How not to talk to students: an administrator's guide

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Reactive blaming and shaming without discretion was the wrong move for Principal Daniel Woolf’s PR team. 

Earlier this week, Queen’s students received an email from Woolf that condemned students’ behaviour during Frosh Week. 

Students held a large street party on University Ave., surrounded and damaged a car, and threw a beer bottle at a police cruiser. Large numbers of intoxicated students also swarmed the pier and jumped into Lake Ontario. 

Woolf also posted his email on his Twitter account and blog so that they could be viewed by the public at large.  

While students’ conduct was highly reprehensible, several suggestions made in Woolf’s email weren’t constructive or are downright contradictory. 

Despite admitting that the school has made significant progress since the events of 2005 — which resulted in the five-year cancellation of Homecoming — Woolf can’t help himself from threatening to cancel the event again.  

Last fall, Woolf hailed the ReUnion Street Festival as a success, and expressed hope that it would become a traditional event that would create a safe Homecoming for students and alumni.  

But despite his expressed support, the University has not provided any funding for the festival, citing both a tight budget and concern over how funding a street party would be publically perceived.  

Punishing harmful behaviour by refusing to fund efforts that provide a solution to this behaviour is both counter-productive and potentially detrimental to students and Kingstonians. 

By publishing this email outside of private communication with students, the administration also raises some concerns about whether it prioritizes students’ well-being, or the University’s public image. 

Alongside mentions of taking “pride in this university”, “an embarrassment to … the university as a whole” and “reputational damage,” Woolf referred to the deaths of 2010. This reference is deeply inappropriate in this context. 

Presumably, Woolf is referring to the alcohol-related, accidental deaths of two students at the beginning of the 2010 school year, and not to the later incidents of suicide that raised serious concerns about the school’s mental health services. 

The deaths of six students in 2010 — both alcohol and mental health related — should indicate that there’s a deeper problem at Queen’s than what wagging a finger will fix. 

It’s long past the point where we’ve identified Queen’s drinking culture as a serious problem. Instead of publicly pontificating, the administration should turn its attention to resolutions. 

Drinking at Queen’s is often more than an indulgence. For some students, the culture is so persistent that joining in is an expectation, even an obligation. 

But, the actions of many students — from cleaning up streets and the pier to crowd-funding to repair damages — indicates that students aren’t incapable of behaving properly.  

If the University is unprepared to meet the challenge of their current student body, their move to increase enrolment should have us all questioning whether this space is prepared for an influx of even more students.

One resolution that Woolf suggests is that senior students exercise leadership. However this expectation is at odds with the University’s constant interference in normally student-led endeavours. 

For example, the Commerce Orientation Week was placed under probation, which set strict hiring restrictions by the University that limited student’s ability to make decisions regarding what’s normally a student-run project. 

Woolf furthermore states that, “we need the entire student body to work together.” But his email has already had a divisive effect, with many upper years taking to social media to blame first years. 

Instead of making first years feel accepted and welcomed, they were given an abrupt initiation into the worst side of Queen’s culture that may have irreparably tainted their relationship to the university, its principal and other students. 

Despite straight A’s for condescension, Woolf’s letter to his student body missed the boat on diplomacy. 

 Journal Editorial Board 

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