Student affairs / student services

The importance of improving the training, supervision and job expectations of resident advisers (essay)

Once upon a time, I was a resident adviser, an RA. I was not very good at it and only did it for a summer, but it did give me some perspective when I later worked as a hall director supervising a staff of RAs. I did this at two places: a small women’s college (dream job) and a large university (not so much). That perspective stayed with me through various jobs, including my stretch as the vice president for student affairs at a small college where residential life was part of my portfolio.

So it was with great interest that I read reports of the recent strike by RAs at Scripps College. It wasn’t the first job action of its kind, but it will probably get a lot of attention. Last week’s news brought a related story: the decision by the National Labor Relations Board to allow RAs at George Washington University to unionize, a first for private institutions. Even though the organization representing the RAs has since requested that the union election vote be called off, as I’ve read these stories, I’ve reached an alarming conclusion: we are in trouble. In our residence halls and beyond, we rely on these peaceful armies to fulfill a raft of duties, and have done so for so long that we take them for granted.

During a recent discussion in the graduate class I teach on student affairs, I was comparing the distinct underlying cultures of student affairs and faculty work as a way of framing some of the challenges in that relationship. I have given this mini lecture for about 25 years, referring to commonly accepted differences between the two groups. When I mentioned one particular difference, my students stopped me.

What I said was, “While it is the role of faculty members to be institutional critics, student affairs professionals tend to be institutional cheerleaders.” Brows furrowed. Heads slowly shook.

“No, we’re not,” said one student. The others quickly agreed. I felt my internal belief system shudder and then realign. I didn’t even have to ask. Of course these are not the graduate students I have taught for years. They have come of age at a time when higher education is criticized from all sides, and even as future student affairs professionals themselves, they have joined in that criticism. I thought about the times that I, as a supervisor, encountered resistance to my various requests and expectations. I had chalked it up to the millennial culture, taking cover among the older professionals I worked with whose loyalty to the institution was reassuring -- although perhaps baked in by the reality of the job market as much as a genuine affection for the place.

But that might not be our future in student affairs, as evidenced by RAs who are beginning to organize and who may force us to change. We can, as in all situations, resist that change or anticipate and help to shape it.

One might ask, “What is their problem?” Being an RA (goes the standard spiel) offers a leadership development opportunity, a financial boon, a chance to be more engaged in the campus community, mentoring from a caring and capable professional, and membership in an elite club alongside peers who become close friends.

OK, that standard spiel? Totally old paradigm, which I admit I occasionally retreat to when I’m scared or tired or just not thinking critically. So let me try again.

Being an RA is a stressful, high-pressure, time-consuming job -- one often undertaken by students desperate to reduce the cost of their education and debt (who, on some campuses, are disproportionately students of color), for which they often receive inadequate training and supervision, and for which they are targets of enmity, not envy, by their peers.

And they have had it with us, I’m afraid. If the Scripps strike is any indication, students who serve in this role are mad as hell and may not be willing to take it anymore. Can we manage residence halls without student staff? What would that even look like?

Inconsistency Across Institutions

When we recruit, train and employ RAs, we are, in many ways, relying on an outdated set of beliefs about the lives of students and their willingness to be exploited. I say this knowing that I have fully participated in that exploitation. We count on our ability to convince RAs that they are doing missionary work. We pump them up; we shower them with verbal praise and “RA of the Month” awards. The cult that captured so many of us used strategies to recruit like-minded individuals who were willing to work for minimal compensation, who were happy to be on the team.

Students are still prone to joining teams, but not the ones we need in order to provide the optimal residential experience. Now, students join Facebook groups and speak-outs, protests and social justice sit-ins. They make demands. They do not trust us. Yes, we have always had students who make demands and do not trust the administration, but we have also always had the thin blue line of RAs to help mitigate their peers’ problematic behavior, to be our proxies in the halls and elsewhere on campus, and to make us feel better by liking us and reassuring us that we are good people who care about students.

But things are different now. The RAs at Scripps are the ones demanding change and loudly publicizing their distrust of student affairs staff. The RAs! At first I felt their betrayal slice through my professional heart. And then I considered some of the realities of today’s RA experience and realized that this might be the first of a series of shock waves that will topple the careful structures of residential education. If we are to build structures capable of withstanding those tremors, we must understand the experiences of many RAs now working -- and it is work -- at our colleges.

