Proposed Leacock reconfiguration incites controversy
Administrative staff and professors to be relocated; Arts professors fear loss of departmental collegiality, community
Over the course of last week, top administrators in the Faculty of Arts began to address concerns from students, faculty, and support staff about the Faculty’s “People, Processes & Partnerships” project. This new plan proposes changes to departmental space configurations in the Leacock building.
Currently, a project team of 75 people—55 of whom are part of the administrative and support staff, 10 students, two faculty members, the dean, an associate dean, the director of administration, a department chair, and three people from without the Faculty of Arts—has proposed two possible scenarios, both of which involve relocating upwards of 55 offices within Leacock or to the row houses on McTavish Street.
Each scenario involves moving the department of Jewish studies from McTavish into Leacock, and relocating administrative staff within Leacock. However, the significant difference between the two is that the prior seeks to locate all department chairs on one floor, removing them from their respective departments.
According to Dean of Arts Christopher Manfredi, space reconfigurations will also occur in the 688 Sherbrooke and the Ferrier building in the future. He explained that Leacock will be addressed first because it involves the most ambitious and complicated change.
The Town Hall
Manfredi presented the logic behind Leacock’s reorganization to a crowd of 100 at a Town Hall in Redpath Museum last week.
He cited the need to consolidate services for efficiency, and the need to adjust to a new university policy McGill announced last spring, which dictates that, for every two administrative staff members that leave McGill, only one replacement can be hired. This policy is in line with the Quebec government’s Bill 100, which requires that universities reduce spending on administrative staff.
In order to address these two goals, both scenarios suggest that the Faculty of Arts use the third and sixth floors of Leacock for administrative services. As it stands now, each department within the Faculty has its own administrative officer (AO) on each floor who takes care of students registered in that department. As a result of the proposed changes, AOs would move to the sixth floor and be cross-trained, so that they can help students from outside their departments as well as from within.
According to Manfredi, the idea of space reconfiguration was first discussed at a faculty meeting on Sept. 25, 2012, and the project was publicly launched in October. It was also discussed again at a November faculty meeting.
“There is nothing being kept secret about this,” Manfredi said, noting that very few professors at the Town Hall came to the faculty meetings in question.
For the majority of the Town Hall, Manfredi listened to professors’ concerns about the proposed scenarios.
A professor, Grierson Chair in Visual Culture, and Graduate Program Director of art history at McGill, Amelia Jones, spoke of a similar experience she had while working at a university in England.
“I moved here from [the] University of Manchester,” Jones explained. “I left the UK because the University of Manchester had consolidated the administration and staff, and it created, really, a completely dysfunctional non-collegial community. … I know that your plan seems to be different, but there are enough similarities that I’m really concerned about it.”
Jones said that after consolidation, the academic staff became the only possible interface between the University of Manchester students and their departments. According to Jones, the staff was also burdened with administrative tasks, and although administration was centralized for efficiency purposes, the staff was not able to develop the same degree of specialization.
In response, Manfredi told Jones that the Faculty of Arts does not want to replicate bad experiences that occurred at other universities.
Laure Spake, vice-president internal and events of the History Students’ Association (HSA), and one of the few undergraduate attendees at the Town Hall, spoke from the students’ perspective.
“This has been promoted as a move where we will have student services in one area as a [one-stop shop],” she said. “[However,] the department floor … is already a ‘one stop’ [for] students. We can go see our professors. We can go see our … [teaching assistants]. We can receive our students in [the HSA] office, which we hold very dearly.”
“I don’t want to be running between three floors of Leacock, two floors of Ferrier, the McTavish row houses … it’s difficult for us,” Spake added.
Professors continued to offer alternative solutions to the restructuring plan. Sandra Hyde, chair of graduate admissions and associate professor of anthropology, proposed that the Faculty have an AO who acts as a “floater”–someone who can serve the different departments when their AO is unable to do so.
Manfredi also told the Town Hall attendees that the Quebec government-imposed budget cuts on universities could also now play a role in how space is allocated in the Faculty, citing the fact that McGill plans to implement a policy of voluntary retirements for administrative and support staff across the university.
The voluntary retirement plan, to be released this week, will be offered to people above a certain age. Manfredi said that there are 15 people in the Faculty of Arts who might fall into that age group, which he thinks will include people around 60 years and older.
“If all 15 of those people are eligible, and they all decide to take the voluntary retirement plan, that would be a fairly big impact on our Faculty and individual units,” Manfredi explained. “It’s about resiliency, about trying to spread the shock of these kinds of things … across a wider swath, a wider group of people, rather than having it simply felt in a single unit.”
Two days after the Town Hall, Associate Dean (Academic Administration and Oversight) Gillian Lane-Mercier addressed a room of student representatives at the Arts Undergraduate Society (AUS) Council meeting to explain the need for the project.
“The Faculty of Arts lacks space in general,” Lane-Mercier said. “[That’s] just the way it is.”
All students who spoke and asked questions expressed skepticism about the plans.
“Why can’t it stay as it is?” Michelle Shames, vice-president external of the Sociology Students’ Association (SSA), asked Lane-Mercier. “It seems to be working very effectively. Students [and] faculty members, as well as staff in my department, have voiced an extreme amount of concern about the loss of soft knowledge.”
“We can’t keep the status quo because we are in for big administrative changes,” Lane-Mercier said in response to Shame’s inquiry, pointing to the looming budget cuts and the urgent need to implement McGill’s policy of voluntary retirements.
Manfredi has estimated that the cost of the project could reach $2.5 million, but Lane-Mercier told AUS Council that this was a very rough estimate, and is unlikely to hold. She also noted that the project will not be put into effect for another year and a half.
Manfredi said that following the feedback he received at the Town Hall, he now plans to expand the 75-person project team, and have Lane-Mercier conduct further consultation with individual departments.
“I was very pleased with attendance at the Town Hall, as well as with the constructive comments and feedback we received,” he said. “I was pleased to see general agreement that the Faculty has real challenges that need to be met, and that there is a willingness of individuals to get involved in the process of finding ways to meet those challenges.”
“There are clearly deep concerns about how changes to administrative structures and space may affect departmental cultures and autonomy, and these concerns need to be taken seriously,” Manfredi continued.
Mandredi also stated that more scenarios are being developed, and will be presented to the community “in an appropriate form” when ready.