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Leacock space reallocation plans under scrutiny

Profs say admin “clustering” will undermine departments

An initiative aimed at restructuring the Leacock building by consolidating all administrative services on one floor, breaking up the current departmental structure, was presented at a Town Hall in the Redpath Museum on Monday.   The Arts Faculty’s People, Processes & Partnerships initiative, in development since Fall 2012, was put before students, faculty, and support staff.

According to Dean of Arts Christopher Manfredi and Associate Dean Gillian Lane-Mercier, the initiative is a response to concerns that specific departments may be left without qualified administrators after a voluntary retirement program is put in place. This program, coupled with a recent provincial administrative cost-cutting initiative, Bill 100, will reduce the number of administrators in the faculty.

Two potential restructuring plans to be carried out by Summer 2014 were put forth by Manfredi.  The plans would group administrative officers (AOs) and services on the sixth floor of Leacock. A welcome centre and student service hub would be built on the third floor. The Faculty has estimated that this could cost up to $2.5 million.

The plans would also move the Jewish Studies department into Leacock, from its current location on McTavish. This building would subsequently be used to house Arts faculty course lecturer, TA, visiting scholar, and student association clusters.

The first of the two plans moves department chairs to the sixth floor, keeping them in close proximity to their AOs, moving a total of 68 people. However, the second plan, which would move a total of 57 people, would keep departmental chairs with their departments, but separate from their AOs.

The response at the Town Hall was one of concern. Art History professor Amelia Jones, who came to McGill from the University of Manchester  after similar centralization of administrative services, said that this restructuring would lead to a “dysfunctional noncollegial community.”

At Manchester she said, “students had no interface directly with the departments […] academic staff became the only possible interface with the students, [and are required to do] low-level administrative tasks.”

Manfredi said that the project team would attempt to avoid such issues and pointed to other faculties, such as Engineering, that have already implemented similar structures.

Professor Elsbeth Heaman noted that such a restructuring could change the nature of the university itself by removing departmental inertia.

“If I wanted to completely transform the university, to make it into a political creature, make it into a corporate university, […] I would begin by weakening departmental cultures,” Heaman said.

Manfredi responded by saying, “If there are serious risks to our current mission, we won’t do them. I don’t want to replicate bad mistakes made somewhere else.”

While many faculty members prefaced their concerns by acknowledging current administrative and organizational issues, Communications professor Darin Barney told The Daily by email that these changes would potentially have detrimental effects on important qualities of the university.

“These qualities include departmental autonomy and solidarity, collegiality, and personalized relationships among faculty, staff, and students. Losing these would be too high a price to pay for whatever economies or efficiencies might be gained – especially as it is far from certain that ‘clustering’ support staff and removing them from departments would make things more, rather than less, efficient,” he wrote.

VP Internal Affairs of History Students’ Association Laure Spake and other student association representatives present at the Town Hall criticized the lack of outreach to students, and the lack of clarity from the administration. While Manfredi had previously held eight poorly attended consultations on the new advising services that the Leacock space reallocation would provide, Manfredi told The Daily: “the Town Hall was the first opportunity to discuss the proposed Leacock space scenarios publicly and collectively.”

Spake especially took issue with the means of communication from the administration, pointing specifically to the inaccessibility of their website. “The administration is saying that they’re putting out this information for us, but they’re not putting it out in a way that we can easily reach,” she said.

She pointed to the miscommunication regarding the advising consultations as an example, suggesting that if students had been informed that the advising services would be linked to the Leacock space reallocations, “more than one or three students would have showed up.”

However, Manfredi told The Daily: “Department chairs and student leaders also have an obligation to keep their constituents informed, and to communicate the concerns of their constituents back to me and others.”

Lane-Mercier presented the two reallocation at the AUS Council meeting on Wednesday. In an interview with The Daily, Lane-Mercier stated that the consultations were and would be “ongoing.”

In response to a question as to the next step, given the recent feedback, Lane-Mercier said that the project team is “pausing to reflect.”  Particularly, she suggested that some of the previously rejected plans may now be revisited in light of student and faculty comments.