I have been part of and observed some very good and some very mediocre residence life departments, and that inconsistency across institutions is an issue we need to address. Every campus does this work differently, claiming its idiosyncrasies are endemic to its culture. But consider the variety of RA structure and support:

  • Compensation: No two campuses do this exactly the same way. Some provide a free room and board plan, others only a stipend. Still others offer a single room at the price of a double or a partial reduction in a room fee (though it is sometimes wiped out by a financial aid adjustment). And I’d wager that certain campuses provide no meaningful compensation at all.
  • Training, part 1: RAs often return two or three weeks early in the summer to begin their training. Some institutions employ several “levels” of RAs, with senior staff returning a week ahead of the rest of the RAs so they can help plan training. A student earning $10 an hour at a full-time summer job might be required to sacrifice $1,000 in earnings in order to arrive on the campus in time to begin training.
  • Training, part 2: Some institutions require RAs to take a credit-bearing class as part of the job, while others expect regular participation in in-service trainings throughout the semester. If an RA cannot do one or both of these, the job may be lost, along with housing.
  • Role confusion: On some campuses, RAs are social directors, key holders and information conduits. On others, they are the first line of response to a number of complex student-related crises. RAs routinely deal with high-risk situations each weekend. Yes, they have professional staff backing them up, but those staff members are often called only after an RA has been dispatched to, or has come upon, a scary and high-stakes situation.
  • Supervision: The best residential life departments employ skilled professional master’s-level staff members to hire, train and supervise RAs. They have a reasonable staff-to-RA ratio, they meet regularly, they hold RAs accountable for their responsibilities and they themselves are supervised well by talented midlevel or senior professionals. And then there is the other 80 percent. Those departments see rapid turnover among entry-level professionals, sometimes midyear. They pile expectations on resident directors, leading to 60-hour workweeks or more in exchange for housing and a pitifully low salary. Such young professionals are just slightly better trained for the crises they routinely encounter. Like the RAs they supervise, they are overwhelmed, burned out and, if one considers their demographics (mid-20s), as prone to anxiety and depression as their students.

So we ask RAs to do this difficult work, and we count on their loyalty to the institution, their love for the community, their general goodness as young people who are supposedly happy to have this level of responsibility thrust upon them. It has worked for decades. Aside from the occasional flameout of incompetence or burnout of overcommitment, those RAs tough it out and even thank us at the end of the year -- often at the annual banquets we host for them -- for putting them through a 36-week boot camp.

But if we have learned one thing from the weekly reports of various student protests across the country, it’s this: students are not nearly as grateful for opportunities as we might hope. They are not mutely appreciative of a chance to attend a prestigious college or university that underpays its dining-service workers. Or to represent their institution on the playing field, filling its stadium seats, living on poverty-level wages while they do it. They are certainly not grateful to hear highly paid speakers reinforce racist or sexist or homophobic perspectives. And they are not willing to work for what essentially amounts to a couple of dollars an hour, especially not when that work might include having to report a sexual assault, watch while a resident is handcuffed after a drug bust, talk a resident out of self-harming or key into a room to find a student hanging from a belt looped over a steam pipe, as one of my RAs once did.

Adjusting Expectations

I see this all going one of two ways: either their protests will grow and impede the already-difficult work of community building on our residential campuses, or students will simply stop applying to do the work (which is happening on campuses already, according to anecdotal reports from friends in the business of trying to recruit them). We must create a third way. We need to move away from the old paradigm of relying on their inherent loyalty and eagerness to be appreciated by us. We must standardize compensation, training, supervision and job expectations. If we start with a fair compensation package that rewards a manageable job, supported by competent professionals, we might then attract back to the role the strongest candidates and not rely on those who seek the job for the wrong reasons.

We should limit RA training to one week. It can be done. Typically, every campus office that interacts with students will, at some point over the summer, make a request of the RA training committee to have a session added that addresses their services or areas of concern. How about saying no? Can we move some of the content-based training online and ask RAs to complete it over the course of the summer, a small chunk at a time, and compensate them for that effort?

Finally, we must stop asking these young, inexperienced people who are struggling with their own mental and emotional health challenges to respond to students in crisis. How we do that is, of course, quite expensive, because it requires adding to our professional staff numbers. One possible response is for us to work upstream, in the admissions process, to better assess the wisdom of recruiting and accepting some students -- but that’s a topic for another day. At the heart of this challenge is our need to actually protect our students and not require them to carry more weight than is possible.

A coming storm? It may already be here. An anticipated drought? On some campuses, the RA well is running dry. We can hunker down, fondly recall the old days when mediating roommate disputes, unlocking doors and pouring out beer cans were the typical stuff of nights on call, and watch as the world’s last RAs struggle through a very difficult climate. Or we can try adjusting our own expectations of the work and our students and be prepared for any weather. The next steps are up to us.

Lee Burdette Williams is an educator and writer in Burlington, Vt.

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Title IX cases that resulted in suicide, a suicide attempt at two colleges prompt fresh debate

Two lawsuits -- one involving accused student’s suicide and another about an attempt -- have added fire to the continued debate over how colleges handle complaints of sexual assault.

