Columbia’s Resident Advisors, the student workers at the center of undergraduate residential life, report dissatisfaction with the job’s pay structure and level of communication. In the wake of Barnard RAs’ collective action, RAs at Columbia make plans to continue organizing over the summer.

Over the past few months, Resident Advisors at Columbia have begun to organize to demand better payment and improved communication from the University, following the success of the 2021 SWC-UAW strike, as well as the organization of Barnard RAs. In April, Resident Advisors at Columbia formed the Columbia University Resident Advisors (CURA) Collective in response to frustrations that RAs voiced about the compensation they receive and on-the-job concerns. The CURA Collective is hoping to use the summer to meet with administrators and raise awareness in the broader Columbia community.

In March 2022, a Columbia RA sent an anonymous letter to Columbia College Student Council addressing RA concerns, mainly about compensation. CCSC then passed part of the letter on to Columbia’s Board of Trustees. On April 21, Resident Advisors held an all-RA meeting to discuss RA frustrations about unequal compensation and the schedule of RA payment, which occurs at the end of each semester rather than through weekly or monthly installments. After the meeting, the group of RAs who formed the CURA Collective wrote the group’s petition and posted it publicly on May 11 after circulating it internally among RAs to make sure that it received their democratic support.

According to the CURA Collective’s campaign write-up document (which the Collective has decided to keep private), since the meeting, RAs have been in communication with Tara Hanna, Columbia’s Associate Dean of Undergraduate Student Life and Executive Director of Residential Life. Upon their request, Hanna sent an anonymous survey to all returning RAs about their thoughts on issues including RA compensation. According to the CURA Collective, Hanna will be sharing the results of the survey with RAs in meetings currently scheduled for July.

According to the open letter and petition that the CURA Collective has circulated among students and staff, the Collective cites unfair payment and a lack of “democratic channels of communication” as two key places where they feel that Residential Life and Columbia as a whole “are failing to adequately support us as student workers.”

In particular, the CURA Collective is seeking change in the current regressive pay structure that determines the compensation that RAs receive. Currently, an RA’s payment is determined by the amount of financial aid that they receive from the University. For an estimated 20 hours of work per week during the academic year, RAs are compensated with an annual stipend of $1000, 45 free meal swipes per semester, and free housing for both semesters, according to the CURA Collective’s petition. With free housing, students who receive no financial aid have the estimated cost for upperclassman housing ($11,096 per year) removed from their bill for tuition, room, and board. However, students on financial aid, who already have their cost of housing covered in part or in full, do not receive the same $11,096 withdrawn from their tuition.

The regressive pay structure is a particular issue for low-income and FGLI students who work as RAs while relying on financial aid from Columbia. A Resident Advisor FAQ document by the CURA Collective describes this compensation as “blatant financial exploitation,” explaining that “students receiving full or partial financial aid are being paid $11,096 less than their counterparts for the same amount of work—their payment is as low as <$2 per hour. Students receiving no financial aid are paid ~$18.75.”

Meanwhile, RAs fear retaliation from the University for organizing. According to the Collective’s campaign write-up, “Retaliation from the [University] could mean the loss of housing, food, or need for financial support for many RAs, especially since the position is so connected to the financial aid students receive […] Many are FGLI students and students of color relying solely on the University for baseline student needs.”

According to an anonymous testimonial from a Columbia RA, “I’ve loved being able to be an RA for my residents this year, but having to add all the responsibilities of being an RA on top of an already rigorous academic load has not had nearly as much compensation as it should.” The RA then claims they had to take another job in the fall to “provide for myself,” and that RAs put more hours into work than they are getting paid for. “When NYC minimum wage is 15/hr this doesn’t add up,” they continue, “not even to mention peer institutions paying RAs a lot more.” The source also claimed that some RAs cannot quit the job without risking losing their housing, contributing to the stress and anxiety that many RAs experience.

Another testimonial states, “I am an FGLI Questbridge student and last semester I received part of the housing grant because my financial aid covered part of it, but this semester I am receiving only $700 of my housing grant for a reason that is unknown to me. I don’t know what changed between the charged amount/aid each semester, this was not explained to me.”

