Few pieces of literature play on the theme of trust as effectively as Shakespeare’s Othello. In this work, the nobleman, Othello, is deceived by his counterpart, Iago, a man hungry for power and willing to achieve it at all costs. Though Othello believes that Iago is an “honest man,” it is clear to the audience that this is not the case. Trust is fragile; though one might appear trustworthy on the surface, it is impossible to see what goes on in someone else’s mind.
On Monday July 23 2012, the University of Alberta announced significant changes to the Lister residences, which opened the floodgates to an onslaught of negative responses from both current students and alumni. At this point, the details of the changes have been rehashed on numerous occasions, so it is not worth going into detail here. Simply put, the university seems to have made a sudden and unforeseen decision, with tangible and immediate implications, and both the Students’ Union and Lister Hall Students’ Association reacted swiftly and without reservation.
Much has taken place over the last seven days, and it is safe to assume that the majority of Students’ Union resources are dedicated to reversing the eight changes outlined by the university. That is not surprising, because the Lister issue stands to affect thousands of students, not only in 2012, but in the years to follow. This is an issue that does not come along very often; in addition to a lack of consultation prior to the changes, the changes stand to transform the culture within Lister. And quite possibly for the worst.
Although the importance of this particular issue cannot be overstated, there are more general implications to what we are seeing. Over the last several years, the university administration has developed a stronger relationship with the Students’ Union. The University of Alberta governance system (where issues related to residence life, academic policy and much more are discussed, and in some cases, voted on) includes student representation at its many levels. This characteristic is unique to the University of Alberta; as you look toward Eastern Canada, the relationship between universities and their student association tends to become more confrontational than it is collegial. Instead of meaningful conversations within committee meetings, student protests are the norm.
Looking at achievements such as the multiple dodgeball world record attempts, the addition of mental health councillors to the university, and the creation of the Undergraduate Research Initiative, the Students’ Union and University of Alberta have collaborated healthfully in many situations. With over 30,000 undergraduate students, over one-thousand professors, countless administrators both centrally and within faculties, and a strong Alumni Association, there is every opportunity for positive relationships to flourish. The salubrious relationship between the university and the SU is unique to the U of A; without it, the institution loses a vital piece of its identity. Because of this, both the SU and the U of A should seek to maintain this collaboration at all costs.
However, trust can be slow to develop. But more importantly, trust can disintegrate rapidly. If the university does not rescind the changes to the Lister residences, the implications will extend further than a “First-Year Experience.” Indeed, the Lister saga could taint the university-student relationship over many years to come. Already, this incident opens the current crop of SU executives’ tenure on a bitter note. Residence Services is only one branch within a massive institution, but we have already seen this unit’s actions referred to as a decision made by the university as a whole.
If we agree that the university has witnessed an improved relationship between students and administrators over the last few years (some might disagree, using Mandatory Non-Instructional Fees and stalled Fall Reading Week talks as examples), then the Lister issue becomes all the more important. While the university could very well trudge forward with the eight changes, this strategy could bring short-term ‘gains’ at the expense of a long-term relationship. Hence, it is hoped that the plans are taken back to the drawing board. This way, trust might be shaken for now, but it would be preserved in the months and years to come.
Though the last week has brought its fair share of controversy on the Lister issue, it’s not too late for the university to rescind the changes and initiate a meaningful conversation with students and other community members. Doing so would be a worthwhile and laudable move in the long run.
Emerson is a third-year student at Campus Saint-Jean. He is an avid runner down in the river valley, and is addicted to almond chai lattes at Remedy on 109.