Racial incidents anger students at St. Olaf, Baylor and American

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Minority students report heightened tensions at St. Olaf, American and Baylor.

Students from campuses nationwide issue statement calling for free speech

Gathering draws students from numerous campuses who endorse a statement of principles about the value of open expression in higher education.

Colleges announce commencement speakers

  • Bryant University: Jeffrey R. Immelt, chairman and CEO of GE; and Gary E. Furtado, CEO of Navigant Credit Union.

52nd Annual Honors Conference

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Wed, 11/08/2017 to Sun, 11/12/2017

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210 Peachtree St NW
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Colleges announce commencement speakers

  • Bunker Hill Community College: Massachusetts House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo.
  • Kentucky College of Osteopathic Medicine: David O. Barbe, president-elect of the American Medical Association.
  • Marian University: Lisa Harris, CEO of Eskenazi Health; and John Lechleiter, chairman of the Board of Directors of Eli Lilly and Company.

NLRB official rules that resident advisers at private colleges may unionize

Decision by board official clears way for election at George Washington University, but issue could end up in court.

Colleges announce commencement speakers

  • Berea College: U.S. Representative John Lewis; and Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett of the United Methodist Church.
  • Cedar Crest College: Molly Barker, the founder of Girls on the Run.
  • Coast Guard Academy: President Trump.
  • College of New Rochelle: Debra L. Lee, CEO of Black Entertainment Television Networks.

Will Title IX be reinterpreted following ruling on sexual orientation discrimination? (essay)

A federal court of appeals’ recent decision to extend Title VII’s protection to sexual-orientation employment discrimination undoubtedly changes the legal landscape in which employers, including institutions of higher education, operate within the Seventh Circuit (Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin). Given the tendency of courts to look to interpretations of Title VII when making legal rulings under Title IX, this new decision also opens the question of whether courts will begin interpreting Title IX to also prohibit sexual-orientation discrimination.

For example, several federal courts have rejected claims by students alleging that they were subjected to harassment by other students in the form of epithets about their sexual orientation and that the educational institutions failed to adequately respond. Courts, by and large, rejected these claims outright, finding that Title IX does not protect against sexual-orientation discrimination.

Similarly, in 2004, a student and member of the women’s basketball team at North Central College in Naperville, Ill., asserted that she was subjected to harassment because she was heterosexual. Specifically, she alleged that her playing time was reduced, that she was treated differently and criticized more by the coaching staff, and that she ultimately had to leave the team as a result. Finding that Title IX did not protect against discrimination based on sexual orientation, the court dismissed the claims. Importantly, that court’s analysis looked specifically to the Seventh Circuit’s old Title VII cases to find that Title IX similarly did not protect against sexual-orientation discrimination.

The Seventh Circuit’s break with its own prior interpretation of Title VII -- and the interpretation of all other courts of appeals to have evaluated the issue -- likely sets up a question ultimately bound for resolution by the Supreme Court. Absent some expedited action, however, that decision is unlikely to come any sooner than early 2018. Thus, other lower federal courts across the country will have the opportunity to decide several related questions, including whether they are willing to follow the Seventh Circuit’s reasoning and extend it to the Title IX context.

Title VII’s Relationship With Title IX

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is a federal employment-discrimination statute. As relevant here, Title VII makes it illegal for an employer -- including educational institutions -- “to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s … sex.”

Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972 provides, “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.”

Thus, while the statutes use slightly different language, they both prohibit sex discrimination. And courts have found the similarities in these statutes significant, frequently commenting that Title VII interpretations should guide courts in their interpretation of Title IX. As the Eighth Circuit explained, for example, although Title VII protects against “discrimination … because of … sex” whereas Title IX protects against discrimination “on the basis of sex,” “these two phrases are treated interchangeably.” Thus, the court concluded that the “interpretation of Title VII properly informs our examination of Title IX.”

Accordingly, if the Seventh Circuit (or some other court inclined to follow the recent Title VII decision) is faced with the question of whether Title IX prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, the implications would seem clear: the term “sex” discrimination in Title VII (according to the Seventh Circuit) includes “sexual orientation” discrimination; Title IX is interpreted like Title VII; therefore Title IX also prohibits sexual-orientation discrimination. But perhaps this inquiry isn’t quite so simple.

Not So Fast

Although courts generally look to Title VII when interpreting similar provisions in Title IX, would that principle apply even in the circumstance that some see as making a fundamental change to the statute, such as adding sexual-orientation discrimination to the ambit of protection? Although this approach is compelling in its simplicity, there are some differences that may complicate the analysis.

