Neuroscience Eviction from LSRB: Who is being displaced if we don’t move by March 1?

In the Carleton University Senate Meeting of November 25, 2016, our GSA representatives attempted to get an emergency motion passed which would allow us to add a resolution to the agenda. Our resolution called for a motion to halt the eviction of Neuroscience from LSRB until a mutually agreeable solution had been found through open and transparent consultation.

We needed the emergency motion, because the GSA was only notified of our issue on Nov 16 (my bad for not contacting them sooner!), and it took time to assess the situation, gather information and determine next steps. Senate rules of order require 10 days advance notice prior to a meeting to add an item to the agenda. We had just missed the cut-off.  The Carleton GSA, (Thank-you William Felpchuk and the team!) did a brilliant job, regardless.  The chair, Roseann O’Reilly Runte, who also happens to be the president of Carleton university (why is this not a conflict of interest?), insisted that the administration was working on a solution, and forced the reading of their media relations statement regarding our eviction.  Ms. Runte insisted that we just needed to be patient and more information would be forthcoming, “in a couple of days” as they were still working on some kind of Agreement In Principle with an unnamed 3rd party.

The vote to add the resolution to the agenda was 54% in favour, but we needed 60% by senate rules to have it pass.  We were shy just 3 votes. It was deeply disheartening to see the Dean of Science, Malcolm Butler, vote against this motion, given how much he has been promoting Neuroscience in undergraduate recruitment fairs. We have explained, in numerous letters from students and faculty, how this move would seriously damage the education of his students and harm the reputation of the department of Neuroscience, one of the fastest growing departments in his portfolio, for years to come.

Though we didn’t get on the agenda, we were able to discuss the motion at the end of the session.  Here is my take from that discussion and some history surrounding this whole unfortunate situation…

When allowed to speak to this motion in “other business”, I stated that given the administrations current definition of “collaboration”, we fear that their definition of “minimal disruption” differs substantially from our understanding of the term and were not willing to sit back and accept that the administration knows best how to relocate Neuroscience without our input. Especially in light of the first proposed options (see below) that came from the Dean of Science.

I also pointed out that if contracts are rushed to signing without proper consultation, and facilities are deemed inadequate by key stakeholders after-the-fact, then it is bad financial management for the institution as there can be penalties for breaking contracts.  How could the institution in any good conscience sign agreements without making sure, through stakeholder engagement and proper planning, that the facilities would be viable?  It is not appropriate to have senior management assessing risk – that is the job of a qualified and certified project manager.  And risk can only be properly assessed if you have a detailed requirements analysis. Given that nobody from the planning office has consulted with any of the lab owners in Neuroscience, I see no evidence of appropriate and detailed analysis.

If you look at the issues with the Health Sciences Building (HSB), and the fact that it was downsized from original plans, and 2 floors will not be finished, there is evidence that there have been significant planning failures with respect to building and facilities management on the Carleton Campus.  This does not inspire the students with confidence in the administration to do right by us, and even less so when their decisions are made behind closed doors.

I asked Ms Runte what the justification was for not consulting with the key stakeholders in these decisions, particularly around the current negotiations with a mysterious third party for some kind of unknown facilities. (We don’t know what or where it is).  Runte claimed that the 3rd party wanted to remain anonymous until an agreement in principle was in place. I asked why then couldn’t they at least share the particulars of the space being offered? Size? Facilities? General location?  She said that these were not known.  (huh?) How then, can you, in any good conscience, and with any degree of fiscal responsibility, sign an agreement on an unknown?  If true, this is irresponsible in the extreme.  Where is the financial oversight in this institution?  Where is the public tender process? Surely it will cost millions to move us twice and house us at an interim location…

Runte went on to say that she had met with neuroscience students and consulted with them, which was met with laughter and snorts of derision from the neuroscience attendees, as we have NO evidence of this taking place. Dear Ms. Runte, “consultation” is not us and our faculty sending you frantic letters of concern, with you sending out the same stock form-letter in reply. Similarly, walking through a couple of labs in our facility and asking a handful of questions in a short 20 minute visit is also not “consultation”.

Ms. Runte, If we REALLY were consulted, if we had been properly included in the planning, we wouldn’t be here today, in this mess and risking the reputation of this institution to make this issue public.  We would really much rather be conducting research. We really DIDN’T want to go public with this, but we have been shut out of the planning process and no longer have faith in your administration.  All of this could have been avoided if proper planning and stakeholder engagement had been undertaken from the start. Not only have we not been at the table, information has been deliberately withheld. Why?  What on earth could preclude starting a move or transition plan as soon as the proposal for the grant was being developed? Is it any wonder we lack confidence in your administration? Especially when you speak to us in a public forum in a completely condescending and patronizing tone and refuse to divulge, even in-camera to the rest of the Senate, what plans are underway for our fate?

