Until recently, McGill had one of the strictest student residence alcohol policies in Canada, but only loosely enforced the guidelines. Now, the new Executive Director of Residences, Michael Porritt, is determined to close the gap between policy and practice – just one example of a changing philosophy that’s hitting McGill Residences.
Hired in November 2008, Porritt – a seasoned administrator with over ten years of experience at Trent and Winona State University – has been accused by several of his staff of bringing sweeping changes to the culture of residences, failing to communicate effectively, and trying to fix a system that some McGill floor fellows claim isn’t broken.
“We’re open to changes that we feel will improve the community for our first-year students, but we also hold core values – like respect – that are non-negotiable,” said Graham Smith, a MORE House floor-fellow, explaining that residence life has followed a harm reduction strategy and established close-knit communities of trust. “That is what McGill Residences are based on, and that’s why we’re so concerned about what might change.”
In his capacity as Director, Porritt oversees a $27-million budget, with 2,600 students housed in 30 buildings, served by over 215 employees -– including 70 floor fellows.
“Right now, a lot of the house rules are kind of ambiguous and vague,” he said, explaining that students needed a clear understanding of their rights and responsibilities. “You can’t have gaps between policies and procedures.”
According to Morton Mendelson, Deputy Provost (Student Life & Learning) – to whom Porritt reports directly – the administration wants to see a more consistent application of respect and responsibility.
“We have found that the understanding of how respect translates into action varies considerably across Residences,” Mendelson wrote in an email to The Daily. “Through wide consultation, which has already begun, Mike Porritt expects to strengthen the understanding of respect and its links to action.”
One outgoing floor fellow, who expected to get fired if his name was used on record, charged that hiring Porritt was an extension of McGill’s fears of liability.
“Mendelson is trying to direct what should happen through Porritt and through Porritt’s experiences, but unfortunately it’s different from the way we work here,” he said. “Porritt wants us to take on a more disciplinarian role [which will] hurt the ability for students to come to us and relate to us.”
He explained that the harm reduction strategy that encourages open dialogue and safe space also reduces McGill’s liability, and that Quebec liability law has covered grey issues in the past.
“We’re covered by liability laws because they are vague and work for us. He seems to be stringent on the need for [more specific] rules, which unfortunately will result in more qualms down the road,” he said. “As stuff is driven underground, it will become more of a problem.”
When he came on the job, Porritt introduced a Residence Life Advisory Group (RLAG), which he says, along with University Residence council, will keep the Residence administration from making decisions in a vacuum.
But one returning floor fellow, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of losing their job, explained that sitting on RLAG was frustrating because one third of the floor fellow’s efforts are spent fighting Porritt’s policies, taking away from valuable time with students.
“Being on that committee is 100 per cent defensive; it’s always an issue of doing damage control to what he’s bringing in” the floor fellow said. “There’s a lot of us taking our own minutes so we can say ‘no you didn’t say that,’ and ‘no, we didn’t say that.’”
Porritt has maintained that he has followed an open listening policy from the beginning.
“If I made a bunch of changes on the rez life side in the middle of my first year without doing a lot of listening, I would have been run out of here and I would have deserved it,” he said.
But the revised alcohol policy he proposed for residences – which tightens rules on serving, parties, and areas where students can drink, like certain common areas and building stairwells – was heavily criticized and amended by committee members before clearing RLAG.
“We have been able to fight back on policies, but on a larger level, we can’t fight back [against] everything he says all the time,” the floor fellow said.
“His inability to communicate with his staff and respect that we have opinions outside of RLAG is really troubling,” the floor fellow added, echoing statements made by other floor fellows.
Kate Wardell, a floor fellow from Gardner Hall, a residence above Pins, emphasized the unprofessional work environment she found herself in this year.
“He’s treated us like a group of kindergartners – he does that with the [residence] directors, too,” she said, adding that their positions carried large amounts of responsibility.
“I think he doesn’t understand what we do,” Wardell continued. “He thinks we have a part-time job, [but] we’re constantly on call and I don’t think he understands that.”
Another floor fellow explained that Porritt had suggested charging floor fellows rent for their rooms in residence – where they currently live for free. He proposed their rent be discounted in relation to first-years’, or that they pay rent and receive a small stipend. Floor fellows stressed, however, that their concerns weren’t driven by money worries.
Porritt acknowledged that he faced challenges this year, but maintained that many of the residence staff were still respectful of his leadership.
“There are lots of people who are very wary of ‘the new guy,’” said Porritt in an earlier email to The Daily. “The vast majority [of staff] have been very supportive and even excited to talk about how we can put their ideas into action.”
With a genuine concern for the future of residence culture at McGill, Smith stressed that their tenuous work relationships weren’t the driving reason for their concern.
“This is not a personal vendetta. It’s about a community that we value and cherish so much, and that thousands of people have valued as a really formative year.”
In the original version of this article, the by-line read “Proposed changes to alcohol policy will limit drinking in common areas” – which is a mistatment. While this was policy proposal was in an earlier draft, it has since been removed from the RLAG document.