to say something has got to be done. We have these immediate health and safety concerns and we have to act quickly. We have an opportunity to make this a better place while preserving the Lister experience: dodgeball, student leadership opportunities, the closeness in the community. Let’s preserve all that stuff but make sure that we make that safe, make sure students are taken care of.

Jason: There are a significant number of things that came to light. It’s the sum total of all of that. And there are other things that are underway right now, that we have to be careful of not to interfere with, but were not motivational to this review. There are two investigations that are underway that we are not going to interfere with, but that would possibly have some relation to some of the subject matter of the issue we’re trying to deal with. There is also a tremendous amount of information that [Deb is] alluding to very adeptly that has third party implications and privacy implications that we have to be very careful with, how we handle that information and how we refer to it or whether we refer to it at all. So, there’s a couple of things that are holding our hands that I want to make sure you understand, and I just want to put that out there as part of the conversation. Some of those things are really what compelled [administration] going forward. It was health and safety matters and we had to take steps immediately.

Deb: Maybe what I can say is that these changes were already underway. There has been consultation over the years, many years. But from looking on these things the whole, big-picture structural issue, the university decided that not only did we have to make these changes but we had to make them now. It’s about the timing, this really quick sort of turnaround was because we discovered things that were counter to our fiduciary duty, to our staff, and to our students. And there are things that we can’t talk about at this point but they were sufficient for the president to say, “We’re not waiting.” The consultation process is ongoing. And that is to say these decision have been made that these changes will take place. How they take place, how they are implemented, and how they go forward is all matter for consultation. We already spent quite a bit of time with the LHSA yesterday [Tuesday] and had some great meetings talking about how we go forward and how do we let the LHSA thrive. We’re not trying to kill the LHSA. We want to make sure they succeed as well. We want our student leaders to develop out of Lister. So how do we do that? We’ve already worked out some of those details. But it’s still unrolling as we speak. Part of it is that we’re in early days, the consultation is ongoing.

Sansitny: Would you say then that the decisions are not finalized?

Deb: The decisions are in fact final but they are high level decisions. How those things happen is not finalized. For example the employment contracts that are going out. That is a university management function that is underway. How those employees work together and how those student leaders fit together on the floor is going to be worked out in concert with the LHSA and other students on the floor.

Sansitny: Do you believe that the SU and the LHSA had an adequate reason to be upset about the decisions made?

Deb: I completely understand their frustration. And in fact the residence services staff, most of them didn’t know about this either. They got the announcement the same day. I totally understand their frustration. And part of this was about the speed at which it had to happen and all the work that had to get done in order for this to happen. And also the things Jason had mentioned, there are some sensitive issues that we couldn’t talk about. And certainly the SU is going to be frustrated, we get that. Certainly the LHSA is going to be frustrated, they’re heavily affected by this, we get that. And absolutely are we willing to work with them on it, yes. A resounding yes.

We wish we could have done this differently. But the reality of it was that it unfolded the way it did, and we were forced to act faster than we were ready to as well. So, now we’re working towards how we then work with the student groups and other stakeholders. There are a lot of other stakeholders we have to bring up to speed and to work with in this consultation. I totally understand their frustration. I’m not sure we could have done it differently.

Sansitny: What are your thoughts on the SU’s assertion that the university had violated the 2009 memorandum of agreement?

Deb: What that is, is a memorandum between the Dean of Students Office, the Director of Ancillary Services and the LHSA. And it has to do with many of the issues we are addressing with these changes. Behavioral issues on the floors, conflicts with staff, alcohol issues. This was an earlier attempt to deal with those same issues. In that memorandum of agreement, it also came with two statements of expectations and all three of those documents were signed by those groups. LHSA, Dean of Students, and the Director of Ancillary Services. So in those documents, what was very clearly spelled out was that management and operational decisions are up to the university, that we will consult on various kinds of things but in “immediate issues involving health and safety” the university will act, has to act, and will let the stakeholders know within seven days. And we did that. Those statements of agreement also talk about things like behavioral expectations and other kinds of issues which say if those items are not met, the university will act unilaterally to hire staff and change the system. That’s what we’re doing. From my perspective, we are absolutely within that agreement that was signed by the LHSA President of 2009.