Malcolm Butler, the Dean of Science, implied that this move was known about by our department chair, John Stead, since May, and that consultations had been ongoing since then. Sadly, John Stead was not present to explain his experience, but I do know that the earliest he can recall hearing of this issue was mid-August.  In a meeting he found out that there MIGHT be a grant coming which MIGHT mean we have to move by sometime in March, but there was nothing official, and no clear information.  He shared this with faculty, but with the distractions of the start of a new semester, it took a while for the implications of TWO moves in one year to sink in. To a certain extent, there was disbelief. Surely the administration wouldn’t do something this damaging and ill-conceived to our department? There was no time to plan. Moving out by March was untenable. No project manager had been assigned to us. Maybe we should wait for more firm information?   All attempts to clarify and confirm were dismissed. Requests to be included in the planning were denied.

I found out about the “possibility” of this March move in mid-October. There was still no solid information from senior administration.  Rumours started flying. Students started panicking. I raised the alarm with my thesis advisor.  I have 20 years of experience in project management and have overseen many complex site and building moves – for those moves we planned months in advance and gathered detailed requirements, and we didn’t have the complexities of animals, biohazards, chemicals or complex equipment that requires months of lead-time to book specialists for both moving and recalibration.

I was shocked at the fact that no analysis had been done for our requirements, that no project manager had been assigned to work with us. No risk assessments had been done. How could the find a suitable interim facility if they didn’t do the up front due diligence?  How could you assess the costs of a move or what to book?  Was the administration really that ignorant about how research laboratories in the life sciences work? Even if world-class facilities were identified and available, at this late juncture a move in March was a recipe for disaster.  Though we often say in project management that “Hope is not a risk mitigation strategy”,  I hoped that if we made Carleton senior administration aware of at least some of the risks and issues, they might realize how infeasible a move in March would be.  I was wrong.

With no concrete information and rising panic in the department, I urged my advisor to send a letter to Carleton senior administration and the Dean of Science, detailing the issues that we would encounter if faced with a move out by March 2017. It was by no means an exhaustive list. We scrambled to put it together and shared it with the department. After extensive discussion, it was clear that in light of the lack of information and a comprehensive plan, a move out by March 2017 would have terrible consequences for students and faculty alike.

On October 24, 2016, the Neuroscience faculty sent a formal letter to the administration expressing their deep concerns that two moves in one year would result in significant long-term consequences to faculty, students, the reputation of the department and Carleton as a whole. This issue would be further compounded by the short notice on the March moveout as our study planning had not taken that date into account.  (For example, some of our Parkinson’s studies are planned 18 months in advance and can take a further 18 months to execute. Once underway, any changes to the environment will invalidate these studies and destroy the prospects of graduation for the student involved.).  The letter made it clear that an unplanned move of this nature would have dire consequences for undergraduates as well. Our faculty was unanimous in stating that the best possible option to preserve the education of Carleton Neuroscience students was to delay construction of ARISE until the faculty could make ONE move into the Health Sciences Building, when it was complete. This proposes a 9 month delay in the construction of ARISE, to ensure quality of the existing students’ education.

The faculty letter attempted to give the administration a sense of the complexity of our environment and the very real risks, since no one from FMP or administration had gathered any requirements. This letter was by NO means exhaustive, and certainly could not be used in place of proper full consultation and requirements analyses.  Our faculty requested that they work together with the administration to find a viable solution that minimized the impact to students.

This faculty plea resulted in the aforementioned “site tour” by president Runte on October 31st, 2017.  Before the close of that 20-minute tour (of just 2 labs and our vivarium), the message she gave to our chair was that we should expect to move sometime in March.  To me, the tour appeared to be nothing more than paying lip-service in order to ensure the appearance of consultation.

Shock, disbelief and despair were palpable amongst the students and faculty.  And still, we had nothing official in writing – no firm date, no proposed alternate location, no “hey, let’s all sit down and go over alternatives” conversations, NOTHING. Requests to be at the table to look at alternatives were either ignored or denied.  The message we were given was that the administration was taking care of this and the key stakeholders would have no place at that table, despite our clear messaging that at this late juncture, a March 2017 move would be devastating.  Some people thought the idea so impossible and unconscionable, they couldn’t believe it would really happen – our administration couldn’t be so short-sighted and negligent, could they?

