New possibilities abound for MCRC

Part 2 of 2: Assessing the problems and solutions

Arun Parkash, MCRS President in 2004-05, resigned a month before the end of his term to avoid a motion for his impeachment.
Arun Parkash, MCRS President in 2004-05, resigned a month before the end of his term to avoid a motion for his impeachment.
Credit: 
Journal File Photo
Alexis Meyerman, current MCRS president, is calling for reforms to the MCRC, such as a partnership with the AMS.
Alexis Meyerman, current MCRS president, is calling for reforms to the MCRC, such as a partnership with the AMS.
Photo: 
James McIntosh, current MCRC VP (finance and operations), faced calls for his resignation over allegations of financial mismanagement when he was MCRS president in 2003-04.
James McIntosh, current MCRC VP (finance and operations), faced calls for his resignation over allegations of financial mismanagement when he was MCRS president in 2003-04.
Credit: 
Journal File Photo

Wanted: one individual willing to work 24/7 as mentor and manager, advocate for students in residence, provide training to 50-plus staff, live in the workplace and pay up front for room and board. Salary: $8,661.

That’s the job description for the Main Campus Residents’ Society (MCRS) president, which could be one of the lowest-profile and least-understood positions on campus.

But in recent memory, a torch of controversy has passed from one president to another, year after year. The controversy has been one of few spotlights on the residence student government for the past four years.

Those loyal to the Main Campus Residents’ Council (MCRC)—the governing body of the MCRS, to which every student in residence belongs—say there’s great potential for student government in residence, and its importance should not be underestimated.

At a University that strongly promotes living in residence to its incoming first-year students, the more than $8,800 cost Queen’s students pay for a main campus double room and board is a crucial facet of the access-to-education debate—and an issue on which residence government could make an impact.

Residence overcrowding, a $67-million residence redevelopment project, Principal Karen Hitchcock’s vision statement, the selection of the new dean of student affairs and enhancing the first-year experience are other areas where residence government could use its voice to effect tangible change.

But theft, flawed elections, resignations and calls for impeachment have tarnished the MCRC’s reputation over recent years and left it fractured, leading some to ask whether deep-seated issues are keeping the 15-year-old government from getting more results for students.

Sizing up the challenges

Involvement in residence government is different from involvement in the AMS or faculty societies in some key ways, say those who have worked within the organization.

Residence government doesn’t have the same structural autonomy that faculty societies such as ASUS or EngSoc have from their respective academic faculties of Arts and Science or Applied Science. Instead, it’s closely tied to Residence Life (ResLife), an ancillary body of the University in charge of residence operation.

This sets MCRC far afield from the rest of the University, said Alexis Meyerman, MCRS president and head of MCRC.

She added that this is despite the fact that the MCRC alone represents about one-quarter of all AMS constituents, consisting of students from all faculties.

“When we bring up issues, it’s almost like they’re seen as foreign,” she said.

Another distinction is that students who work for residence government also live in their place of work.

“Ever since the day I’ve joined MCRC in first year, I’ve never had a vacation, I’ve never had a single moment where I could just say, you know, I’m not [part of] MCRC right now,” Meyerman said.

“The amount of love that you can feel for your co-workers … is tremendous—it’s almost like you have 55 housemates with you all the time.”

Any student in a main campus residence leadership position belongs to the MCRC, and all students living in residence on main campus belong to the MCRS, of which Meyerman is president.

For Mohammed Heraiba, ArtSci and Sci ’01, who was involved in the MCRC 10 years ago, the sense of community was worth staying involved, so much so that he held office as MCRS president twice, in 1998-99 and 2000-01.

Few people in the wider University sphere know the scope of the responsibilities faced when working for the MCRC, he said during a recent telephone call to the Journal from Cairo, Egypt, where he’s currently traveling.

“By no means did I know what I was getting myself into,” he said. “I had an idea, but it turned out to be a lot bigger than that.”

Many MCRC executive members face a steep learning curve, said Elizabeth Leal Conrad, director of ResLife, who began working at Queen’s six years ago.

“Anyone in the job, you sort of take your first year to get your footing and it’s hard, because you don’t really know what’s coming up around the corner, so they’re reactive,” she said. “They really are learning on the job.”

Residence representation often leads to a high level of burnout, said Grant Bishop, outgoing rector (2004-06) and a former don for Morris Hall (2003-04).

“The dynamic of residence is that because of your living environment, everything has a sense of urgency and because the issues are so intimate, that tends to impose a large burden on student staff,” he said.

Meyerman added that although the sense of community achieved in working for residence government can be wonderful, it can also lead to its downfall.

“It becomes a very self-centred and internally focused [student government] because … there’s no one externally looking in, so it is hard for us to look out,” she said. “Accountability is internal … so it becomes a smaller community that is segregated from outside, and [problems] can become more petty.”

Personal politics may end up eclipsing the real issues, Meyerman said.

