The Approaching Storm? Or Impending Drought?

If recent events are any indication, students who serve as resident advisers are mad as hell and may not be willing to take it anymore, warns Lee Burdette Williams. Can we manage residence halls without them?

May 4, 2017

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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