On November 2nd, 2017, John Stead sent an email to all members of the faculty and graduate students, stipulating that “While I’d like to be able to update you on specific plans for next year, those plans are still being formulated. It is likely however that we will have to vacate the LSRB (research labs and vivarium) in March….To date, no plans have been finalized (or even formally presented) for the transition of Neuroscience research labs and animal space between LSRB and HSB. Plans are being worked on by the Senior Administration of the university.”

On November 7th, 2017, Carleton Administration made the ARISE announcement to the media, highlighting the federal, provincial and institutional funding that would pay for the project.  Of course, we were busy in the lab, so we missed that presentation. What we didn’t miss was the signs that were erected outside LSRB depicting an artists rendition of the new building. An article in the Ottawa Business Journal implied that construction would start AFTER existing occupants of LSRB had been moved to the new HSB building.

I want to reiterate – the first OFFICIAL communication of any kind to our department stipulating a firm March 1 eviction date, was  NOVEMBER 11, 2017, in an email from Malcolm Butler, Dean of Science. The letter was brief, at which time we heard about the first “options” for our relocation being considered by our administration ( to which we had NO input). Though no alternate location had been confirmed, the option of using biology teaching labs in the summer was proposed.  This was absolutely untenable, and demonstrated a clear lack of understanding as to the needs of our research department, and the students trying to complete degrees within it.

Now we were really scared.  If that was the sort of facility they thought was acceptable for the kind of research we do, then how could we possibly trust the administration to find us a workable solution?   Malcolm closed with saying, “We recognize that this situation is not optimal for you, but this is the only solution that is possible in the current  circumstances.” “Not Optimal”?  “The only solution”?  Kicking us out by March 1 is NOT the only solution – it is the only solution the current administration is willing to consider.  Is this why they didn’t want us at the table? Because they knew they were going to force us into an untenable situation, and the longer they delayed, the harder it would be for us to identify alternatives? Sadly, based on this email, it became clear that a March 1 eviction would be far worse than we expected.  Especially since it was already mid-November and no viable interim space had been identified.  (It’s November 27 as I write this and we still haven’t seen hide nor hair of a project manager for the move- which is further justification for why we have NO confidence in our administration to handle this properly).

The truth is that Carleton doesn’t have to proceed with the new building as planned.  Growth at any cost should not be the mandate of an institution of higher learning.  Basic and translational research into critical health issues is being sacrificed in pursuit of opening up a new institute.  They CAN delay. They could consider building on unoccupied space on campus. Yes, it might cost more money. The institution has large reserves. Maybe they can involve ALL stakeholders to come to a workable solution that doesn’t involve sacrificing the education and futures of existing students.

But back to the senate meeting…

During the “other business” discussion period, I told the assembly that our lack of confidence in the administration to make appropriate decisions about temporary research space also stems from the fact that the one email we have seen addressing the subject, proposed possible alternatives that were so inadequate as to be ludicrous.  I also stated that if the administration thinks that we can vacate our facilities and set up somewhere else in less than 3 months with “minimal disruption”, it is indicative of their complete lack of understanding of the nature and complexity of our research.

By-the-way, an email edict from administration telling stakeholders what will happen to them is NOT “consultation”, no matter how it is couched in platitudes and apologies.

In their response to my statements at Senate, Malcolm Butler and Roseann Runte kept talking about “4 months” lead time to get ready, and that was completely misleading. It is now almost December and we have no plan, no alternate location, and to be minimally disrupted, we would have had to start ordering supplies and booking specialists by now.  If we are forced into an eviction, packing will start in January and February, and research will be effectively halted.  Right now, neuroscience students are SCRAMBLING to finish whatever they can before January. Some facilities are fully booked because everyone is trying to get access to limited equipment. Not all projects can be accomodated. It’s a clusterf*ck of epic proportions and the mental health of everyone in LSRB is suffering.

Unpacking, setting up and recalibrating equipment, presuming facilities are decent and can actually hold everything we have, will take another 2-3 months before we are fully operational.  This move will result in a loss of at least 4-5 months of research productivity.  And that is a conservative estimate, based on us getting premium facilities and full financial support for moving our specialized equipment – something I have little faith in the administration to support. Some researchers just cannot afford the risk and time associated with moving and setting up their highly sensitive equipment twice and may simply box equipment and wait for HSB to be ready. This will mean a critical loss of facilities and research education for students for up to a year.  Even 2 months of lost research time in this highly competitive field can kill the chances of getting further grant funding for most graduate students.  If we lose access to our mice, our most productive brain research into Parkinson’s disease, Stress, Depression, Anxiety, Obesity, and Chronic pain will grind to a halt.  We will not be able to teach or train undergraduates. The promise of project-based theses will be violated, preventing 4th-year honours students from moving on to most graduate schools.  DSRI students will not have opportunities for summer lab experience in Neuroscience. Graduate degrees will be delayed (A two-year master’s degree simply cannot afford that kind of interruption).

