A Look At The Tension Between Barnard Residential Life And The RAs
Written by Victoria Arancio
Since the beginning of this semester, two Barnard RAs have been fired by Barnard ResLife. After learning about the ambiguous relationship between ResLife and RAs, Deputy Editor Victoria Arancio explores how RAs have struggled to be heard by administration.
Since February, Bwog has been following the ongoing problems between Barnard Resident Assistants (RAs) and Barnard Residential Life and Housing (ResLife). Bwog recently reached out to several current and former RAs, and sat down with Alicia Lawrence, Executive Director of ResLife, to understand the various perspectives. Many RAs have remained silent about their experiences and frustrations in fear of being terminated by Barnard ResLife. Of our four student sources, two are no longer RAs and two currently hold the position.
After hearing the accounts of several Resident Assistants, all sharing similar experiences, it is apparent that each RA struggles to make sense of their ambiguous relationship with ResLife. RAs, despite efforts in the past to increase communication and transparency with ResLife, continue to question their job security and fear speaking candidly about their hardships in the position. As two RAs have lost their positions and one resigned this semester, understanding the changes to the position is worthy of investigation since in the wake of talks reevaluating RAs’ responsibilities and compensation.
So, what is really expected of Barnard RAs? According to a Barnard RA, the position is inaccurately advertised. Despite ResLife’s efforts to recruit new students last year, interest in the position diminished in the wake of talks between RAs and ResLife. According to the 2017-2018 RA Position Expectations and the 2017- 2018 RA Statement of Acceptance & Understanding, the documents given to each RA, they are expected to foster a community and enhance the quality of life for their residents. This translates into floor programs, attending meetings and trainings, sharing shifts in on-call duty, and more. With the possibility of ResLife adding new initiatives during the year, the expectations of the job can change over time, and a former RA stated that there was, “absolutely no support for RAs besides other RAs.” Recently, months after Barnard students requested that changes be made to the position’s expectations, ResLife “burned through the waitlist” to replace the vacant RA positions after three RAs terminated their employment.
As RAs, students are given free housing, and, depending on where they are placed, they may receive some monetary compensation to cover mandatory meal plans. Compared to Columbia RAs, who receive free housing and a stipend, and who also feel that their relationship with Columbia Residential Life is adequate, Barnard RAs are undercompensated. The position has been criticized by RAs for being too demanding regarding the amount of work they are expected to complete, speaking exclusively to the comparison for number of hours worked and cost of housing. With the housing price being fixed, when ResLife adds new programs during the year, it increases the work of a RA for the same price. When speaking with RAs, ResLife has played off the pay deficiency by emphasizing the learning experience that comes with the position. This has been described by one RA as “a sad attempt to rectify the fact that we’re not making as much as we should be.”
In the past year, RAs—former and current— have attempted to make changes to the RA Position Expectations form. The process of reevaluation began as early as the spring of 2016, when Lawrence joined ResLife. After working for Rutgers University’s Residence Life, Lawrence’s goals in her new position were to “add clarity to the role and consistency and accountability across areas” and to “standardize the position as much as possible.” Once she started, summer storage was nearly taken away from RAs, and discontent and fear pertaining to job security began intensifying. In response to these actions taken by ResLife, Barnard RAs sought to change the RA Position Expectations and Barnard RA Statement of Acceptance & Understanding forms to appropriately voice their concerns. Acknowledging present circumstances, RAs felt that “a RA council [should] be instated to help bridge the divide between the administration and student RAs.” With the council in action by the fall of 2016, communication was expected to improve, as the council was to provide a forum for RAs to speak of their grievances with the position. Despite its original purpose, over that winter, the council was ultimately used as an opportunity for ResLife to add more responsibilities for RAs by making them plan training sessions for themselves.
In the spring of 2017, Barnard RAs decided to address their issues with ResLife as a unified front. Creating a Gmail account that represented all RAs, they emailed ResLife on February 3rd, notifying the department that they would be sending demands for changes to the RA Position Expectations and the Barnard RA Statement of Acceptance & Understanding forms. They sent ResLife “RAs of Barnard Contract Amendments,” a document that outlined their suggestions. Regarding their demands, a former RA stated, “We were asking for clarity in the termination process, a lessening of responsibilities that are a bit pointless (changing the bulletin boards every month in an upperclassmen dorm is an extremely pointless use of time for example), the ability to have a block or two of distance to walk during 24 hour duty shifts, and the ability to give more input to the administration.” The RAs initially called for a “contract renegotiation,” which was countered by the ResLife department as a “listening session.”
