Commentary | Hyde Park: Let’s talk about residence issues

We write this letter to express the concerns we share as five Residence Academic Staff members (floor fellows). Although we have been in constant conversation with our floor fellow colleagues, hall directors, first-year students and hall council members, we must make clear that we can speak only for ourselves. To begin, we would like to thank The Daily for their article “Floor fellows clash with new boss” and their editorial “Residence director must improve, or go.” The articles recognized the administrative changes in McGill Residences this year as a newsworthy, campus-wide issue. Our world-renowned residence system, entirely community-, service-, and student-oriented, stands in contrast to those of other universities, and is indeed one of the most cherished aspects of student life at McGill.

To clarify, while floor fellows were interviewed in the article, the floor fellows neither wrote nor commissioned the article or editorial. Our goal here is to provide context to the situation from an internal perspective.

We would like to be very clear that while our alcohol policy is an important manifestation of our core principles, its proposed changes are not our central concern with Michael Porritt, as one might infer from “Floor fellows clash with new boss.” We strongly believe that our philosophy of open communication and harm reduction is the most effective strategy for ensuring student safety – a position which has been empirically validated both in studies and in our day-to-day experiences. To Porritt’s credit, he yielded to demands made by the Residence Life Advisory Group (RLAG), and it seems that the most recent incarnation of McGill Residences’s new alcohol policy will uphold the essence of our current approach.

Since Porritt became Executive Director of Residences in November, the system has been rocked by tumult. In the Daily article, Porritt claims that “the vast majority [of staff] have been very supportive.” Indeed, from the beginning of his tenure we have done everything possible to be welcoming and supportive, and to understand his perspective and management style. However, Porritt has alienated much of the community by assuming and demanding that his staff put complete trust in him, while he himself demonstrates little – if any – trust in his employees.

In this short period, we have witnessed and personally experienced a pattern of unprofessionalism and disrespect that we feel stands antithetical to the values and principles central to our mission. Our criticisms are not character attacks on Porritt, but instead a set of professional grievances that relate to all facets of our jobs and the system at large.

For months, we have attempted to address these concerns through all available internal channels. Staff members have tried on many occasions to voice their grievances directly to Porritt, only to be met with a lack of interest, or even outright resistance, despite his proclaimed openness to dialogue. In fact, in response to informal speculation about a particular aspect of residences, he issued an all-staff email worthy of Big Brother that disallowed questioning, declaring that “people seeking ‘inside scoop’ are just as wrong as people giving it.”

On another occasion, Porritt confronted a floor fellow who had been particularly candid about her concerns, and – after three successful years on staff and two months before the end of her contract – placed her on “behavioural probation,” indefinitely prohibiting her from speaking or writing his name. Yes, he actually did this.

Beyond these attempts to communicate with Porritt directly, staff members have met with the Dean of Students, who was highly supportive of the concerns. Others met with our representatives on SSMU, who were equally supportive, though unable to get a satisfactory response from the administration. The situation has reached a point where formal grievances have been registered with the University, and various official channels for resolving these disputes are being vigorously pursued. We appreciate that the Daily article served as a catalyst for public discussion. It is our hope that this external attention will validate with the administration the seriousness of our concerns.

The degree of Porritt’s unprofessionalism, in our estimation, has been inexcusable. Among his most embarrassing gaffes is the premature disclosure of a confidential multi-million dollar residence property purchase. Additionally, there have been substantiated incidents between Porritt and staff members, inimical to functional professional relationships, that we hold to be abuses of power. We take particular exception to his unprofessionalism where it has concrete effects on the well-being of students. It is frustrating that we cannot communicate specific details without violating the sensitive and confidential nature of the applicable situations, but needless to say, they are of grave concern to us.

Porritt has frequently dismissed our concerns about systemic overhaul as empty rhetoric, making blanket claims that he has not effected any serious change. However, we believe that Porritt’s statements and actions foreshadow substantive policy changes within McGill Residences. Porritt has made no secret of his impatience for the “respect” rule, going so far as to state in an all-staff meeting that 18-year-olds simply do not have the “cognitive capacity” to understand such a “high-level” philosophy. Although he has for now allowed our effective alcohol policy to remain intact, he constantly speaks in favour of prescriptive rule systems irreconcilable with a harm-reduction approach to substance use.

Moreover, while we acknowledge that new policy has not yet been formally implemented, serious change has occurred. A once vibrant, cohesive, supportive, and highly effective service-oriented system has broken down into a maelstrom of disagreement, anger, apathy, and mistrust. This condition has permeated the ranks of administrative staff, hall directors, floor fellows, council members, and students. This is, indeed, serious change. We blame Porritt.

It has been inspiring to see the support from colleagues, friends, current and former residence students, and floor fellows from years past. The support they have shown speaks to the incredible community that McGill Residences can be. In the interest of preserving the special character of our community and resolving this situation, we encourage you to continue sharing what you drew from the current system. Porritt’s direct supervisor is Deputy Provost Morton Mendelson, who can be reached at morton.mendolson@mcgill.ca. Porritt himself can be reached at michael.porrit@mcgill.ca. He has always claimed to be an open communicator. Please communicate with him.

Nikki Shaffeeullah and Graham Smith are MORE Fellows at 515 Ste. Catherine and Greenbriar, and Daniel Beamish and Brian Peebles are floor fellows at McConnell Hall and New Residence Hall, respectively. They can be reached at nikki.shaffeeullah@mail.mcgill.ca.


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