In addition to seeking equivalent pay for all RAs regardless of financial aid, RA organizers wish to address what they describe as a lack of sufficient communication between resident advisors and Columbia Residential Life employees, including Residence Hall Directors (RHDs) and other non-student staff. In their open letter, the CURA Collective explains that policies such as RA job expectations, disciplinary procedures, and recourse for harassment are mostly decided “unilaterally” by non-student staff members. According to the document, the lack of RA input in several decisions affecting RAs “has led to non-standard disciplinary reactions for Resident Advisors (i.e. probation), unaddressed cases of discrimination against Resident Advisors, and trauma for both Resident Advisors and their residents.” In the same letter, the Collective outlines five policies that they believe require consultation with student workers, including compensation, improved access to mental health support for RAs and residents, impartial recourse for harrassment and discrimination, discipliniary procedures, and protection from on-campus housing loss for RAs.

Several RAs’ testimonials cite a lack of clear communication from Residential Life about the expectations of the job and the support available to them. According to one source, “I was not warned when I had to conduct wellness checks upon residents dealing with suicidal thoughts and [sexual assault]. It felt like I was completely alone to deal with the burden of their trauma, which was both very triggering for me and way beyond my ability to help.” Another source recalls, “I had one night when there was a crisis in my dorm and I was not in communication with anyone until my one-on-one with my RHD four days later […] I only received support from Public Safety on one of the many issues going on that night. I felt really unprepared for the situation and had no guidance on how to deal with the aftermath.”

The RA training process currently includes a week of presentations and practical training sessions prior to NSOP, as well as weekly team meetings throughout the academic year. A spokesperson for Columbia Residential Life told Bwog, “Resident Advisers are an integral part of the undergraduate residential community. We welcome feedback and an open dialogue to address the questions and concerns of students in these important leadership roles. Our office is aware of CURA’s concerns related to RA grants, responsibilities, and communication – and has set in motion a process to address them.” According to the statement, Residential Life staff are planning to “review all of the feedback” that the RAs provide in July’s meetings and “plan ongoing collaboration with RAs […] to come to a solution that serves the entire community.” In addition to using the summer to discuss the results of Residential Life’s anonymous RA survey, ResLife is “encouraging RAs to share individual input in one-on-one meetings.”

The CURA Collective’s organizing action follows close behind Barnard’s RA organizing, which took place in May and earlier this June. An anonymous Barnard RA told Bwog that the RAs were frustrated when Residential Life announced that they would not be given meal plans for the summer, after they had already signed the summer housing contract. Summer duty shifts, meanwhile, require double or triple the amount of time as shifts during the spring semester. After summer RA training on May 21 and 22, RAs sent a letter to Residential Life and CC’d the Dean, threatening to go on strike if they did not receive meal plans for the summer. Within a day, they received a response stating that they would receive meal plans beginning on June 20. Unsatisfied, RAs sent another letter, after which Residential Life agreed to meet with them on June 2. According to the source, Barnard RAs considered this meeting to be successful: RAs were promised meal plans starting on June 20 with a $550 stipend for securing food during the interim. Furthermore, 24-hour weekend duty shifts were reduced to 12 hours, and RAs in Elliott Hall received refrigerators, which they previously did not have access to.

The Barnard RAs “definitely accomplished what [they] wanted to for this specific situation,” according to the source, but are currently “working on building a greater enforcement mechanism to prevent this type of treatment in the future.” Although the Columbia RAs are not planning to organize a strike, the Barnard RAs’ organizing is cited in their campaign write-up as a source of inspiration for them as they make plans to communicate with Residential Life and Columbia’s administration.

In terms of summer organizing plans, the CURA Collective plans to deliver their petition to the Board of Trustees on June 30 and demand a response by July 14, according to the campaign write-up. In the meantime, they will plan to organize collective actions that Columbia RAs and their supporters can take. As of now, more than 750 RAs, students, alum, and student organizations have signed the petition, with support from approximately three fourths of the RAs from the 2021-22 academic year.

According to the Collective’s campaign write-up, “Summer poses a challenge to organizing […] because people are demobilized, busy, and working full-time. Organizing is a complex process, made more difficult by the fact that to combat against free labor, we have to be conducting free labor in the meantime. However, our current organizing body is strong and committed, and we are looking forward to reaching out to past and future co-workers to move forward with our demands.”

The CURA Collective’s open letter and petition are available on their Google form, as well as their Twitter and Instagram accounts.

Columbia via Bwog Archives