I also stressed to the senate members that this is NOT just a neuroscience issue. It sets a dangerous precedent in allowing the administration to force poorly planned moves without consultation, adversely impacting the educational outcomes for students and harming the research reputation of the institution.  It also poses a very real risk to the institution losing funding from the Tri-Council – SSHRC, NSERC and CIHR.  If the Tri-council pulls out of Carleton, it will hurt the entire university, including the engineering departments who are supposed to be benefiting from the LSRB renovation.

When I asked why we couldn’t all sit at the table together to discuss alternatives such as delaying the construction start, Runte equivocated and stated that our eviction date was based on a provincial completion deadline of April 2018.  But… but… the province’s 3.9 million dollar share is a very small part of the overall project, and both the River and Canal buildings went over-schedule and the province granted extensions on those.  Not to mention the multi-million dollar surpluses currently in Carleton “reserve funds”. (I didn’t even raise the issue of how it is they can start spending on a new building when they cannot afford to finish the HSB currently in progress).   Surely it will cost well over a million to move Neuroscience twice and house us in highly specialized temporary facilities?

Much to the dismay of myself and my fellow students, Runte also continued in a completely patronizing tone, harping on the idea that she was working for the good of ALL departments and the whole institution, not just one (but clearly ready to throw us under the bus), and that other institutes had been displaced, waiting for this space.  Wait… What? Who will be displaced if ARISE is delayed 9 months?  The research programs it purports to support don’t even exist yet!  Besides, the institution has clearly demonstrated they are incapable of planning moves that far in advance. If the ARISE project is delayed for 9 months, which institute, which students will suffer the same irreparable losses we students in Neuroscience are facing if we are evicted? (Is there a tent-city somewhere on campus housing a poor faculty that I am not aware of?) Isn’t this ARISE building supposed to attract NEW students and NEW research? How can Runte’s office justify sacrificing commitments to current students  for the potential of obtaining new students?

To date, the GSA has no record of other institutes or departments being displaced in anticipation of the space in LSRB.  The ARISE building won’t even be ready till April 2018 (if it is completed on schedule, which Carleton has a terrible reputation for accomplishing).

Of greatest disappointment to me was the number of members from the faculty of Science that voted against our motion for an emergency addition to the agenda. It breaks my heart that Malcolm Butler has turned his back on us and is refusing to support his students and faculty in speaking out against this eviction, and in refusing to have us at the table for true open and transparent consultation.  I wrote a personal letter to Dr. Runte, to which Malcolm, the Dean of the FGPA, and the Dean of Research and International were CC’ed. Not one of the Deans replied to my letter. The reply I received from the president’s office was the same impersonal and patronizing form letter that everyone who wrote her a letter received.

I am also deeply disappointed that we have not been supported by the deans in engineering in our attempts to ensure proper planning and consultation has taken place. My partner is a member of the Professional Engineers of Canada, and he too is deeply disappointed that the faculty within Carleton Engineering have not stepped up, seeing as they are the beneficiaries of this new building.

We are being displaced by the ARISE project, and we have made it clear that irreparable harm will come to students and faculty as a result.  We are delighted that Carleton is looking to expand opportunities for future students, but it cannot be at the expense of an existing faculty.  Our mental health and research is already suffering. The ramifications to the students will be far-reaching.  Engineers sign and swear an oath ensuring they will support the public good. That oath extends to both personal and professional ethics – that neither personally nor professionally will they allow faulty workmanship to pass.  As my partner put it, “Engineers are supposed to uphold the standards of proper planning and process. It’s what we do.” It seems to me that Fred Afagh (Acting Dean, Faculty of Engineering and Design) should not support an action that benefits his department at the expense of other students and faculty (who will suffer due to poor planning and execution of this project).

Although we did not get our resolution onto the agenda at the senate meeting, we started educating other faculty about the FACTS surrounding our eviction. And it IS an eviction. A “move” is consensual, and this forced removal from our facilities will be anything but consensual. The students and faculty of Neuroscience will continue to demand that Carleton Administration live up to its commitments to our department, and begin true, open and transparent consultation with ALL stakeholders, including the other departments who will share the ARISE building after it is complete.

Sadly, all of this mess could have been avoided if Carleton administration had INCLUDED the key stakeholders in the planning from the date they first built the funding proposal for ARISE.