Bringing down the house: RA shortage puts strain on staff

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Everyone thinks they know what a resident advisor (RA) does. Unlock students’ doors, plan programs and pass out condoms, right? But there is so much more. RAs are responsible for supervising and assisting other students who live on campus and creating and maintaining a safe community. In addition to the day-to-day practical matters such as meetings and reports, there is the emotional labor. RAs routinely mediate student conflicts, carry out wellness checks and respond to crises.

They are the first and last students on campus since they arrive early to prep dorms and stay after the school year ends to conduct room inspections. Being responsible for the safety of students and often times stepping in as the first responders to crisis situations can make RAs feel like they are never really off the clock. While almost everyone takes on the position because they care about the community, this school year has put a noticeable strain on RAs.

  • The 2015/2016 school year started with 21 RAs. By January 2016, five had either resigned or been let go, yet only one additional person was hired to make up for the loss. There are currently 17 RAs, the lowest number in at least five years, despite a student population that is reported to be the highest in the school’s history.
  • Due to the staff shortage this year and increasing duties, RAs report working more hours than ever before. The demands of the job have continued to increase from year to year, but compensation has stayed the same at $8.05 an hour for a fixed 10 hours a week, totaling a biweekly stipend of $160.
  • Only two RAs were hired for the month of ISP in 2016. While they received assistance from two Residence Hall Directors (RHDs), four staff members is only half as many people working during ISP as there were in 2015.
  • Despite the reported RA burnout and discontent this year with a 17-person staff, there were only 18 RAs hired for the upcoming 2016/2017 school year. This is the lowest number of RAs to be hired at the beginning of a school year in at least five years.
  • Turnover rates among the Campus Life Coordinators (CLCs) and RHDs has been dismal. Some students who have been RAs for the past three years have had up to 6 direct supervisors during that time.

In the 2014/2015 school year, RAs were on duty once every three weeks. In 2015/2016, they have been on duty once every nine days. A night on duty entails being available in the RA Resource Room from 8 p.m.-11p.m. on weekdays – 8 p.m. to midnight on weekends – going on rounds and keeping the RA cell phone overnight. On-duty RAs respond to calls at all hours of the night that range in severity from lockouts and maintenance issues to situations involving EMS or other emergency responders.  

“Knowing that we had a larger incoming class we hired more Fall RAs in preparation of this number,” Senior Associate Dean of Student Affairs Mark Stier wrote in an email. “Typically a Fall staff for our campus is around 17-18, which is where we currently are this spring.”

However, past numbers indicate otherwise. There were 22 RAs hired for the 2014/2015 school year, and the starting staffs have typically hovered around 21, according to alums who worked as RAs. Stier added that RAs who were fired or resigned in 2015/2016 were not replaced because, “From Fall to Spring term we lost approximately 50 students. With fewer students we did not need as many RAs.”

Although the hours worked per week can be extremely variable, RAs say that 10 does not cut it. Some RAs report working closer to 15-20 hours a week, more if they are on duty. This does not include the 40 plus hours a week completed during the two-week training. RAs are not allowed to work more than 10 hours outside of the job, a measure that is meant to ensure that they stay focused on their campus responsibilities. “It’s problematic because people who need to make more money to survive cannot do that,” second-year RA Rachael Murphy said. Murphy, a first-time RA, chose not to reapply for next year.

The RA compensation package includes a 75 percent discount on their dorms. Some RAs report that Stier promised to petition the Board of Trustees (BOT) during the summer of 2014 to secure fully paid housing as compensation for additional demands. When RAs returned to campus, this was never brought up, and it was found that the proposal had never been submitted to the BOT. In an email, Stier said that New College RAs are the fourth highest paid in the State University System.

“Balancing this job with the extra work compared to last year would not work for me when I’m writing a thesis, and it’s hardly working for me now,” third-year RA Olivia Talton said. “It’s a lot of things that I find unnecessary. A lot of bureaucracy … and not having my opinion valued by my supervisors.” Talton has been an RA since Fall 2014, but chose not to reapply for next year.

“Each year, at least from last year to this year, there has been an increased amount of RA burnout, and not just from thesising RAs,” thesis student Samuel Weldon said. Weldon has been an RA since Fall 2014. Although he is graduating this May and is thus, ineligible to reapply, he said that he probably wouldn’t do it anyway.