On February 13th, five RAs met with Lawrence and Josh Alexander, Senior Associate Director of Residential Life and Housing, to discuss the changes to the RA expectations. Instead of responding to the demands in the document, Lawrence and Alexander focused more on listening to the RAs’ demands, reportedly contributing little feedback. On February 23rd, after reviewing the “RAs of Barnard Contract Amendments” document and sitting in on the listening session, Lawrence emailed the RAs saying that the demands from the RAs “represent a counter offer to the College which we are unable to accept.” It was promised, however, that dialogue regarding the RA expectations would continue into the following year. Some RAs signed the 2017-2018 Barnard RA Statement of Acceptance & Understanding, hoping that changes would be made this year; others decided not to accept the position.
Over this past summer, some RAs were hired to improve the position alongside Alexander. They created a written manual and organized committees to plan training for both RAs and their superiors, the Hall Directors, for the fall. As a result, it looked as if the transparency of the organization would improve. But even with improved training, conflicts continue to arise. It is still too early to see if these committees, in conjunction with the department, will help to improve the role of a Resident Assistant, but it is clear that there is still progress to be made.
A current RA said that she had hoped earlier in the year that things would improve for the better. With more free time in training and better relationships with Hall Directors, it seemed that the relationship with ResLife was improving. Her experience with training went smoothly, and she noted that she was “wildly in awe” and inspired by one RA who stood out as exemplary. Since the training, that RA has been fired along with one more RA, and another one has resigned, and Barnard students are left without an explanation. In response to the terminations, Lawrence has announced that she would be holding individual meetings to speak about them, but “No one has signed up, and I make myself available and folks don’t always take advantage of it.” A RA commented that a possible reason that RAs aren’t sitting down with Lawrence is that they don’t want to feel vulnerable and targeted for inquiring about the terminations. With the recent firings, the effectiveness of these new committees remains unknown. Lawrence said that she hopes to one day grant a stipend for Barnard RAs, but “budget wise, we can’t afford to pay a stipend to the 55 RAs at this time.”
At least four RAs have reportedly been fired since the 2016 spring semester: two toward the end of the 2016 spring semester and two at the beginning of this semester. This semester, an additional RA vacated her position and resigned, according to ResLife. One former RA claimed that the administration is swift to terminate their RAs, and that a RA position provides an “extremely toxic environment to work and live in.” If RAs weren’t fired for unsuccessfully managing a crisis response scenario, they were put on probation and, until this year, “were not given proper training or an actual written manual to guide [them] through processes.” One RA claimed that when RAs asked for clarification on expectations, “the department has always told us that all job action discussions are taken on a ‘case-by-case basis.’” ResLife’s lack of transparency has caused confusion amongst RAs when it came to understanding expectations of the position, especially when “different supervisors take issue with varied behaviors.”
If a RA were terminated, the RA would have the option to appeal the decision, but according to a former RA, administrators have discouraged students from going through this process, as their chances for a successful appeal have been described as rare. Lawrence commented that “When we are talking about behavior and expectations, those things can look different depending on the person involved in the situation. There are certainly a set of expectations but we do recognize that we do need to take the situation based on the person involved and how their involvement impacted their community and their role.” This appears to follow the theme that, although ResLife is striving for a unified policy, situations continue to be individual for different RAs.
In response to hearing about how many RAs currently feel in their positions, Lawrence responded, “I’m saddened they are so upset about a situation that has occured for two, maybe three staff members in particular, despite all the incredible work and all the changes that have been made based on their feedback and based on their suggestions.” Due to the nature of her job, which requires that some information be kept confidential, Lawrence added that she would like to be as transparent as demanded by RAs, but due to legal and privacy concerns, she is restricted when asked about information on terminations. She stressed the commitment that she and Alexander have made to their respective positions, stating, “Both Josh and I make ourselves abundantly available.” She hopes that the relationship and communication between the RAs and ResLife can continue to improve.
Although effort to hear their demands was made by Barnard ResLife, it appears that, despite the minimal changes that were put into effect this year—a new RA council, improved transparency, and a written RA manual— there continues to be conflict between RAs and administration. As some RAs might depend on their job as a means of affording their education, many do not come forward and speak about their position, worried that they might jeopardize their housing. The student life of a Resident Assistant is one that demands arguably more time and effort than most, if not all, other student employment positions on campus. Serving a position that demands students to “foster a community and enhance the quality of life for their residents,” they too deserve an enhanced quality of life: one in which they no longer need to fear.
Attached to this article are the 2017-2018 RA Statement of Acceptance & Understanding and RA Position Expectations. The February 13 Listening Session to Discuss RA Demands was provided by a former RA after she no longer held the position of a Resident Assistant. The RAs of Barnard Contract Amendments is a document that outlines the demands of RAs. This document was presented to ResLife and discussed in the listening session that occurred in February of 2017.
Image via Flickr