“There’s no distinction between private life and work life in residence, which is something that makes it really difficult to be a representative and a leader,” she said.

Meyerman has dealt with her share of the controversy, much of it heightened by these alleged politics. Last year, she ran for president in an election so marred by procedural mistakes and bias that the MCRC scrapped the results, and then-President Arun Parkash asked the AMS to step in and run them again.

Earlier this year, an MCRC staff member accused Meyerman of misconduct, and an MCRC committee found her guilty of breaking MCRC bylaws, contravening sections of the MCRC executive board of ethics and sharing confidential information.

Furthermore, the MCRC General Assembly sought to censure Meyerman and her executive earlier this month for alleged unethical conduct, though the motion eventually failed with more than two-thirds of Assembly voting against the motion.

Bishop agreed that personal politics may have played a role in some of the recent year’s problems.

“Where there are significant and divisive issues, the intimate interpersonal relationships can magnify those issues and, consequently, the decision making within the organization can magnify some of those tensions,” he said.

Parkash, who resigned a month early from his presidency in March of last year, said another source of tension he’s witnessed is that most people who lose the previous year’s elections still come back to MCRC as staff.

“People become more bitter and embroiled about the way they lost the election,” he said, adding that they may take it out on the current year’s executive. “Personal grudges come to the forefront.”

Heraiba said there are some inherent problems with the MCRC election process because students—most of whom will move out of residence after first year—are asked to vote for an executive that will represent constituents for the following year.

“As a result of that, the MCRC elections have always been kind of funny in terms of people saying ‘Why should I vote—this doesn’t affect me in any way,’” he said.

This rapid turnover rate, resulting in low continuity from year to year, also adds to difficulties in running residence government, Meyerman said.

“There needs to be a structure there to support the exec for when things don’t go as well, [like] when impeachment is being thrown around,” she said. “If a single person breaks down within that team right now, there’s very little of a net to catch them and to catch the organization.”

Bishop said he doesn’t think personal tensions have always existed.

“Part of what [the tensions] herald from is a number of divisive student issues, as polarization has crept into the organization,” he said. “I think there’s a perception of disingenuousness in relation to governance—it’s undeniable that ResLife runs residence—and the student government in residence, I think, very palpably perceives an imbalance of influence, and to some level, for a long time, some sort of impotence.”

Parkash agreed, again citing the electoral process.

“It’s hard to see and it’s not supposed to happen, but a lot of [ResLife] staff members do take sides,” he said. “It’s very subtle, underlying … in order to favour their own agenda.”

For example, in last year’s botched election, two senior ResLife employees illegitimately voted in that election, even though they are not part of the electorate and allegedly were aware of the rules.

“MCRC has no autonomy, to be honest with you,” Parkash said. “Committees are positioned or skewed in favour of the administration, because there is not enough student representation.”

In his mind, the reason politics exists between ResLife and the MCRC, he said, is because ResLife is running a business. Since residences are an ancillary unit of the University—falling under the portfolio of the dean of student affairs—they must operate in a way that doesn’t impede the University’s budget, he said.

“It’s one of the most difficult administrations to deal with on campus,” he said. “The difference between ResLife and any other administration on campus is that they have an agenda of what they want to accomplish in the next [several] years and they hack away at it.

“It’s run as a business corporate model.”

Parkash said this adds to MCRC’s reactive, instead of proactive, approach to governance.

“The ability to engineer ideas, be flexible and respond doesn’t exist,” he said.

Roxy Denniston-Stewart, associate dean of student affairs, said the relationship between herself as head of residence administration and MCRC is that they work together.

“There’s certainly no responsibility that I have over council, other than what I would have because they are students who live in residence,” she said. “I would see myself more as a resource person, someone that councils can come to discuss issues with.

“It’s very much a mentoring position and an advocacy position as well.”

Heraiba worked with both Leal Conrad and Denniston-Stewart in his second year as MCRS president, as well as with a different set of administrators during his first term as president. He said he perceived a difference between the two sets of administrators.

“[During my first term as president] there were always clashes, but they were healthy clashes,” he said. “At the end of the day, there was a lot of respect between the student government and the Residence Life.”

He said that with the current administrators, he’s noticed a change in philosophy, which he described as “less mentoring.”

“They tend to be more ‘tell-oriented,’ meaning telling ‘this is what’s right,’ ” he said. “I personally think this has a lot to do with everything we’ve seen in the last few years, because you’re not really getting the [adequate] support from Residence Life.

“It may have changed since I’ve left, but that certainly was my impression when I left Queen’s.”

Another related struggle for residence government is attracting strong leadership candidates, Parkash said, adding he believes the MCRC faces “chronic understaffing.”

“We tend to lose charismatic leaders to the donning process,” he said, explaining that students seem to be more inclined to work as a don because ResLife pays for their full room and board.

The MCRC, on the other hand, pays its president $8,661, which after taxes covers just under the cost of room and board. Other MCRC staff members are paid progressively lower salaries, which don’t cover the costs of room and board. For example, elected MCRS vice presidents are paid $6,098, whereas house presidents are paid $3,811.

