Students & administrators must do better on fall term break consultations

The University must listen to student voices, but it’s also up to students to speak up

Student Senate Caucus Chair David Niddam-Dent discusses the complexities of the fall term break review and University policy-making.
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Everyone seems to have a different opinion on the fall term break’s effects on Orientation Week, student workload, mental health, and travel plans. In my view, the conversation surrounding the break is primarily a symptom of a larger problem where the Administration neglects to solicit student input, and students neglect to give it.
 
To understand what I’m talking about, it helps to recap how we got here. Queen’s tasked the Senate Committee on Academic Procedures (SCAP) with the creation of a University-wide fall term break in 2015. SCAP settled on a proposal attaching a four-day break to the Monday of Thanksgiving weekend, but the AMS Executive at the time rejected the proposal. This led to the creation of a task force that produced the current two-day structure, approved by the University Senate as a three-year pilot program in 2017. The current 2019-20 school year was the pilot’s second year.
 
Because of provincial regulations, the sessional dates for 2021-22 (the year after the pilot is scheduled to expire) must be approved by March 2020. Entering this year, student leaders with a voice in the process, including me, assumed the University would review the policy to determine the pilot’s successor. 
 
To our dismay, however, no such review was planned. 
 
In October, despite the complete absence of a Senate decision on a fourth year of the break, 2021-22 sessional dates were put before the Arts and Science Faculty Board with the same two-day fall term break in place. Thankfully, those dates were voted down, thanks to the leadership of ASUS President Chayce Perkins, ASUS Academics Commissioner Matthew Mellon, and various departmental student council (DSC) presidents. 
 
However, it’s become clear in my meetings with the deputy provost, chair of SCAP and the chair of the Senate Committee on Academic Development that the University has no plan for an assessment to help determine the fall term break’s fourth year. A full review, whatever its form, will only take place next year. As a result, the format of the fourth year of this term break will effectively be decided by SCAP. The views of students graduating this year or last year won’t be considered, even though they have the capacity to provide the most valuable insights into the effectiveness of fall reading break.
 
It’s worth considering first why consultations on the break are in this uncertain state.
 
First, initial student consultation was insufficient. The break was proposed by a Senate committee, rejected by the AMS Executive, and finalized by a University Secretariat task force. All those bodies engaged in consultations, but when students were directly consulted in a referendum, they were given only two break options to choose from, despite the existence of far more than two options for a fall term break. Further, the University did not choose students’ favoured option, which featured an uninterrupted Orientation Week, earlier move-in date, and a four-day fall term break attached to Thanksgiving.
 
Second, there’s been a simple lack of foresight. A three-year pilot shouldn’t automatically become a four-year pilot. If a four-year pilot was intended, the break should have been passed as such, with a review scheduled in its third year. If a three-year pilot was intended, it should have been reviewed in its second year in order to make plans for the break’s structure after the pilot’s end. 
 
Regardless, in order to capture opinion changes over time, and ensure all relevant views were considered, the University should have collected student and faculty feedback each year of the break.
 
Carelessly adding an extra year to the pilot, as the Administration seems set to do, will have real consequences. A year is a large fraction of students’ time at Queen’s—it has the power to shape their university experience. Especially with respect to policies designed to improve mental health, as the break is meant to, that year matters.
 
Finally, the negligence on student consultation here is not an isolated incident. This year, two other University policies—the Sexual Violence Prevention and Response Policy and Alcohol Policy—have been contested by student leaders and students at large, because students weren’t consulted adequately beforehand. If such policies are objected to by the people they’re designed to help, the policy-making process becomes broken. 
 
The University’s pushes for student feedback often come too little, too late in reacting to problems rather than proactively trying to prevent them in the first place.
 
However, one thing is certain: blaming the Administration alone doesn’t tell the full story. 
 
Something else I’ve learned in my time as Student Senate Caucus Chair is that blame for this situation can’t be placed on a few administrators. Fall term break has been a massively complicated project, with implications reaching Orientation Week, exam periods, course schedules, faculty schedules, educational hours, staff hiring, and students’ summers.
 
Moreover, getting feedback from students in general is difficult. While recent rallies on campus have been cause for optimism, at the recent Principal’s Conversation and sexual violence policy consultations, I saw perhaps 50 students combined. At a school of 18,000 undergraduates, that’s not enough. 
 
Further, student perspectives that are collected on matters like fall term break are diverse and can be difficult to process cohesively. It’s no surprise that the University often decides to simply consult elected student representatives to gauge responses. It’s also no surprise that mistakes happen when a couple of people are tasked with representing 20,000 people—as was arguably proven by the AMS Executive’s  2016 decision on the fall break.
 
Student opinion also has to be balanced against that of faculty, staff, administrators, the principal, the Board of Trustees, the Senate, and other (if slightly more contentious) considerations like donations and liability. 
 
Ultimately, these decisions are hard. 
 
I believe the Queen’s administration fundamentally wants what’s best for the university. But, clearly, student voices are still under-represented. 
 
In response, the AMS has produced a survey about the fall term break, aiming to ensure graduating students’ voices count, and that student input can be made available to SCAP before it makes its recommendation to Senate this month. This is why it’s so important for you to fill out that survey, which Queen’s students received by email from the AMS in December, and which is also available on the AMS Facebook page. 
 
Students are the most critical constituency at this university. Nobody can hear us if we don’t use our voices. It’s imperative we get the fourth year of the break right to ensure students have the break they need from academics at the most stressful points in the year. This data will be vital in advocacy this year and next year regarding the break’s long-term future. 
 
This extends to broader student engagement. When the principal wants to have a public conversation, attend and make your opinions known. An hour of your day is worth directly improving your years on campus. 
 
However, to the Queen’s administration: it’s time to do more. Student leaders shouldn’t be picking up administrators’ slack when they fail to consider the perspectives of Queen’s diverse student body. A university’s policies should reflect the will of its students, not its student leaders alone, or administrators who haven’t been students in years. Consultation (if done right) can be effective.
 
So, students, fill out that survey. Administrators, listen to the survey's results. 
 
If everyone does their part, perhaps in future years, we can get the fall term break right at last. 
 
David Niddam-Dent is a second-year Arts and Science student and Student Senate Caucus Chair.

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