Sansitny: The university states that there is strong student and parent support behind the recent changes and from my understanding the LHSA and SU feel like there was not. Is there any research or data to support the claim made by the university?

Deb: I don’t have the numbers. But I will say that I have had some communication from students that were in fact very supportive of this move. They were surprised by it like everyone else but are happy to hear that when they move into Lister there is going to be a different atmosphere. I’ve heard from other students who previously lived in Lister who are saying “I wish it was like that when I lived there, it was such a crazy place, my floor was crazy.” And “I’m thrilled these changes are being made and I wish it had been done earlier.” There have been communications from both parents and students that support this. In addition to students who have requested it in the past over the years. “Please do something about the noise, please do something about the alcohol, please do something about the mess.” All of that put together, we do know that we have support in doing this. We certainly have the support of the university community.

Sansitny: Is the university going to release any of the data that support the claims that were made?

I don’t know the answer to that but I suspect no, because a lot of it is quite delicate. It touches on private information. Where there are stats available, I’m sure they will be made public insofar as they can be.

Sansitny: Under what circumstances, if any, would the university reverse these changes?

Deb: None. These changes are high level decisions. How they are implemented will be a matter for a lot of discussion and consultation, but these decisions are irreversible.

I want to add that here is something about the student returners that is not well understood. That is that right now, this year, we have about 6-8 returners per floor in Lister. Those are just people coming back to live for another year. Next year and the following we will have at least one staff member who is a senior student. We will have hopefully an elected student representative who will be coming back for a second year. We will have probably three orientation volunteers per floor, one per wing. So that’s five returners already and potentially more because we’ve also talked to the LHSA about other LHSA positions having a place. So for example, the CRO or the Lighthouse editor, the yearbook editor, these positions that are student leadership positions, we’re working with the LHSA to make sure that we do have students coming back.

The number of returners is not radically different. The difference is that all the returners in the new system are going to be in positions of student leadership, one way or another, whether it’s working for the university or representing the LHSA, or some other position that is designed to be a student leadership position. I know there is a lot of talk out there about “How are you going to socialize first-year students if they don’t have  anyone to mentor them?” They will. And the numbers will not be radically different [from right now.] The other thing is of course the dodgeball league. We’re not touching that. We love it. It’s fabulous. We love that kind of engagement. We want to be clear that we are absolutely keeping all of those things that made Lister a great place to be and just trying to keep it safer. Both for our students, and for our staff.

Jason: Reinforcing the same thing because out there is a misconception around the LHSA: we are in no way, shape, or form, trying to squelch the elected process.

Deb: And my comment on that is at the same time these floor coordinator positions are sometimes conflicted because the university expects them to do something that the LHSA doesn’t want them to do. They’re not adequately able to represent student interests the way they feel they should if they had university duties that conflict with that. So by separating those two things we are actually freeing both positions to do those functions fully. We’re hoping and we’re working closely with the LHSA to make sure every floor still has an elected representative. We want them to continue. Every other residence has a residence association. We want to keep [student representatives], they are valuable members of the community.

So, the other thing that is happening with the student leaders, the returning students that are in those positions, there are going to be a bunch of new opportunities for them in terms of leadership programming, training, extra stuff that they can use to build skills and knowledge and take out into the workforce beyond what they’ve already got. It’s not just, I’m going to live in Lister for a second year, it’s “I’m going to learn new things. I’m going to be [in] a position of leadership,” and we will also be talking about new student leadership awards within residences. So either resident assistants (our university-employed student) or the student association reps who are student advocates would be eligible for these awards or other student leaders as well. We really want to make it clear we value all of these leadership positions.  We’re not trying to get rid of anybody, we are trying to add on.

Jason: This is a challenge. It’s still is an early date. The what has been decided because there was a decision at the highest levels that needed to be made, as those who have fiduciary responsibility and a moral responsibility when confronted with certain evidence and things [decided] that this is not something we can wait on to implement. Those decisions were made, forcing to us to adapt and implement. How some of those things can be put into place, what that looks like, how we achieve our goals: that is where there’s room for input.

 

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