Student self-government at risk

Six alumni express concern over potential disenfranchisement of peer-based non-academic discipline

Three former AMS Presidents and three former Rectors write that Queen’s must protect its historic student-run non-academic discipline system.
Three former AMS Presidents and three former Rectors write that Queen’s must protect its historic student-run non-academic discipline system.
Credit: 
Supplied by the writers

One of Queen’s most important values is that Queen’s students govern themselves. This sense of student ownership for the “broader learning environment” differentiates Queen’s from other universities. 

For more than 120 years, a student-run non-academic discipline system has been a cornerstone of Queen’s students’ self-government: if you’re not being charged with a criminal or regulatory offence, the community standards under Queen’s code of conduct are adjudicated by your fellow students.  

A peer-based process for non-academic discipline preserves impartiality and ensures proper consideration of the community context. The independence of the system safeguards its fairness, ensuring that political or reputational concerns don’t compromise a student’s procedural rights. 

Indeed, in 2012 Daniel Woolf signed an agreement with the AMS that affirmed “the University recognizes the inherent value and efficacy of the AMS non-academic discipline system and unequivocally supports the underlying philosophy of peer-administered discipline.”

Queen’s Board of Trustees recently struck an advisory committee, chaired by Principal Daniel Woolf, to review the non-academic discipline system.  Honest discussion about how to improve the system should always be welcome. Student leaders should participate honestly in such a review. The advisory committee also must proceed in good faith.

However, the tone of Queen’s administration in the lead-up to this review, and in its discussions to date with student leaders, has raised concerns. Specifically, we’ve heard fears that Queen’s administration may seek to use this review to assert control over non-academic discipline. Because of the abrupt timelines and an imbalanced review committee composition, students are worried the review is a veneer for a predetermined outcome.

We sincerely hope this isn’t the case. As alumni who care deeply about our alma mater, we personally volunteer to speak with any administrator or Trustee about the importance of the student role in the non-academic discipline system. Similarly, we’re available to any student to provide insight on the system’s history and principles.

We are aware of the recommendations made in the report from Harriet Lewis in May 2015. We also understand the University administration may have procured legal opinions concerning both: 

(1) the risk of legal liability for the university from student administered non-academic discipline; and 

(2) Senate’s legislative authority to delegate non-academic discipline to student societies.

Non-academic discipline is of fundamental importance to the entire Queen’s community. All legal opinions concerning non-academic discipline should be publicly disclosed. For honest and collegial discussion to occur, all stakeholders should know what advice decision-makers have received.

Lewis’ report asserts that the University might face legal liability for negligence or breach of contract from the student administration of the non-academic discipline system. 

It’s notable that Lewis doesn’t cite any authorities for her assertion that the University might face risk for such liability. We question how a restorative non-academic discipline system could be causally linked to the University’s failure to meet a forward-looking duty of care.  

If other legal opinions provide a more thorough analysis and jurisprudential support, these should be publicly disclosed. If the administration intends to publicly assert possible liability as rationale for changing the non-academic discipline system, it should waive any privilege over any legal opinions that explain the extent of that risk.

Similarly, we’re skeptical that the Board of Trustees has the authority to unilaterally change Queen’s non-academic discipline system. We understand Queen’s administration believes that the Board, rather than the Senate, possesses such authority. 

However, given the long-lived delegation in practice of non-academic discipline by the Senate to student societies, it seems implausible that the Senate actually lacks authority. 120 years of history indicates an enduring, shared understanding of the allocation of responsibilities. 

For any change to the system, decision-makers must consider the impact on Queen’s tradition of student self-government. Certain administrators may wrongly regard this tradition as out-dated and irrelevant. 

Yet, student government is the wellspring of Queen’s competitive advantage in attracting and educating citizens and leaders. Queen’s should be emphasizing and supporting the unique role students play in shaping the broader learning environment. If we neglect this source of strength, Queen’s ongoing decline will only accelerate.   

Principal Woolf, we call on you specifically. Alumni are watching this process unfold. Countless alumni remember our Queen’s experience because of opportunities for leadership. We take our stewardship of our alma mater seriously.  The values we shared at Queen’s inform our lives. Our experiences at Queen’s have enabled and inspired our roles in our communities beyond Queen’s. We expect the same respect for current students as for 30 generations of their predecessors. 

Please don’t fail us in this test of discipline.  

Michael Lindsay, AMS President 2002-03

Tyler Turnbull, AMS President 2004-05

Morgan Campbell, AMS President 2011-12

Daniel Sahl, Rector 2000-02

Ahmed Kayssi, Rector 2002-04

Grant Bishop, Rector 2004-06

 

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