News | Arch Café emails released

ASA's involvement in the controversial closure

The Daily has obtained a bundle of documents relating to the Architecture Café – including personal emails between administrators and student politicians, internal memorandum, and reports – after filing an Access to Information request. The document dump sheds light on the decision-making process surrounding the closure, detailing a coordinated media strategy on the part of the administration. Several key administrators and faculty declined to comment for this article, referring The Daily to Deputy Provost Morton Mendelson. They include Director of the School of Architecture Michael Jemtrud, Director of McGill Food and Dining Services Mathieu Laperle, Assistant Director of Legal Services Vilma Campbell, Dean of Engineering Christophe Pierre and Director of Media Relations Doug Sweet.

By July 15, the decision to close the Architecture Café was final. More than a month passed between when the decision to close the cafe was made and when the administration officially told students it would not be reopened.

There was also a more than two-month gap between when Architecture Students Association (ASA) president Kyle Burrows was told of the possible closure of the cafe, and when the official notice came. This delay left students confused about how to proceed – whether to resist the closure whole-heartedly and risk losing a student space, or to tentatively plan for a new, student-friendly space where the cafe had been.

Deputy Provost (Student Life and Learning) Morton Mendelson wrote Mathieu Laperle, Director of McGill Food and Dining Services, just after noon July 15, in response to a question sent that morning as to whether a final decision had been made on closing the cafe. Mendelson wrote: “I agree that you should remove the [Architecture Café] as a destination in your [promotional] material.”

As early as the beginning of June, however, Burrows was made aware that he should start thinking about new uses for the cafe space in a meeting with Michael Jemtrud, Director of the School of Architecture. In a June 15 email from Jemtrud to Mendelson, the director wrote, “The new ASA President [Burrows] is very reasonable and I have basically said the cafe is a done deal. I think I am getting them to the right place but they are concerned about being the bad guys of course and want to make sure it is replaced by something defensible.”

In an interview with The Daily, Burrows said he was hesitant over the summer to begin publicly suggesting ideas for replacing the cafe, however, until he was sure the cafe was being shut down.

“If the cafe was dead and gone we might start to think about [new plans for the space]. It was that constant struggle that we didn’t want to lose the space for students…but [the cafe] wasn’t a lost cause in our minds,” said Burrows.

“For us to come forward with a proposal, before we had received any kind of official confirmation that the cafe would be closed – that would have a very negative effect on the way it was perceived,” he said.

Despite Jemtrud’s indication to Mendelson that Burrows was resigned to the closure, the ASA president insists that he wanted to keep the cafe open from the beginning.

“Our main objective was to keep that room a student space,” he said, adding that, “the ASA decided very early on that the cafe was the best representation of a student space we could have in the school. Nothing we could think of – especially not a study space – could ever match the quality and the charm of that space.”

Katherine Messina, last year’s ASA president and senior manager of the cafe for the past two years, saw a more elaborate strategy in Burrows’ hedging between fighting the closure of the cafe and proposing what might replace it.

Despite Burrows’s opposition to closing the cafe, Messina told The Daily that Burrows formally accepted the administration’s desire to shut down the cafe in an attempt to gain their support throughout negotiations over joining the Engineering Undergraduate Society’s (EUS) Memorandum of Agreement (MoA).

“The ASA was never on board with [the cafe’s] closing,” she said. “But because the ASA wanted to be accredited [as a student association] and we didn’t want anything to stop us from doing that, the idea was to make the ASA and the Arch Café appear to be two separate governing bodies, so that whatever was done to save the Arch Café did not reflect on the ASA and would not have made the University be like, ‘No, we’re not giving you your accreditation.’”

Messina said she and other managers were tasked with opposing the administration’s decision, setting themselves apart from the ASA, which wanted to remain on the administration’s good side.

Messina acknowledged that Architecture students were trying to “pull a fast one” on administrators with this strategy. Part of the ASA’s reason for wanting to be covered by EUS’s MoA – contracts that large student organizations like SSMU, faculty associations, and student newspapers have with the University – was to protect the Arch Café, Messina explained. EUS is allowed to run businesses under the terms of its MoA.

“If we joined the EUS…the Arch Café could be a business of the EUS. So that was the idea,” she said.

She also added that Jemtrud was aware of this two-pronged approach to saving the cafe, and that he played along in his correspondence with administrators. Both Messina and Burrows said it has been a long-standing goal of Jemtrud’s to join an official student organization with an MoA.

“Because Michael [Jemtrud] has a lot invested in the ASA, and he really wants the ASA to ‘re-become’ a student organization, he had to paint Kyle in that light: that Kyle agreed with [closing the cafe], just so we wouldn’t get any backlash about it,” Messina said.

In his interview, Burrows said Messina was off the mark, as he spent much of the summer trying to find out why the cafe was being closed, with a mind to keeping it open. “We weren’t hushed to be goody two-shoes with the administration,” Burrows said.

Jemtrud was also concerned about who would be percieved as ultimately responsible for the closure. In an August 30 email, he wrote, “Either Food Services takes responsibility…or this thing is going to go sideways.” Mendelson replied later that day that he would be willing to be the “fall guy.”

Students involved in the closing of the cafe are unanimous, however, in feeling that the administration largely ignored their concerns. Carly Rouault, slated to be this year’s top manager of the Arch Café prior to being shut down, said that Mendelson refused to negotiate with her and Burrows in a meeting during the first week of school.

“Mendelson made it very clear that he was not sure why we were meeting and that there was no chance of any form of negotiation between us,” Rouault wrote in an email to The Daily. “He had made his decision and it did not concern us.”

More on EUS and SSMU’s involvement: