Commentary | McGill residences: a governance model par excellence

It is 3:00 AM and you’re sound asleep on a cold winter night. Suddenly the alarm goes off, forcing you to jump out of your bed to search for the snooze button. Moments later you realize two things. First, you didn’t set the alarm, and more importantly, you don’t have an alarm clock.

Turning to the window in your third-floor room in Gardner Hall, you open the blinds and there it is: an alarm clock hanging outside your window from a thread that also carries a note, “Happy Birthday.” Things do make some sense now. Your friends on the 5th floor wanted to be the first to wish you on your birthday, and they did so by hanging an alarm clock from their window before they went to bed.

If you have ever lived in a McGill residence, the above scenario must remind you of the pranks and jokes that now constitute the most joyful memories of your time at the University. As live-in directors of Gardner Hall, my wife and I cherish the three years we spent with three batches of six floor fellows and 220 first-year students who took up residence at Gardner Hall.

My colleague in Civil Engineering, Professor Jim Nicell, talked me into the position. He was my predecessor and lived at the Gardner Hall for years with his wife and a son, who learned to walk and talk in the residence’s hallways. The visit reminded me of growing up on the campus of Lawrence College in Murree Hills, Pakistan, where the entire student body and the faculty lived on campus, which was built by the British in late nineteenth century on a hill station. I remember students dropping at our residence for tea and a discussion on classical poetry with my parents.

Even while I had years of experience living on campus with students and faculty, I was still not prepared to what I found in the Rez system at McGill. Unlike other residences where I saw the lives of students defined by a complex list of rules, regulations, and norms, the McGill Rez system operated on the single principle of “respect” plus the warning of not to mess with the fire equipment. There was no curfew, no guest restrictions, no strict times for lights off. Instead, the residents were expected to respect themselves, their co-residents, the floor fellows, and the admin staff who managed the residences. In return, the residents were treated with respect as well.

How could this work? The engineer in me wanted to see more rules and stipulations. But there were none. Has it worked in the past, I asked other directors of residences? “It has worked”, they replied, and added “not once, but always, and have been working for years.” The three years that I spent at the Gardner Hall I saw the simple rule of respect worked wonders, not failing me even once.

I have recently learnt about the attempts to “fix” the residence system at McGill University. I did not know it needed fixing. A proposal to replace the tradition of respect with a long list of laws and regulations is on the cards. I believe such a move is unlikely to improve the quality of life of those who are part of the residence system. In fact the proposed changes may even hurt the residence governance model that has served well thousands of former residents over the past many decades. You don’t have to believe me, just ask Barrett Seaman, an acclaimed author who wrote Binge, a book on how university residences are managed in North America.

Seaman visited McGill and interviewed students, staff, and the directors of residences. He was shocked to see how our hands-off approach worked infinitely better than the barrack-mimicking, regulation-laden residence systems at other institutions. “McGill assumes its students as adults and treats them as such—even first years,” wrote Seaman while paying glowing tributes to the McGill residence system in Binge, which should be a required text for those who manage university residences.

The management style that prevailed at McGill residences is indeed nothing less than a paradigm shift for those who have not seen it in practice. The key challenge is to know when to intervene and when to let the system define its own boundaries. In my second year at the residence I saw a significant increase in poker amongst the residents. Some students spent nights playing poker in the common room. A knee-jerk reaction would have been to restrict playing poker in the common areas of the residence. I instead preferred the respect rule. I asked the student playing poker to tidy up the place at night before they head for their rooms and that I’d be keeping an eye on their academic performance as well.

Two good things came out of this approach. First, I knew exactly when and where and what these residents were up to. Realizing that we were not judging them, some even asked us to find them help to break the habit. We readily obliged. Since we were not heavy handed about it, the poker fad disappeared within weeks. The second unexpected outcome was the improved safety and reduced vandalism at Gardner Hall. Nearly half a dozen students playing poker in the common room at odd hours of the night were also keeping a watch on who entered and the left the residence. This was our version of Jane Jacobs’ eyes on the street.

When an incident required disciplinary action, I never shied away from it. The McGill Code of Conduct, also known as the Green Book, became my bed time reading as soon as I joined the Gardner Hall. I disciplined numerous students for vandalism, harassment, or mischief constituting a threat to oneself or others. I never felt the need to have any more rules put in place than the ones listed in the Green Book. However, even those whom I disciplined by imposing large fines and mandatory community service, they continued to be at very good terms with my staff and I. The reason for this was simple. We did all this with respect, letting the residents know that we were there to resolve matters with them and not for them.

There will always be events that may not be explicitly covered in the Green Book. For instance, I walked into a birthday party in the study room with doors shut and blinds drawn. The star attraction besides the “birthday boy” included two strippers performing for a largely orderly audience. My staff escorted the strippers from the building and the party continued.

One may be tempted to have a rule added to the Green Book stating: No strippers allowed. However, that will do little because such events are an extremely rare occurrence even when there is no explicit restriction on the books barring exotic performances. Similarly, restricting alcohol consumption to particular areas of residence may also not bear fruit. Students will drink wherever they please in their residences, including common rooms, TV rooms, and stairwells. For the Rez crowd, Beer Pong is an Olympic sport. One can enact laws to bar it from the residences, but just like the hundreds of universities in the U.S., one is unlikely to succeed in enforcing it.

Seaman concluded in his book that strict regulations have been behind binge drinking at the American universities where most undergraduate students are underage. Our law of respect and lower drinking age in Quebec has witnessed negligible occurrence of binge drinking at McGill residences. I think of it as a success based on a prudent management philosophy.

Recognizing McGill’s 12 drinking-related hospitalizations a year against 200 at Dartmouth and 100 at Middlebury in the U.S., which are much smaller colleges than the 20,000-strong undergraduate student body at McGill, Seaman concluded: “If a major Canadian university can marginalize high-risk drinking with an eighteen-year old age limit, surely Americans can.”

Our respect-based governance has been found superior to that of all others. Barrett Seaman recommends McGill’s residence governance model to the American schools. Why then should we abandon it?

Murtaza Haider is a professor of Management at Ryerson University in Toronto. Before joining Ryerson, Murtaza was a professor of urban planning and civil engineering at McGill University where he also served as the live-in director of Gardner Hall. He can be reached at murtaza.haider@mcgill.ca.


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