Why the decision to remove dons at UNB is part of a bigger problem

Written by Jon Debly on March 4, 2017

Harrison House at UNB. Photo from UNB’s website.

Widespread attention is being directed at University of New Brunswick’s (UNB) recent decision to remove residence don positions this coming September. UNB Residence Life (ResLife) is opting instead to employ three full-time coordinators, and are implementing paid head proctors in every house. The removal of dons is quickly receiving criticism from students who argue that ResLife’s decision was made solely for the reduction of costs, not for benefit of proctors and students as Dean Martin, director of ResLife, insists it is.

Criticism of ResLife’s decision is more than warranted, but concern should not be focussed exclusively on this single issue. It is necessary to understand the removal dons in the broader social context of student life on campus. The truth is, this decision is a visible symptom of a hidden contradiction existing within the walls of every UNB residence, one between the public discourse perpetuated by UNB, and the actual experience of students rooming on campus.

I arrived at Harrison House for the first time in September, eager to meet my roommate and excited for my residence experience to measure up to the “wonderful adventure” that the ResLife website describes. Like the many alumni who warned me about residences at UNB, I was sorely disappointed when, with each passing week, I felt as if ResLife delivered less and less on their promise to ensure that residents would experience “consideration and respect for their feelings and needs,” and would live “in an environment where their possessions and the communal space are shown respect by every other person” (from the UNB residence contract).

It would be fallacious to omit that some students have the time of their lives on residence. Even I have made many good friends in Harrison house, but the experience of some is not enough to ignore that of others. The positive aspects of campus life do not excuse the fact that residences at UNB are riddled with examples of patriarchy, homophobia, xenophobia, and anti-Semitism–things that students attend UNB to escape, not encounter to an unimaginable degree.

This year in Harrison, a private Facebook “meme” group was created alongside a public one. Students in the proctor-supervised public group were frequently asked to remove offensive pictures, but the private student-created group had no such supervision. As a result, there were appalling pictures posted in it until its discovery, including a picture of the so-called “happy merchant meme” done by white supremacist Wyatt Mann, which features an anti-Semitic caricature of a Jewish man reminiscent of Nazi propaganda.

This hardly the only example of the prejudice tucked away in UNB residences. A certain member of Harrison House has recently described on Facebook how LGBTQ+ members use their sexuality to “get their way.” In previous instance, a different “Harrisonian” student posted that gender inequality is nonexistent and that women should simply “work harder” if they desire equality. There are countless more examples of intolerance on campus, ones that will hardly be advertised to incoming students.

Beyond overt bigotry, there are constantly smaller incidents occurring in Harrison. They are reflective of the underlying discourse that dominates the house. I have been forced to wipe swastikas from the walls, and have removed a picture of a female house member’s face from the urinal that had been place there and urinated on. To this day, I regret staying silent as an upper year male bragged about driving a young woman from the lounge in tears by calling her a “stuck-up C***” among other things. Even more recently than that, I witnessed a resident speak of how another was on the “autism spectrum,” and have heard one house member brag about driving out to meet a girl until he “saw her giant [fat] silhouette in his headlights” and tried to back out and leave her there.

The state of Harrison House is so poor that when asking a gender minority student how they felt after being publicly disrespected the night before, they simply replied “let’s just say I locked my door last night.” They are not alone in how they feel. Many students including myself, and especially those from marginalized groups, feel unsafe on residence.

The fact that prejudicial language characterizes the underlying discourse in Harrison House is especially concerning to students who feel its impact. It hurts the student who has a disabled sibling to hear slurs about mental disability, and it hurts the queer student to witness someone employ homophobic insults (ones that I have so often heard being used), yet this seems to be of little concern to ResLife. The administration of UNB runs it like a business: a business that is concerned only with overt prejudice that damages it reputation. Provided that racism, homophobia, and anti-semitism stay within the walls of residences, UNB takes no action.

Occurrences like the ones previously mentioned are shocking, yet they are an aspect of everyday life in Harrison House. The constant presence of derogatory language creates an extremely unsafe atmosphere for students.

As is the case in many other settings, the bigoted discourse in Harrison is led by a group of (mostly male) individuals. They go relatively unpunished for the things they do, not because Harrison doesn’t have a progressive house team, but because the poor structure designed by ResLife is, according to acting proctor Alex (pseudonym), not conducive to any actual problem solving or change.

The conflict between the progressiveness of some returning students (mainly on the house team and in proctor positions), and the blatant bigotry of other groups in Harrison is clear.

It is as noticeable as a chasm in the ground, and exists because of the opposing reasons students return to residence. On one hand, some students return to Harrison as proctors or dons -students who have a genuine interest in ameliorating the community in a progressive and inclusive way, but the remaining students who return to residence either perpetuate, fear, or are interferent to the inequality that they experienced in their first year. Understandably, the inequality in residences often drives out the brightest and most respectful first year students.

Alex also explained to me that proctor positions can be extremely conflicting. They are expected to help students and be confided in, yet are also expected to deal out punishment. This contradiction is minimized by the split between the somewhat punitive role of a don, and supportive job of proctors. This balance will be destroyed with the abolition of the don role.

Even if a head proctor is employed, they are still a proctor, and their position will have less weight than the historic position of don. Moreover, the separation between proctor and head proctor will be much less distinct than the line between proctor and don.

Both dons and proctors are currently part time, so it is a strenuous task for them to meet the incredibly high threshold of paper work that ResLife requires before taking any punitive action. Alex explains that even if paper work is filed, they occasionally take so long to initiate any disciplinary action that they essentially “sweep problems under the rug.”

With the removal of the don positions injustices will only be exacerbated. There will be nobody at the semi-senior position that is close enough to the community to take up problematic issues that could be so easily brushed aside. Without dons, the potential for the reduced apprehension of negative occurrences in residences is inevitable, however, it could potentially be beneficial to UNB’s administration (for financial and public reasons) to underreport and under-recognize any negative issues within residences.

The current don of Harrison is new, and I have witnessed him, although seemingly hindered by ResLife’s structures, doing everything within his power to improve conditions in Harrison. I have no doubt that, had he returned next year, he would have done his best to continue this improvement. This is something that will not happen with the removal of his position.

The proper action going forward is complicated. It is important for UNB to consider strategies and policies designed to curb the unsafe atmosphere of residences like Harrison House.

The most vital first step for UNB is recognizing decisions that will worsen the problem, one of which is the plan to remove don positions, and another of which is the continued willful ignorance that they demonstrate in regards to the unfortunate state of residences.

I expect that if UNB realizes a reply to this piece, they will insist that they had no knowledge of any prejudicial occurrences that take place in residences. I answer that the reason they did not notice the state of residences, is because they never wanted to look.

DISCLAIMER: Proctor confidentiality was not broken during any of my discussions with proctors. Any confidential events referenced were from personal experience or were gathered from non-proctor individuals.

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