According to Leal Conrad, ResLife usually has a two-to-one ratio of applicants to be dons to positions they offer, and for the 2006-07 school year, there were 76 applications for the 38 MCRC staff positions.

“There’s never as many [candidates] as you would like,” she said, adding that ResLife currently employs 107 dons.

Parkash said he feels that because the returning rate of dons is higher, ResLife can pick and choose whom they will hire.

“But MCRC doesn’t have the choice,” he said. “There is not enough competition for returning staff, so although some people may be substandard, they may find their way into the system because we need them.”

Heraiba added that a question remains about what MCRC should do to ensure that people with leadership potential become interested in applying.

“MCRC is a good leadership grounds, but you need a good leadership to be able to go through a year without all the setbacks that [residence has] probably seen in the past four years,” he said.

Investigating the solutions

In early February, students in residence elected some of the youngest students ever to be next year’s MCRS executive.

Michael Koichopolos, MCRS president-elect and Comm ’09, hasn’t even been at Queen’s for one year, but in his view, negative perceptions about the organization built in recent years are starting to change.

“Last year’s election scandal hurt the perception of what the MCRC was … it’s my fear people will go on thinking what they’ve thought for the past few years,” he said, explaining why he thought it was important to run in the election.

Koichopolos said he feels most of the University community had a more neutral perception of the organization this past year. He said this is due largely to the current MCRC “keeping things clean.”

Looking ahead to next year, Koichopolos said he’s already setting goals.

“I’d like to make a positive outlook [for MCRC],” he said. “To make sure students know the MCRC is out to do good.”

Merging the Jean Royce Hall Council (JRHC) with the MCRC is one initiative worth pursuing if government in residence is to achieve a stronger, unified voice, Meyerman said.

“When the student voice is divided and there’s no consensus among students, the administrators end up calling the shots,” she said. “It’s impossible to move forward right now with two distinct voices.

“Walking 15 minutes away to West Campus doesn’t make you an alien life form to Main Campus.”

Parkash, who was the JRHC president from 2003 to 2004, nearly signed a merger deal with MCRC that year. However, Meyerman said, he backed off when then-MCRS president James McIntosh, who is currently the MCRC VP (finance and operations), suddenly had members of his General Assembly seek to impeach him for alleged mismanagement of funds.

“The [merger] idea is great,” Parkash said. “It’s just that how would you, as the Jean Royce Hall president, justify taking a subservient role to the MCRC president?”

Nonetheless, Parkash suggested one way to integrate the system and ensure adequate representation for both might be to merge, and then create a position called VP West and VP East.

McIntosh also said he thinks a merger would be in the best interests of all students in residence.

“The reasons are fairly straightforward, I think, [and] outside of West Campus they’re fairly well recognized,” he said. “One would be simply that we are paying twice as many administration costs as we need to.”

JRHC employs seven students for their approximate 1,450 constituents, and the council has a different set of constitution and bylaws from the MCRC.

MCRC should also forge a partnership with the AMS, Meyerman said, while ensuring they maintain their autonomy.

“There are some things the AMS is very good at because they’ve done it for a long time,” she said, citing running elections as an example. “MCRC should use the AMS as a service provider … this frees us up for other pressing issues.”

Using the services of the AMS’s several permanent staff would be particularly helpful in bringing continuity to residence government, something that has been lacking in MCRC’s 15 years of existence, Parkash said.

“[MCRC should] create a library of information which is critical to any organization’s history or decision making, so that you have a sense of where this organization is, what ideas were put forward, what worked and didn’t and where can you go from here,” he said. “You build a foundation and build the house up.”

Meyerman suggested she would eventually like to employ a permanent staff member if MCRC were to ever have the financial resources and physical space to house the individual.

Creating organizational memory is crucial to strengthening representation and autonomy, Bishop added.

“The same people from whom [MCRC staff are] soliciting information are the same people to whom they are representing students’ issues, so there is a perception of unequal footing,” he said, referring to ResLife as the present information providers.

He added that it’s his belief that there is an onus on residence administrators to take on a greater mentorship role with students.

“Residence administration needs to cultivate and assist effective residence student representation, in an enlightened and unimpassioned manner,” he said.

Meyerman said next year’s MCRC must continue to reach out to the greater University community by strengthening MCRC’s external representation. This would include having a strong presence at meetings of the AMS, the AMS’s Presidents’ Caucus and Board of Trustees.

“I think the executive sets the tone for how the year is going to go,” she said. “It’s really important for the executive to remain professional so that the staff remains professional.

“We need to create a structure where people trust each other.”

Meyerman said she has great hope that next year’s executive can move MCRC forward.

“I think we’re still not perfect, and we’re still recovering from four years of substantial problems,” she said. “But I think the new executive comes in with a real chance here to make a change … and I think they’re ready to seize that opportunity.”

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