“There have been positive changes,” Weldon said, acknowledging that RHDs succeeded in securing a $10,000 RA discretionary fund through the Student Allocations Committee. He also noted that the addition of a supporting RA has been beneficial for campus safety. However, the increased demands on a smaller staff with no additional compensation has caused pushback over the past two years.

Beginning in fall 2015, Student Affairs added an additional RA on duty every night. Near the beginning of spring 2016, after concerns expressed by RAs due to the reduction in staff, the Prostaff agreed to alter the second RA to a more limited support role. The two RA on duty protocol will once again be fully implemented next school year with a starting staff of 18 RAs.

The staff shortage this school year extended to ISP. Only two RAs were hired for ISP in January 2016, a staggeringly low number compared to previous years. There were eight RAs working during ISP in 2015. In an email, Stier said, “The ISP positions have always been offered as an additional opportunity for employment. The number always changes depending on the number of RAs interested in working during this time frame. This year we increased the PROSTAFF’s responsibility during ISP to address any concerns regarding safety and security.”

In previous years there had always been at least eight RAs working during January, oftentimes 10 or more. This year, RAs were informed by Student Affairs that the 2015/2016 budget would only allow for four ISP RAs, placing one person on duty per week. Furthermore, the usual increase of an additional $5 per week added to their $80 weekly stipend would not be offered.

Since ISP lacks the structure that the rest of the semester provides, it is considered by many RAs to be a high-risk time of the year due to a notorious increase in drug and alcohol use. RAs questioned the rationale behind Student Affairs’ decisions after having previously been told that having two RAs on duty each night during the regular semester (even during Fall and Spring break) was a safety precaution. Some RAs felt that once Housing was footed the bill for the additional labor of a second RA on duty during ISP, this safety precaution was quickly ignored. Pushing the blame on the budget also seemed questionable since, before the school year even started, the staff had two fewer people than originally anticipated. Only two RAs ended up applying for the 2016 ISP.

“That attitude of just being shut down the moment I asked why these decisions were being made was the reason I didn’t apply to be an ISP RA [this year], because I was on campus for ISP and I did it last year and it was fine,” Talton said. “I want it to be clear that it’s not all on housing staff and it’s not all on residential life staff; it’s a problem that goes up all the way because the allocation of money is not where it needs to be.”

Next year’s 18-RA staff will be made up of five returners and 13 first-time RAs. “I think that’s problematic because the new RAs will come in with no institutional memory,” Talton said.  

Murphy expressed a similar sentiment: “It’s really detrimental to the new RAs coming in next year because they won’t have that kind of support or guidance.”

Murphy added, “It’s not enough [RAs] considering that the whole first-year population lives on campus, and that’s who we get the most serious calls from because they’re going through new experiences and experimenting with different things.”

Additionally, training for the 2016/2017 staff has been reduced to one week, which some RAs say is not enough considering that preparing the dorms for move-in takes up a considerable amount of time. For the first time in recent memory, waitlisted RAs will also participate in training. While this does protect against unanticipated staff shortages, as seen this year, it also potentially makes RAs who express concerns more easily replaceable. While RAs receive contracts and are given time to read over it, the RA Manual, which expands upon duties and expectations, is not released prior to signing. The contract states that additional duties and expectations can be assigned at any time.

In the past three years, the Student Affairs office has been a revolving door of new faces, making it difficult to manage communication and regularly changing expectations. “High turnover is a thing in Student Affairs, people generally don’t stay put past four or five years,” Weldon said. “But that’s still twice as long as anybody stays here.”

Right now there is a hiring search for a new dean of Student Affairs to replace Interim Dean Mark Johnson, as well as a search for new and additional RHDs. “It’s hard because new people come in and they move in over the summer, they start doing work in the office, they set up training – but it’s like, we are already students here, we already know the school and they’re trying to tell us how to do this job at this campus,” Talton said.

Some RAs think that hiring alums who worked as RAs could help mitigate some of the disconnect between student and professional staff. Thesis student Destinee Aponte is applying for an RHD position. Aponte has been an RA for three years and she was one of the two working during ISP this year. If she’s hired, this would be the first time since 2012 that an alum would be working as a professional staff member in Student Affairs.

“Every RA does this job because they love it. There are parts of the job that are rewarding and we do this job to help people,” Talton said. “But when it comes to a point that you’re doing so much stuff […] for no more money, then you can’t do it anymore.”

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