Risk, Safety and Student initiative: a comment on the recent AMS op-ed

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I read with interest the comments of the outgoing AMS Executive in the final print issue of this year’s edition of the Queen’s Journal, in particular those suggesting that the university has become overly ‘risk-conscious’ in recent years. The editorial states that this is leading to a dampening of the freedom of initiative and action, as well as the independence of student government, that has been enjoyed by Queen’s students for nearly a century.

It is certainly true that students here (I was one myself many moons ago) enjoy a much higher degree of autonomy in the non-academic sphere than those at other universities. That’s always been a distinguishing feature of Queen’s. We were one of the first universities to appoint a student representative to the Board of Trustees (the Rector), and students have exercised judicial authority—a delegated authority from Senate—over their peers via the ‘NAD’ (non-academic discipline) system for decades.

All activity carries risk. Risk mitigation helps manage it, taking safety and health in account.

All activity carries risk. Risk mitigation helps manage it, taking health and safety into account. (photo: University Communications)

In principle, and just to be unambiguously clear, I support this system. It has worked well for a very long time. It is not perfect, of course, any more than our administrative systems are perfect. But it is a distinctive part of the Queen’s ‘special sauce’. Last year I reconfirmed the university’s commitment to maintaining the NAD system in an MOU with then-AMS president Doug Johnson. There have been no changes to that commitment, either from me or from any of my colleagues.

I am grateful for the strong support of the AMS and other student government groups on such issues as mental health, and last year’s problem (thankfully much reduced this year) with blue light tampering, as well as many other matters in which university administrators, myself included, work collaboratively with student leaders. The tensions that have arisen in the past few years have primarily involved health and safety issues.

Jurisdictionally, the health and safety environment of students lies squarely in the domain of the Board of Trustees and, to the degree that it has authority over ‘student welfare’, the Senate. The university administration exercises management of the campus environment on behalf of both bodies. The Board in particular has a fiduciary responsibility to ensure that a safe and healthy environment is maintained (for faculty and staff as well as students), and we in administration report to it regularly.

Students who have arrived at Queen’s since 2011 may not be aware that in the fall of 2010, two students died from falls incurred while under the influence of alcohol – one at the end of Orientation Week, another just before the Christmas break. It was a very difficult time for all of us.

What those tragedies highlighted is that greater vigilance on such issues as alcohol usage (especially during Orientation Week, with many under-aged students away from home for the first time) was a prudent move. Student Affairs has worked with student leadership over the past three years to find a satisfactory balance between students’ freedom to organize their own activities and the need to preserve a safe environment.

These are not black and white issues. All activity carries risk, whether one is hang-gliding or simply walking across a busy street. The purpose of a risk mitigation strategy is not the elimination of risk but its management, so that all due care for safety and health is taken.

In negotiating boundaries there will inevitably be areas of disagreement where discussion is required. Some of those areas are, to my mind, less ambiguous. Hazing is one of them, whether it involves risks to safety or the compulsion of unwilling students to participate in acts that they may regard as demeaning. In the fall, administration received reports of significant hazing activities during and after Orientation Week. The Provost, with my agreement, authorized Student Affairs to look into these issues further. The AMS viewed this as an intrusion on NAD. I respectfully disagreed, since at no time were these enquiries intended to lead to disciplinary action—if they had, we would have referred the cases to NAD for pursuit, with administration acting as the complainant.

This is not, as the AMS editorial suggested, a matter of liability and reputational risk management only (though those of course are of concern to the Board, Senate and administration—as they should also be to students and alumni). They are matters of preserving a safe and inclusive environment for all.  The campus is a small city unto itself, and will never be entirely risk-free, any more than post-university life is risk-free. I take a risk every time I get in my car. But I take a much more serious risk if I do so in a car without functioning headlights, or poor brakes. Our student athletes engage in moderately risky activities every time they participate in a sport, and we, and they, take appropriate precautions to manage this. The AMS engages in its own forms of risk mitigation by, for instance, having student constables, supporting Walk-Home, and exercising appropriate controls over the events it organizes and the facilities, including pubs, that it runs.

We will never eliminate risk entirely, but we must continuously monitor the activities that occur to ensure that risk is both understood and mitigated, and that unnecessary, high risk activities are reduced or eliminated.  The bottom line for me is simple: I want our students to thrive, and to exercise the spirit of initiative; but I also want them to be safe and secure.  Their families entrust them to our care and while we are not in loco parentis in a way that universities were in previous generations, we do have a moral as well as legal responsibility to take all reasonable actions toward this.

I am committed, as are my administrative colleagues, to continue working through these issues with the incoming AMS executive, and with committees such as the Senate Orientation Activities Review Board. I look forward to those discussions over the coming year.



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