The first difference is how the statutes were originally enacted. Congress enacted Title VII pursuant to its power under the Constitution’s Commerce Clause, which gives Congress a large amount of authority to impose its directives. Title IX, in contrast, was enacted pursuant to Congress’s authority under the Spending Clause. While this may seem like a minor distinction, the Supreme Court has explained that because Title IX is Spending Clause legislation, Congress must give institutions sufficient notice of the conduct it decides to prohibit. In other words, Title IX operates “much in the nature of a contract: in return for federal funds, the states agree to comply with federally imposed conditions.”

Based on this distinction, institutions will likely argue they had no notice that discrimination “on the basis of sex” included sexual-orientation discrimination. This argument may also be aided, oddly enough, by a discussion in the recent Seventh Circuit case, where the majority opinion explains that, while Congress (when it enacted the statute) may not have understood the full reach of preventing discrimination based on “sex,” that fact does not prevent Title VII’s protections from expanding. While many people will disagree with that decision in any context, it is particularly difficult to transpose it to Spending Clause legislation (like Title IX) where Congress is required to speak with a “clear voice” to provide institutions with notice as to what conduct the statute proscribes.

The second difference is how the statutes were structured. Title VII is a statute designed to provide remedies to employees suffering discrimination. The statute specifically identifies judicial and administrative recourse for alleged violations. Conversely, Title IX is primarily a regulatory statute, designed to ensure that institutions receiving federal funds are compliant with Congress’s prohibitions on sex discrimination. In fact, Title IX does not expressly allow individuals to sue institutions (a “private right of action”). Rather, the Supreme Court later found that right to be implied under the language of Title IX.

These structural differences may give courts pause when determining whether to follow the Seventh Circuit’s Title VII decision and conclude that Title IX protects against sexual-orientation discrimination. To be sure, federal courts to date have largely rejected attempts to extend Title IX liability to cases of alleged sexual-orientation discrimination, though there are isolated examples of courts ruling that Title IX’s protections do encompass such allegations. For example, in Videckis v. Pepperdine University, a federal district court in California found other courts’ distinction between “gender stereotyping” claims and “sexual orientation” claims to be “illusory and artificial,” and ultimately concluded that Title IX does protect against sexual-orientation discrimination. Institutions will now need to observe analogous cases closely to see if the Seventh Circuit’s Title VII decision makes similar rulings more prevalent.

The Tip of the Iceberg

Determining whether Title IX protects against sexual-orientation discrimination will be an important and consequential decision. But answering that question also opens the door to several additional difficult and complex legal questions.

For example, it seems likely that the lion’s share of objections to any extension of Title IX to include sexual-orientation claims would be grounded in religious beliefs. Title VII contains a limited religious exemption for certain employers, taking certain actions, with respect to certain classes of employees; Title IX, in contrast, contains a broad clause that exempts institutions from Title IX if they are controlled by a religious organization and “if the application of this subsection would not be consistent with the religious tenets of such organization.” Given the broad exemption language found in Title IX, courts will likely be forced to grapple with exemptions sought under this subsection, as well as protections provided by other statutes and the Constitution.

In addition, as discussed above, Title IX is largely a regulatory statute, and its provisions are commonly carried out by the U.S. Department of Education. In an official guidance document issued in 2001 (and still in force today), the department expressly stated that Title IX does not protect against sexual-orientation discrimination. In certain circumstances when agencies issue guidance on an ambiguous statutory term, courts are required to follow any reasonable conclusion reached by the agency. If courts, therefore, are inclined to follow the Seventh Circuit’s Title VII decision, they will first have to determine how to evaluate the department’s contrary conclusion.

Finally, colleges and universities may be concerned about the potential ability for people to bring claims for violations of both Title VII and Title IX. Unfortunately, the regional federal courts of appeals are currently split on this question as well. Some courts allow claimants to proceed under both statutes; others prohibit this approach, finding that Title VII displaces Title IX when there are overlapping claims. Thus, institutions should be aware of the rule in their circuit and track relevant decisions.

The Seventh Circuit’s decision to break from its own prior cases, as well as the decisions of all other federal courts of appeals, opens up a Pandora’s box of tricky legal issues, especially for institutions of higher education. Acting in the dual role of employer and educator, the vast majority of higher education institutions find themselves subject to both Title VII and Title IX, including any potential expansion of those statutes to incorporate protections for sexual orientation. These issues seem destined for a date at the Supreme Court, which, eventually, may bring some much-needed clarity. Until then, however, institutions should diligently monitor legal developments in the federal courts to ensure they are compliant with the applicable law in their jurisdiction.

Michael T. Raupp is a lawyer in the Kansas City, Mo., office of Husch Blackwell LLP. He is a member of the firm’s higher education group and frequently practices in federal and state appellate courts.

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